Richard Burton, magazine editor/media consultant, shares his thoughts on what makes a good PR pitch and reflects on his own impressive career within the journalism profession in the below Q&A with Bell Yard Communications that will be of interest to anyone working in/with the media.
From being inspired by comic book characters to editing the Telegraph online on 9/11 and revealing the identity of a schoolgirl’s killer with a picture exclusive, the business editor and former Fleet Street journalist has plenty of stories to share.
What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?
I’d love to say it was reading the Washington Post, but it was really looking at DC Comics in the back of my father’s car on long journeys. More specifically, Clark Kent. Seriously. At aged nine I wasn’t interested in his Super sideline, just the day job. I became hooked on working for an editor with a fat cigar and a disregard for anything resembling HR. The prospect of being kicked out on to the streets in search of scandal, meeting contacts in alleyways and whistle blowers in low dives sounded more enticing than “retails sales” which is what the careers people later said I’d be suited for. When I got a real job and my name appeared in my local paper, a curmudgeonly neighbour who used to disapprove of everything I did, suddenly became my best friend.
Why did you gravitate towards being an editor?
I spent 10 years in the provinces before I came to Fleet Street, actually starting as a tea-boy in the provinces, before moving from weeklies to agencies to dailies and, basically, stringing for the nationals on every patch I worked. Some of the papers back in the late 70s had lineage pools where we shared the spoils like waiters share tips. I always refused to join as I was pretty much on it 24/7 so I guess I needed greater ownership of the job. I took a news editor role purely for the money after Margaret Thatcher came to power and a sudden 17 per cent interest hike meant I couldn’t afford the mortgage I’d just signed up for. But it meant I was able to nurture a young team which I did until I fell out with the boss and got the sack. I then went for a deputy editor job as, by then, I’d got a proper taste for management, and after about a year, two directors took me to a hotel too posh for my payband and asked me to step up. That job got me into Fleet Street.
How do you fact-check your work?
Most stories are fairy linear and, if properly attributed, speak for themselves, but the fact that I do fact-check at all is usually a good start. So much I read these days clearly hasn’t been. Having spent years subbing on the Telegraph – querying and correcting – helps a lot. I try to use the best sources, aren’t afraid to say to someone’s face: ‘that can’t be true, I’m going to need more than that.’ I use the Deep Web a lot. I was an early adopter of CAR [computer assisted research] and never shy away from seeking an honest right of reply. I hate it when a reporter tells me they ‘saw it on the Internet.’ It’s like saying they read something in Smiths.
What does your daily/weekly schedule look like when crafting a story?
Depends. I’ve been on investigations that dragged on for weeks and involved hours of trawling microfiche files (oh, the memories), knocking on every door on the estate and, even sitting in cars waiting for someone to arrive or leave. But back to the present: I write, edit and commission around three dozen a week, plus a bit of ghosting. Crafting is instinctive in 99 per cent of cases; I usually know where a story should be going by the time I’ve read the first few lines and I tend to edit as I read, a habit developed from years of filing ‘off the cuff’, dictating to copytakers from the scene.
What is the best tactic for approaching you with storylines?
I’m not a huge fan of email for everything but it’s the only way when you’re editing six magazines and get 50-plus pitches a day. I get annoyed when people play games: a LinkedIn message reaching out to me to jump on a call (mind boggles) as they have something I’d be interested in. If it’s a pitch, just say so. I actively welcome them. I’ve had splashes and coverlines that simply came to my inbox. Go easy on the surveys (I get loads) and don’t offer me listicles or I’ll give you ten reasons why they’re outdated and a little desperate.
So, I’d say pertinence, patience and persistence. By that I mean, tell me as simply and directly what it’s about, don’t expect an answer immediately and feel free to prod me – I’m old fashioned enough to be shamed into the courtesy of an eventual reply.
What makes a good story/quote?
Emotion – in both cases. Something that moves a reader who’s short on time and has lots of media competing for their attention. The problem is, so much is hyped online these days, readers are rightly sceptical of anything too dramatic.
In terms of quotes specifically, I find people are often reluctant to express themselves. I get offered thought leadership pieces a lot and love it when I can hear the voice of the writer. When I get something marked Approved: 4th and final revision, I know it wont be.
What is the best/worst part of being a journalist/editor?
The anecdotes. Hate to sound trite, but that sort of sums it up: If you spend every day seeking out something that (you hope) others will pay to know about, especially if they involve people and places they’ll pay to see or listen to, you’ll have them in abundance. Not sure there are many other jobs where a crown court judge would delay sentencing until he saw me in my seat, a rock group would ask me to drive them home to avoid crowds and a Question Time panellist would text me from the car afterwards to ask how I think they did.
I can’t honestly think of a worst part, other than the odd hours, the occasional drudgery (I couldn’t always choose my subjects) and the odd time I found myself in the night lawyer’s office struggling to reconcile what I’d written with what I could prove.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
Do it because it’s a calling and you believe in people’s right to know and the importance of an open, honest media, not because you want to “find your voice”. That’s what blogs are for. It’s not about you. It’s about what you can impart. Also, absorb all media. Read the tabloids for word economy, the broadsheets for context and do learn the language. Few use it correctly, you’ll need to at least make a decent fist of it.
How do you consume media/stay up to date with the news?
Its easy these days. It’s all brought to your phone. But I subscribe to a few aggregators, have Sky News or CNN on constantly while I’m on the Mac in my home office, a habit I picked up during my Mirror days when TVs hung from the ceiling while we worked and I have access to news wires so it’s pretty full-on.
What was your best scoop/what’s been the most interesting story you’ve ever covered and why?
I was editing the Telegraph online on 9/11. We ran 148 stories in one six-hour period alone and I catnapped on a physio table at about 4am attempting round-the-clock updates. Other than that, too many to say: doorstepping a young Lady Diana Spencer in Northampton had a sense of history in the making, revealing the identity of a schoolgirl’s killer with a picture exclusive gave me notoriety and enough money to move house … but the most rewarding was unashamedly using the Mail’s massive reach to expose a couple’s agony at watching an incurable gene defect gradually take their children’s lives. I tracked down the one clinic in the world which had had any, albeit experimental, success and, even though it was massively oversubscribed, got them to agree to see them if I had them flown out. Their daughter survived another six years and the son is now symptom-free.
Richard Burton: LinkedIn
Richard Burton is a former Fleet Street journalist who manages a range of digital titles in the UK and across Europe. His main London title is the business magazine, Director of Finance.