Attention Public Relations: Here’s What Internet News Wants From You

This is a summary of a talk I gave recently. There was enough slack-jawed astonishment from public relations folks that I thought it might be helpful for others.

My name is Fraser Cain, and I’m the publisher of Universe Today. A space and astronomy news website read by more than 3 million people a month. We have 65,000 RSS subscribers and email readers. We’ve published about 25,000 articles on Universe Today over the last 12 years, and deeply understand what our readers want.

So, if you’re in public relations, and you want to reach out to publishers and news editors, to get them to publish your news, let me tell you what we want. Although I’ll give you examples for space/astronomy, I’m sure this is exactly the same in every news market on the internet.

We want scoops!

We want to be able to publish news first, that nobody else is going to be reporting on. We know that if we can publish that news first, and if it’s going to resonate with our readers, it’s going to go viral. It’s going to get read by our own readers, and then it’s going to get picked up by Slashdot, and Reddit, and Stumbleupon, and discussion forums, and Twitter, and Facebook, etc, etc. Instead of a few thousand readers, we’re going to get hundreds of thousands of readers.

We know that the likelihood of our story going viral depends entirely on the amount of competition we face for the story. If you write a press release and send it out to 1,000 news editors, you have destroyed any chance that we’re going to get a scoop. Somebody higher up the media food chain – an established news agency like the New York Times – might get the chance to go viral since they have so many people following them. David Pogue, or Robert Scoble get a viral boost no matter what. We don’t.

But here at Universe Today; if we know 1,000 other news agencies are going to be covering this story, there’s a slim chance of a story breaking out of our own readership. We’ll cover the story if we think our readers can benefit from it, but we’ll often avoid it too. We’re more than happy to link over to our friends at Discovery News, MSNBC, io9, or They can do a great job of reporting the story, why should we reinvent the wheel. That’s why we link out so much on Universe Today. Only old media sites are afraid to link away from their site.

We’re always looking for scoops. We’re scouring research journals, watching Twitter, and listening to chatter on the internet. We’re looking for really interesting stories that we know nobody else is covering. If we can report on an interesting piece of research, that didn’t come from a press release, we know we have an exclusive. We’ll be the recipients of the viral effect, because nobody else is working on that story. Everyone is going to be amplifying us.

So if you’re going to send out a press release, remember this. The amount of people who receive your press release is inversely proportional to our interest in covering your news. In fact, we know the lazy media is just going to copy-paste your press releases, nullifying themselves in the Google search results. We want scoops, remember.

Obviously, we understand that you can’t show favourites, only sending scoops to some editors, and leaving others out of the loop. We hate embargoes, and refuse to participate in the embargo process.

But we know our audience very well, and we have a keen eye on what they’re looking for. We also have the judgement to recognize a cool piece of research or technology, and the resources to turn that into a full story. We can take a fuzzy Hubble image and some interesting data, and put it into context; explain what has been discovered, and why it’s so important. What you thought was a silly side project might be enormously interesting to space enthusiasts, and we don’t need a press release to slow down communications.

If you’re doing research or testing technology. If you’re creating simulations, or taking photos or videos; get the word out. Let us take a look at all the stuff you’re doing, without a press release filter. We’ll know what’s worth reporting, and we’ll do the work to get it organized for our readers. We’ll help your ideas go viral to the larger internet audience, and it’ll take you a fraction of the effort – no press releases are required.

For starters, make sure you have every single publicity method covered. Get your videos on YouTube, photos on Flickr, info in RSS, Twitter and Facebook. If I need pictures, videos, or text to support a story, I need to be able to get it right away from your site. That’s a Media Relations 101.

And then here are some examples of ways you can let us get scoops:

– have your team tweet interesting accomplishments during the day
– take cool photographs of your research, technology, hardware, vistas, etc and publish them to Flickr or on your site
– take some time to answer questions from the public, post the answers on your site
– post cool videos of your research, techniques, interviews with researchers
– make your journal articles available on your website
– blog about what you’re working on, so we can read between the lines and report news

Remember, we’re less interested in the big press releases. Think instead about micro releases. Update the world much more often with smaller pieces of information, which reporters can jump on, and turn into news.

If you like, here’s a link to my presentation. It loses a lot without me jumping around in front of it, gesturing wildly, but I hope you can get something out of it.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

15 Replies to “Attention Public Relations: Here’s What Internet News Wants From You”

  1. Fraser: I’ve been with you since the beginning. And the reason? I go to UT to get original, relevant, and researched content. I am consistently surprised, and informed, by the way your writers present stories I’ve seen but do it in a more interesting and usually more comprehensive way.

    Your views on scoops surprised me a little because that is not what I want from UT (and then, really, you backed off and started talking about mini-scoops). I don’t care what you call it. As a journalist, I call it involved writing. By people who know what the hell is going on and are able to put things in context. What a concept. –ms

    1. Yeah, I kind of agree. I don’t care about big scoops in any way shape or form, because I get those from news aggregates like Google News. What I care about is well researched niche content.

      That said, there are currently no sites that give me well researched niche space/astronomy content on a level that I’m capable of understanding (IE, summaries of research papers, funding bills, interviews with people In The Know, etc). UT is the best of the sites that I use, but even it is often less than satisfactory, concentrating on stuff that I’d rather get from Google News, rather the content that I really want. Still, it’s the best there is (that I’ve found), occasionally giving me worthwhile content, so I stick around:).

