Better Writing Tips From a Journalist and Newspaper Publisher: My Interview With Rob Peecher

Rob Peecher
This is an interview I did with Rob Peecher. Rob spent over 20 years in the newspaper business. You’ll find his insights as journalist valuable as you work to make a better blog for those you serve.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into the newspaper business?

When I was at Georgia College in the early 1990s, I had an English professor who encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. Spring quarter my freshman year, to test the water a little, I worked as a reporter for the school newspaper – the Colonnade.

While working for the paper, I started investigating a story about a student who was making obscene phone calls to some of the dorms, and during the course of reporting the story I actually discovered who was doing it (a student who was living in the same dorm that I was in). The student was investigated by the campus police. It sounds like a small thing – obscene phone calls – but it was a big deal because it was so widespread. The student ended up leaving the school, though now I cannot remember if he was expelled or left of his own volition.

It was my first “investigative reporting,” and the next fall I worked as the news editor of the Colonnade. At the same time, I changed my major to journalism.

After a year as news editor of the paper, one of my professors got me a job working for the Sparta Ishmaelite, a weekly newspaper in Sparta, near Georgia College. I worked there the rest of the time I was in school. There was a lot of corruption in Sparta at the time, and I got to do a lot more investigative journalism, and I really got bit hard by that bug.

I spent the next 10 years working at different weekly and daily newspapers as a reporter. I had a pretty good run with some really great stories. For about seven years I followed a story about a cult that garnered national and international attention and turned into the largest case of child molestation in Georgia’s history.

After that, I spent the next 10 years owning my own weekly newspaper in the community where I grew up. In 2015 I sold that newspaper to a larger chain of newspapers, and at that point I left the newspaper industry, and I now own a digital marketing firm.

 

Have you always enjoyed writing?

I have always enjoyed writing. Even going back to elementary school, I can remember being the only kid in class who was excited about writing assignments. When I was in middle school I became a fan of Bob Greene’s work at Esquire Magazine. Greene also wrote for the Chicago Tribune, though I seldom saw those columns.

After school, I frequently wrote personal essays similar in style to Greene’s columns.

I did that all through middle and high school. I suppose it was sort of like keeping a journal, but I wrote it in a style that was suited to publication more than journal writing might be. I also wrote a lot of short stories that mimicked the styles and subjects of some of my favorite fiction authors – Robert Parker and John Gardner at first, then Raymond Carver when I was in college.

And, of course, as a reporter I was writing anywhere from five to 10 stories a week at the newspaper I worked for.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t writing something.

 

What is the key to writing headlines that grab attention?

Headlines were never really my specialty. I’ve worked with copy editors who wrote great headlines. Alliteration and creative puns make for really good headlines.

Throughout my career, when I was in a position where I had to write headlines, I focused mostly on the verbs. Verbs dazzle readers. Verbs grip readers. Good verbs in headlines thrust the readers into a story. But I was never as skilled at writing headlines as some of the copy editors at papers where I have worked.

 

How can a writer use the principles of journalism to tell good (interesting) stories?

In newspaper writing, you’re taught to be concise, convey information, and get the critical information at the top of your story. They teach you to use action verbs rather than passive verbs. And they say to write at a 6th grade level.

In newspapers, space is the most valuable thing, and space is measured in column inches. A reporter often knows how many column inches an editor is willing to dedicate to a story. With almost every story, you have more information than will fit in the space. This situation forces you to keep your writing tight. There’s no space to allow you to ramble or go off on a tangent.

So if you keep your writing tight and you’re not trying to impress your reader with your vocabulary, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll keep your writing interesting.

Particularly when it comes to blog writing, I see a lot of blogs that ramble and fail to get to the point. Those folks lose my interest pretty fast. The internet has solved the issue of space and measuring writing in column inches, but I think it has also made the writing worse. Forcing yourself to drill into the important stuff and get it out in short space really makes the writing cleaner, in my estimation.

 

How can the 5 W’s of writing newspaper stories help writers edit their work better?

Every newspaper article needs to answer the questions: Who is the story about? What is the story about? Where did the story take place? Why is this important to the reader? When did the story happen? How did the story happen?

If you’re self-editing your own work, then you should read through your article and find the answers to these questions. If the answer to one or more of these questions is not in your article, then you have some work to do.

 

What should writers do to motivate their readers to read their blog posts all the way through?

In journalism, especially with hard news stories, you have an expectation that people will not read your article all the way to the end. That’s why the inverted pyramid exists – you put your most important information at the top of the story. Only the most committed readers are going to get to the end of an article.

When I was writing newspaper articles, I often tried to conclude the story with some sort of little gift to anyone who got to the end. A joke, or a bizarre fact about the story that wasn’t critical information, or some kind of interesting tidbit. This was just my way to show my appreciation to readers who read the entire article.

