Advice from the Media | Mark Hemingway
1) Describe your typical workday in 140 characters or less.
Lots and lots of reading, punctuated by flurries of writing and an occasional interview.
2) What’s the best pitch you’ve ever received?
I won’t elaborate on the details, except to say it involved lots of very rare single-malts.
3) The greatest words of wisdom an editor ever gave you?
Sometimes actions speak louder than words. It’s practically a writing cliche that your rough drafts are usually anywhere from 10 to 50 percent longer than they need to be. Mark Tapscott and Stephen Smith, my old editors at The Washington Examiner, were pretty tireless about making a point of stripping my drafts down to the essentials and encouraging me to become a much more observant critic of my own work. I still enjoy long sentences and rhetorical lourishes, but they made me a much more self-disciplined and mature writer.
4) If there was one thing you could tell every PR practitioner, what would it be?
Sell a story, not an agenda. Many times PR people are thinking narrowly of a specific message or a client, and they forget how journalism works. I’ll listen to anyone who even thinks they have something worth reporting, but more often than not PR types don’t think about how I go about my job and what I think makes a compelling story. Where’s the human element? Why should ordinary readers care about this issue? How do I explain this complicated piece of legislation and why it’s bad or good?, etc. In particular, I’m fortunate enough to do a lot of lengthy feature writing so I am always thinking in terms of narratives — not as in shortsighted political generalizations about which way the winds of conventional wisdom are blowing, but as in actual storytelling with a beginning, middle, and an end. And then there’s the not insignificant matter of interesting characters and well-developed themes. A talent for storytelling is something even a lot of journalists don’t have, so if you find a PR person with some sense of this, they can be invaluable.
5) What’s your craziest or most interesting newsroom story?
I’ll have to spare you loads of really juicy stuff, as it would basically involve gossip about various well-known journalists and politicos. (After years of working in DC I’d like to think I haven’t totally sold my soul.) But here’s a revealing tidbit: Years ago, I worked at a very well-known mainstream journalism outlet. I worked with some fantastic and skilled people there, but didn’t much care for or respect the two top editors in charge. One of the people I worked with was a very experienced writer who’d spent decades as a foreign correspondent. He was also a crusty old guy who really knew his stuff. I wasn’t there this particular day, but the story goes that one of the top editors — a dynamic, well-dressed executive type who looked more at home in a boardroom than a newsroom — was leaning over this crusty old journalist’s shoulder as he pounded out his draft offering unsolicited critiques. After putting up with this for a while, the experience writer finally lost it when his alleged editor informed him that he had misspelled “programs.” Disgusted, he stopped what he was doing and informed his younger, inexperienced boss that the word was “pogroms” and it turns out the editor had no idea what that meant. If you think journalists become successful largely because they’re intelligent and good at what they do, you should probably reassess that belief.
6) What sets your page apart from the competition?
So far in my career, I’ve worked at three magazines, two newspapers and a financial wire service. I’m enough of a journeyman that I’ve got a good handle on the basic journalistic forms such as op-eds, columns, news stories, editorials, and so on. However, lots of people have some mastery of this kind of bite-size journalism. I hinted at this above, but to the extent that I’ve developed a valuable skillset it’s that I can write long, narrative magazine features. Most avid readers and newsjunkies consume a lot of magazine pieces, but it turns out that many fewer journalists can consistently write engaging and lengthy features. I like to think that I’ve reached a stage in my career where I’m recognized for my basic ability to do this, and it’s certainly the kind of writing I find most rewarding.
7) Any shameless self-promotion you want to add?
As a political journalist, I deal with enough shameless self-promoters that I’m wary of becoming one myself. If you do stumble across my byline, I just hope you enjoy what you read.