Adam Maguire is a freelance journalist who has written for Business and Finance and The Irish Times as well as appearing as a contributor on Today FM’s “The Last Word” and Newstalk’s “Culture Shock”.  Adam has been nominated for an award in the Bvisible-sponsored “Best Blog of a Journalist” category in the Irish Blog awards.

Adam specialises in computing, IT and technical stories.  He also edits and contributes to the online games and gadget magazine Teic.ie.  Here, Adam offers some really eye-opening insights on dealing with PR people! And for businesses with a good story to tell, or pitching themselves as interviewees, Adam’s advice is invaluable.

As a freelancer, how do you identify your writing interests publicly so that those with story ideas and information can send you only what interests you?

The direct approach of finding the people or companies you want to speak to and letting them know you’re out there is always good.

When I first started writing tech for Business & Finance I spent a day ringing around the main PR companies in Dublin asking them what tech clients they had, telling them what I was doing and letting them know what I was on the look out for. As forward as it might seem, and did to me when I started, simply asking people for an informal chat on a topic can always be good too – you don’t have to approach them with a request for an interview.

Best of all is your portfolio, though. The more you write on a topic the more your name gets out there in the relevant circles and the more inclined people are to turn to you when they’ve something to say.

Other things like Twitter and the blog can be useful too, especially if you want to put the call out for a certain type of interviewee that you’ve perhaps not spoken to before.

How do you prefer PR companies approach you to pitch a story idea?

In terms of the way they contact me, I’m not picky. What I like to see in a pitch is that it has been tailored, however, one that’s not a boiler-plate pitch that 50 other journalists have gotten too.

If all the other publications have gotten the same pitch then there’s no point pitching it to a freelancer – after all who are they going to write it for? That’s not to say it has to be totally exclusive to be worth informing a freelancer, it just needs to have an angle that will make it different to what’s going to appear in tomorrow’s dailies.

What are the characteristics of a good interviewee?

Someone who knows what they’re talking about and knows how to get that across clearly.

I think some interviewees assume the journalist asking them questions is trying to catch them out but in reality they’re just looking for information, preferably in plain English. That doesn’t mean the journalist will big up your company or only ask you soft questions but they’re not looking to throw you under the bus either.

You can tell when an interviewee approaches an interview in a defensive-mode and their quotes end up lifeless as a result, meaning they’re more inclined to get cut when the article is being written and edited. The same goes for people who are spouting little other than the sales pitch and the cliché.

Are all interviews via phone and email now or do you still talk to some face to face?

I still do some face to face and much prefer it that way but I find it harder to arrange these when there’s a short deadline in play. Phone interviews are generally the way I go and as a rule of thumb I avoid e-mail interviews at all costs; again the quotes end up very lifeless and you never get satisfactory answers when you go that route anyway.

What are your PR pitching pet hates?

The classic e-mail followed by phone call is always one. I also hate when something is pitched to me as if it’s the second coming of Christ when in reality it’s something like the launch of a new type of ring binder.

When PR people lay on the hyperbole now it makes me more inclined to skim over their e-mails in the future. The same goes for those who send out a generic press release on something that happened today and expect me to use it as the basis for a feature that won’t be published for two weeks.

Do you think that the role of a freelancer is growing ever more important as news is increasingly disseminated online?

I think freelancers are more common than ever but that is probably more to do with cut backs in the media than anything. I’m not sure if it is more important than ever but it may help to create more flexible journalists in the long-run, as freelancers need to be far more adaptable in terms of the platforms they use and topics they write about if they want to make a living.

Is it important that freelance journalists blog?

I think it’s important that all journalists blog, although I say that as someone with an appalling track record at keeping my site up to date. For new journalists, who by definition tend to be freelance, it’s a good way to write publicly and get some practice so in some ways there probably is more incentive for freelancers to blog than staff journalists.

What are the pros and cons of being a freelancer as opposed to being a staff writer?

On the pro-side you are your own boss and can be far more flexible in what you do and where. Assuming you go out and get the work there can be far more versatility in what you write, be it the topic, length, format or style.
On the con-side you tend to be out of the loop and have to work that bit harder to keep up – you also need to be able to generate better ideas than a staff journalist, at least in your first few years.

When researching pieces, how do you decide who is a suitable authority on the subject you are writing on?

There’s no hard and fast rule but you tend to make a judgement call based on their relevance to the angle you’re taking and their ability to talk clearly and openly about the topic at hand. If I approach a person with a vested interest in the topic, say like a CEO of a company that has a product or service in the area I’m writing about, what I look for is honesty and insight. The minute I start to hear the sales pitch I know I won’t return to them for a quote in the future.

How can PR agencies best aid in your work?

Many PR companies seem to be very closed off about their clients and surprisingly can often be hard work to get information out of. I’ve had numerous cases in the past where calls or e-mails are not returned from PR companies even though I’m asking to speak to one of their clients about one of their products.

The more accessible they are and open about their clients the better. I know Adrian Weckler has done a great job of breaking this down in the past too but something as simple as a good high-res image to accompany an interview can make all the difference, too.

As a business feature writer, what are the attributes of a business, product or service that make most suitable for inclusion?
Broadly speaking they just have to be doing something interesting, or be at the fore of a new trend. It’s great to hear that company X has made record profits this year but it’s far more interesting to know what product has caused that increase, what way they see the market going in the next few years and how they plan to grow further. These are the kinds of angles that make features far more interesting for me.

How is the move of certain consumer technology companies to sourcing Irish PR activities through British agencies affecting your ability to review their new products?

Dealing with a UK-based PR company is a nightmare when it comes to reviewing products. You have a much harder time getting the unit in the first place, it takes much longer to get to you and because they don’t know the Irish media as well you sometimes have to break your back just to get on their radar.

Thankfully the exodus of PR to the UK hasn’t been as bad as I was expecting, at least so far.

Given that The Economist, Time and Sky News constantly refer to their online content, is the internet really killing traditional media or enhancing it?  How do you use the internet to add value to print articles?

It’s a really big debate and I don’t know the answer. What I can say is that the internet is an invaluable tool when it comes to research and as a freelance journalist it can often be the only source of contact with other journalists, which helps keep you sane when you start to go stir-crazy.

My gut feeling says that “traditional” media won’t die but it’s a bit of a misnomer because what we consider traditional media is totally different to the traditional media of 50 years ago. The only thing that’s happening now is a rate of evolution far greater than has been seen before and everyone is struggling to keep on top of things.

You are very active on Twitter.  Do you find it a useful resource as a journalist?

Certainly – it’s a great way of keeping your finger on the pulse of things and a great resource when it comes to finding interviewees. More than once I’ve tweeted about an upcoming article and asked for interviewees and more than once I’ve gotten a positive response. It’s a rare treat in journalism to have the interviewees come to you.