Let the Plan Rule 6

To recap: You’ve put your flight to Bogotá on the calendar for September 30 and by now you may have heard from the Colombian Embassy that yes, you have permission to establish a freelance news bureau in the capital. You’ve gotten a passport and enough shots to spring a puppy from the Humane Society. Now it’s time to start lining up clients. 

What Margaret and I did was open the Editor & Publisher yearbook* at the public library and write down the name and address of every newspaper editor we wanted to approach. The Washington Post was as far up the food chain as we dared venture. It had two of its own staff reporters in Africa, but one was in apartheid Johannesburg, and therefore couldn’t travel to what was called then, “black Africa.” The other was in Nairobi, three air hours or 42 difficult road hours, from the “frontline states” that Margaret and I would be covering. Most of the ones to which we intended to sell ourselves were the ones who couldn’t afford their own Africa bureaus — papers like The Dallas Times Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, the Kansas City Star, and so on. We carefully wrote down their full mailing addresses and then prepared a neat little package to send each one. We used pocket folders; when you opened it, our resumés faced you on the left, and a few of our best clips faced you on the right. The cover letter that went into the envelopes with these packets said something like this:


A new source of Africa news will be available to you starting in May.  Margaret Knox and Dan Baum, veteran reporters of The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers, will be establishing The Africa Bureau — an independent news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, to cover the region for you. This will be your chance to have exclusive, non-wire copy from a turbulent but under-covered part of the world. Please look at our enclosed resumés and samples of our work. We ask for nothing in advance but your Telex number and permission to call collect if we have a story we think you might like. 

We’d like to hear from you ahead of time to discuss topics that might be of particular interest to your readers, such as communities of Africans who help constitute your city’s population, and the companies and industries in your city that do business in Africa and to which we should pay special attention. We want to make this as easy for you as possible, so if there are any technical issues related to filing copy and photos to your paper, let’s nail those down. We also will be traveling around the U.S. in March to visit future clients; might we stop by and see you, too?

Of course, today you’d be asking for email addresses instead of Telex numbers, but feel free to go ahead and crib that letter if you want to and adapt it to your purposes. We lined up about seven papers, plus National Public Radio and Mutual Radio News, this way. And damned if we didn’t get The Washington Post, too. Asking about industries and companies turned out to be useful; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, was interested in bauxite mining because Alcoa, based in Pittsburgh, uses a lot of bauxite to make aluminum. Permission to call collect from Africa is a big deal. Some even asked us to buy acoustic couplers — big hard-rubber cups that fit over the two ends of a phone receiver and that, when plugged into a computer, allowed us to send copy straight into a paper’s computer queue by putting atop the story a line of code that looked something like {kwky-slug{tttws, with “slug” being a one-word title for the story. This was very high-tech stuff in 1987. We wrote editors’ names, phone numbers, telex numbers, companies and industries to watch in a little hardcover Moleskine-like notebook, devoting one page to each paper, so that we’d have it all handy when it was time to file. My suggestion is that you do likewise. But do it quickly; you’re leaving on September 30.

More on equipment tomorrow.

*Editor and Publisher being the trade magazine of the newspaper-publishing industry



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