      I don’t mean that as an insult, but rather as a comment on the fact that no science news site has quite figured out the optimal way to do things yet. Online news sources are still pretty new, so that’s not unexpected.

  2. What I want to know is, when is UT gonna have a mobile-phone friendly version of its website? 😀

  3. Thanks for the info on your publishing philosophy. No wonder yours is my only space related RSS. It also reminded me that I need to do my part and will I will remember to “like” posts on Stumbleupon, etc., when they’re special. Keep up the good work.

  4. News scoops is our form of marketing. It’s how new people discover our website. We maintain comprehensive coverage of space news for our current readers, and then we fight for scoops to bring in new readers. If public relations officials could help give us more information, we’d be able to raise our readership, and provide better coverage to our existing readers.

  5. I have to agree with other commentators. Universetoday is the place I go to learn about astronomy and astrophysicist research in the scientific community. The article summary/analysis format is easy for a lay person such as myself to digest. Also, I appreciate the educated opinions of it’s writers and commentators.

    I don’t go to Universetoday for the “scoop.” This can be done quickly and efficiently via the news websites that specifically specialize in this type of information.

    I would rather see Universe today pursue a core readership of like-minded space enthusiasts.

    There must be ways of increasing the website’s presence without falling into the info-mat trap.

    1. don’t forget to add power tripping as a moderator to your reasons for coming here. the reason that you like it so much is the exact reason that i now try to avoid it whenever possible (unfortunately with limited success).

      …and since you will no doubt delete this comment as well, i may as well get in my other dig, which is to mention my disappointment with how mr. cain is polluting this site in recent months with shameless self promotion while the rest of “his” authors are working hard to stay on topic and post space-related material. mr. cain, i couldn’t care less about how visionary you view your site marketing strategies to be. i only entered this topic so that i could voice my displeasure.

      1. Arrogant? As in defining that?

        Listen up! Fraser can run his website any way he wants and has done an EXCELLENT job in doing so. His writers are talented and involved participants and MOST of the comments ADD to the discussion without rancor… So then… where in deed do you stand?

      2. “the reason that you like it so much is the exact reason that i now try to avoid it whenever possible (unfortunately with limited success)”

        If you can’t even stay away from a website you hate, you have no place to criticize Cain and the website itself. Get out and don’t ever come back.

  6. In an effort to help you promote stories, the following: While I like your newly established amateur photo releases, because they foster reader participation and involvement, I find that I scroll past them to get to the actual articles you have posted. Those articles, which include other eye catching images, tend to get buried. I DO think it’s important to have reader generated input to foster participation and awareness in all things space related and will continue to view them, but I think including them in a separate section or selection link/group might make it easier to navigate to your previously posted journalism?

      1. How about having an “amature photo” section at the end of certain types of articles? Like the Cassini or Hubble image articles.

  7. What about the MONEY factor…ugly topic, I know! But scoops pay! Yes, you might say: ‘We’re really here to promote astronomy, the UT site, science…la, la, la’…etc., etc.,’ however, journalists, science writers (free-lance or amateur) today can make some monies from scoops. If you are asking people to send you scoops, then I would also suggest that you set up some kind of payment also in offer of some kind of compensation.

    This has always been a bug-bear with me, where sites state that they just want to promote areas of science and astronomy, but, in the meantime, they are also taking in huge monies from the ads that include on their site. Yes, you might say that these monies are then used to keep the site (and onboard journalists) going, however, this other bug-bear of mine sees this really as one where, heck, we’re just looking after ourselves under the guise of so-called news promotion(s). And please, don’t say that UT isn’t like this, as I’m sure that if ads aren’t being used, then you are getting your monies elsewhere through all the other possibilities that a large, and growing, site can avail of – e.g. grants, privileged access at events, more self-promotion…etc.

    The morality aspect in promotion(s) is nearly always fake in my view, as there is always something going on in the background where someone, something (site and other indirectly related sites, organisations and network etc.,), is looking to make a buck or two. Which, is why I brought up the ugly issue of MONEY in the first place.

    (from a promoter of a lunar site that ran for several years without any funding or help – now, sadly, gone – all news and knowledge lying on a hard drive only)

    1. Maybe I should have clarified what I mean by scoops. I’m not talking about insider knowledge from some space agency about an upcoming discovery.

      I’m talking about overall transparency from newsmakers, so we can look through everything they’re doing and decide what’s newsworthy for our audience. Instead of trying to craft one piece of information into a press release, they should let us see everything, so we can report what we think our audience really wants to read.

      Of course money is part of it. If we get traffic, we make money. We get to expand the site and hire more journalists. We’re one of the few sites out there that actually pays. If we earn money, I get to do this as a full time job and send my kids to university.

      1. Whoawhoawhoawhoa. You pay your writers? And you still can’t find people that know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, or how to use a semi-colon? Or people who know why you can’t just copy and paste material from Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA license forbids direct reuse of content except under certain circumstances)?

        Eeesh. Journalist standards have been dropping. When I thought your writers were just unpaid interns or volunteers that was one thing, but paid professionals *really* need to know the basics of their craft.

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