Friday, August 19, 2005

How to get news in the paper

Paul Weeks
Vintage Columnist
Published Tuesday, Aug 2, 2005
The Stockton CA Record

It’s hard even for me to realize that I spent more years persuading an institution of world renown to invite the media’s attention to it than I did on the other side of the fence as a newspaperman myself.

And yet it was the most gratifying 19 years of my life.

When the RAND Corp., grandfather of all think tanks, took me aboard in Santa Monica in 1969, I was shocked to find that it had previously contracted with a public relations agency in New York to keep its name out of the press as much as possible.

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To any good investigative reporter, that’s like baiting a mouse trap with secret goodies and posting a sign warning the mice to stay away. What could be a more intriguing challenge than to snatch the bait and let the spring trap whoever had set it?

To the highly educated research scientists handling sensitive contracts with the military and even the White House, secrecy seemed paramount.

My entrée came when RAND began to seek contracts for domestic research — fields such as health, housing, welfare, crime prevention and social injustice. The public had to be informed, but how could it be done in any reasonable amount of time?

It was almost embarrassing to tell them that another reporter and I had won a prize a few years earlier “for the best story written under deadline pressure.” You can imagine their surprise when I told them the story:

My colleague had sat with a window on the death chamber in San Quentin to feed me by phone 400 miles away the details of “Ma” Duncan and her two gardeners being executed for slaying the wife of Ma Duncan’s only son. It had terrible incestuous connotations. You’ve heard about “objective” reporting? My friend believed in the death penalty. I didn’t.

Our newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, was flooded with angry subscribers, half seeing our story as pro death penalty, half against. Now, that’s fair and balanced, isn’t it?

RAND impressed me quickly with its own testing of the value of informing the press. I had to prove that our news releases were achieving positive results through clippings that we collected.

Sometimes, the process stuttered or almost ground to a halt. When we had a 500-page report that concluded that most corporate security guards had little training in the use of firearms, virtually no knowledge of the law governing private security and other shortcomings, researchers asked the management to change the lead on my release. I had written that the report said just that.

The researchers said it “wouldn’t be fair” to the corporate sources of the research. I couldn’t do it, because any newspaper worth its salt would find the lead itself, even if it were buried in 500 pages of research.

Gus Shubert, the senior vice-president who oversaw my output the whole 19 years, wisely deferred to my compromise: We would send the entire report to five outlets — The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Associated Press — with a simple note: “We think you will find this newsworthy.”

They did. I breathed a sigh of delight that my news judgment was the news judgment I’d been taught in all of my years of reporting. They found the lead.

It’s a new world today. RAND, in a beautiful new headquarters, is thriving with branch offices in this country and abroad, and with contracts from many national and corporate interests everywhere.

And its public information is now “external communications,” with the Internet serving as instant contact with the media. No longer would the “pub info” group have to write, fold, seal and mail 500 news releases.

Contact columnist Paul Weeks at


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