But two of the best ways I know of to get people to read to the end of an article is to keep your writing concise (so they get to the end quicker) and to keep the writing compelling – either comical or interesting or informative – so that people will want to read the entire article.

 

You’ve sold ads as a publisher.  We writers need to sell to make it in the business. What should every writer know about copywriting? What makes an ad sell (or flop)?

When it comes to advertising, good design is important. Ironically, I’ve found that the fewer words the better the ad. A good call to action that describes the value to the consumer is critical. But to be effective, that should be said in as few words as possible.

Understanding why someone would want to buy, and being able to convey that, is critical.

But in today’s world, I think business owners are relying less on traditional advertising because they are not limited to the models of advertising that we had just 15 years ago.

A business owner is not limited to advertising on the page of a newspaper or on a billboard. A business owner isn’t limited to 60-second spots on the radio or 30-second spots on television.

Because of the internet and social media, business owners have avenues to market their business and reach an audience that never existed before.

And nobody is better suited to take advantage of these avenues than a writer. The most effective form of marketing in the marketplace today is storytelling marketing. If you can tell a compelling story about why you are in the writing business and how your writing has successfully helped your clients in the past, then that is gold – and it’s worth far more than a great looking advertisement in a magazine.

 

In your view, how can writers think like business people?

A writer has to figure out how to get money for what they do, and the key to that is to identify what you’re selling and who you’re selling to.

Are you selling compelling or entertaining information that people will consume and trying to make money off of advertising? In this case, you’re giving away your writing to your audience, and you’re selling your audience to advertisers. The writing has to build the audience. The size and demographics of the audience is what will sell the advertiser.

Are you trying to get people to pay you to write for them? In this case, you’ve got to convince the person (company) paying you that you are qualified to write material for them.

Is your audience paying for your content? If you sell some kind of subscription so people can access your writing or if you’re selling books, you need to be sure that people are engaged in what you’re writing and your writing provides value to them.

Regardless of what you’re writing, you need to understand who your customer is. That person may be different from your audience. You sell to the customer. You write to the audience.

 

What similarities are there between selling papers and selling books?

Before I sold my newspaper, it was a free distribution paper, so I didn’t sell subscriptions. I sold advertising. But I sold that advertising based on the readership (audience). I built that readership based on compelling, interesting articles that appealed to my readers. Doing that requires you to understand who your readers are. For instance, in the county where my newspaper was based, it was a growing community where people were coming to the county for the schools. So we focused heavily on schools and family issues. That’s an example of understanding your audience and writing content that appeals to the audience.

The same principles are going to apply to selling books. Who is your audience? What appeals to your audience? Can you write content that will matter to those people and get them to pay for it?

When it comes to opportunities to upsell inside a book, obviously you can list out other titles you have. You can print at the end of one book the first chapter or table of contents of the next book. You can point readers to other resources you might have for sale. You can point readers to a website where they can get more information or updated information.

Ebooks create opportunities for cross promoting that really have never existed before, and authors are wise to take advantage of those opportunities.

Once you have an audience (and that’s anyone reading your book) you should think about what else you might want to put in front of that audience. You can refer within the book to other books or resources or websites.

 

You’ve written a few books yourself. Tell us a little about them (include links) and what led you to write them.

In terms of non-fiction, I wrote a marketing book for small business owners (DIY BRAND JOURNALISM) that teaches business owners how to market their company on websites and social media by creating content through the filter of brand journalism. This is a storytelling marketing strategy employed by corporations like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Apple and other big brands. We put together a plan that allows small business owners to scale this strategy.

Get DIY BRAND JOURNALISM here

 

I also published a collection of humor columns I wrote at the newspaper. These are all family-oriented stories centered on my experiences raising three sons.

Get Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings and Other Collected Stories here

 

I have written several novels in the Jackson Speed Memoirs series. These are historical fiction novels set during 1800s America. The protagonist of the stories is a womanizing scoundrel, a coward and braggart. The novels are told from the perspective of an aged Jackson Speed, recalling his adventures. The history is thoroughly researched, and the novels are action-based (war and crime stories) with lots of actual people from history making cameos throughout.

Get the Jackson Speed books here

 

When it comes to publishing books, my primary focus is on the Jackson Speed novels. Those do well, particularly in the United Kingdom, and I thoroughly enjoy the research and the writing. I dabble in some other fiction – a couple of years ago I published a short story that I wrote in college and then rewrote. It is more of a modern-day love tragedy. I will soon be publishing a crime/satirical novel about a guy who decides to close his business at noon on Wednesdays and they kill him for it.

Thanks, Rob!


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