Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Interview with Dave Lieber, Newspaper Columnist

My friend Dave Lieber is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He's also a dapper dresser. In this photo, his tie is a replica of the state flag of Texas. Dave has been a newspaperman for 30 years. He is founder of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation, which awards scholarships to top college columnists each year. He was named the best columnist in the U.S. Southwest by the Press Club of Dallas and won the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award as the columnist who made the most positive contributions to his community for his founding of the Summer Santa charity.

Dave took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions that might help people get more newspaper coverage.

LA: Dave, if people think they have a newsworthy event or idea, how should they contact a newspaper?

DL: The best way now is through a personalized e-mail written to the correct person at the media outlet. Who is the correct person? Well, you have to do a little research. If your story pitch is about transportation, find out who the transportation reporter is and go to one of his or her stories on the Internet and look for his e-mail address. If you can't find it, one good way to search for e-mail addresses is to go to google and type in the name and then an ampersand and then the domain name of the newspaper. For example, in my case, "lieber @ star-telegram.com" would bring up my e-mail. You can also do a phone pitch, but most likely a reporter or editor won't return your call. But an e-mail is very easy to forward to an editor, print out, whatever. I get about 100 pitches a week, and the e-mails are the ones I pay most attention to.

LA: Reporters have a reputation for being snakes, vultures, jackals, etc. But you actually courted your wife by way of your newspaper column. Do all reporters have a soft spot?

DL: I'd say 99 percent of people in the media can be reached through their heart and emotion with the right pitch. I like to say, "No joy for the writer, no joy for the reader. No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader." This means the emotions that I feel on any given story much be transferred to the readers in the storytelling work that I do taking the idea from pitch to finished product.

LA: You improve our area with your work. Tell us about “Watchdog” and “Summer Santa.”

DL: The Watchdog column is unique in American journalism. It's a column that comes out two or three times a week in which readers help us expose wrongdoing - and sometime "rightdoing" - in government and business. It's an investigative column. Very rare. Only a few other papers offer such a service to their readers because it is complicated and fraught with perils. But I do believe that some day all papers will offer it - if they want to survive - because it is incredibly popular with readers. And for the past decades, newspapers have given up this important public service to TV news. Newspapers have favored personal opinion columnists, of which I was one for more than a decade. But these are a dime a dozen, whereas investigative columnists are a necessity because the public really does feel like NO ONE looks out for them. You can see recent samples on my personal Web site.

Summer Santa is a charity I co-founded a decade ago to help area children with summer camp scholarships, back-to-school clothing, school supplies, free medical checkups, summertime toys and after-school activities.

LA: It seems like traditional newspapers have all kinds of new competition. How do you think the Internet has changed reporting?

DL: Not as much as most people would have you believe. Now you don't have to wait until the next morning's paper to get the news. You can get it almost immediately. If you ever go to news.google.com and type in something in the search box, it shows stories on the subject that you are interested in along with a note that says something like "Post 27 minutes ago." But the basics of news reporting are still the same, and news reporters who are talented and work hard and know their craft and their beats are still in high demand. Bloggers have opinions, but they mostly derive their facts from newspaper or magazine stories. Without journalists, there would be a lot less to have an opinion about. And when was the last time a blogger did an interview or searched government records or attended a public meeting? I'd say that one percent of all bloggers are actually involved in the craft of real journalism.

LA: Some people tell me they just cannot get news coverage despite a decent hook. What advice would you have for them?

DL: The key to your question is "a decent hook." Decent is not good enough. It has to be spectacular. I teach seminars on how to get your stories into media outlets. In summary, you have to present the media outlet with a dramatic story that has a beginning, middle and an end, with a hero and a villain, a plot, dramatic conflict and a climax. Any PR pitch can be turned into that format if the "pitcher" is willing to do a little work to construct it like that. The old-fashioned press release? Just really doesn't work any more.

LA: What are the biggest mistakes you see by wanna-be newsmakers?
DL: They send out a mass-mailing press release to anyone and everybody, especially people who could never use it. In this day and age, there is no excuse for why you shouldn't target your audience. With a little research on the Internet you can actually find out who at any media outlet is actually the person most likely to look at your idea. I get 50 press releases a week, and I DON'T READ A SINGLE ONE OF THEM.

LA: You are your own best publicist for your speaking services and your book, The Dog of My Nightmares: Stories by Texas Columnist Dave Lieber, by getting articles in magazines, e-newsletters and blogs. What is your strategy?

DL: Your question is based on the idea that my getting articles in magazines, e-newsletters and blogs actually sells books. The truth for me is that they don't sell a single book. I've probably sold 20,000 copies of the three books I've produced and none of them are sold through the methods you describe. I sell them through personal appearances, speeches and basically, for lack of a better term, sheer force of personality. It's very easy to do these days. And 95 percent of the people who buy my books have never even seen my column. They have seen me in person. I do believe that any writer or other person who has a strong message to share should seriously consider self-publishing their own book. And I'm not talking about going through one of those vanity-like presses like AuthorHouse, etc. I'm talking about doing it yourself. In fact, I've helped many people learn how to do this and be successful. I started getting so many requests to teach how to do this that I created my Guide to Self-Publishing which consists of an A-Z manual on how to do everything from concept to bidding for a printing to producing the book, and then, most importantly, how to sell it. It comes with a 3-hour accompanying CD audio guide. It's available on my Web site, http://www.yankeecowboy.com/ in the "Yankee Cowboy Store."

LA: You had a great article recently on story-telling. This is a big passion of mine. Would you share some of your tips?

DL: Thanks. Again, this is something else that I teach at seminars. And I included a very long chapter on how to do this in my newest writing manual called "The High-Impact Writer: Ideas, Tips & Strategies to Turn Your Writing World Upside Down." It's 35,000 words showing everything that I know about non-fiction writing from both a storytelling and writing viewpoint. Also available in the Yankee Cowboy Store on http://www.yankeecowboy.com/.

As for some tips, here are a few:
1. Make sure you have, as I said above, a true story with a beginning, middle and end, a plot, a dramatic conflict between a hero and a villain and a climax. The story should leave you with something meaningful, more than entertainment and drama. It should impart some universal truth about the human condition.
2. If you have serious information you want to impart, make sure you hide it within the body of the actual story. Like taking your medicine surrounded by a whole lot of sugar to help it go down.
3. Humans really only process information in a way that they both remember and care if it comes to them in a story. A fact-laden Power Point presentation is truly the kiss of death, unless that presentation shares the information as a story. That can easily be done as a Power Point but very few PPT presenters understand how to do that.

LA: Why did you start speaking?

DL: I've been speaking since 1980. I was working for a small paper in Florida that paid me $200 a week, and I could barely live on that. So the paper paid me $5 a speech every time I went and appeared before a Rotary Club or other audience. I began giving two or three a week because that extra $15 really went a long way for me back then. I got so good at it so quickly that the publisher of the paper actually started giving me some of his speeches. And when I left the paper and had speeches scheduled, he took mine and filled in for me. He went on to become publisher of USA Today. That was almost 30 years ago, and now I give about 100 or more speeches a year across the nation. It's so much fun because unlike my writing, I can see the immediate reaction from audiences!
LA: Dave, here is a virtual standing ovation for all of your terrific advice. Thanks so much!

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