All journalists are bombarded with press releases. Read any local paper and try to work out how many stories originated from a press release - it will be quite a large proportion.

Unfortunately the majority of press releases are boring and it's all too easy to slip into churnalism mode - churning out generic stories using copy sent from PR companies.

As a lot of reporters don't like press releases, any workie is likely to be passed piles of them and expected to produce good, usable copy from the dullest of the dull.

This is exactly what happened during my fortnight at a local weekly paper.

In preparation for my university group of first year journalists escaping over summer and spending time on work placements our lecturer, Tor Clark, advised that it's always a good idea to read even the most boring press releases in full, as they might surprise you. He told us about a press release he received from the local Womens' Institute about their trip to Blackpool. There was a full page about what a lovely day it had been, how they'd had ice creams and walked along the beach. And in the last sentence, it was casually mentioned that "Unfortunately Gladys felt ill on the journey and when we arrived in Blackpool she collapsed and passed away."

Suddenly this press release jumps from the recycling pile to a page lead.

Now, not all press releases will have gems like that, but it's still worth doing some digging and asking some more questions. Companies might send you a highly polished press release complete with very nice quotes they'd love you to use, but phone them up and ask them a few questions and they could easily let slip something slightly sexy.

The closest I came to this happening was a secretary of an organisation ranting about why their funding had been cut and blaming several big names in the area. Unfortunately at the end of the conversation she remembered who she was talking to and took back all she said and insisted it shouldn't be reported. We could have a long discussion on the ethics of this situation - but the truth is, I was a workie on a paper that relied heavily on the locals, and if I upset them it would not go down well. I therefore played it safe but still produced a solid story that was published with a byline.

At the end of the day some press releases are boring, no matter how you look at them. On my last day I wrote one about the local tip having an open day. I phoned them up, got quotes, and tried to find an angle that was interesting. In the end I gave up, decided it would probably be spiked, so wrote a very sarcastic article about what an exciting day it would be. I was very surprised when it was used in the paper exactly how I wrote it. It turns out I'm not very good at writing in a sarcastic manner and I just sounded genuinely excited about bin lorries.

My next work experience spell will be at a motoring publication, Fleet News. I've done work experience at a similar magazine in the past and can remember being given lots of press releases but being slightly stumped about how to handle them (I was young and it was my first insight into journalism). Therefore I decided to open it up to Twitter on how to handle a press release when working for a car magazine.

Jamie Fretwell, journalist for Auto Express, tweeted:

"1) Remember releases have news manufacturers want you to write about. Other stories need to be dug up & investigated and... 2) Ascertain really quickly what is the most important fact. Then succinctly tell your editor why your readers should know."

Andrew Noakes, lecturer in automotive journalism at Coventry University, added:

"If a release has technical info you don't understand, don't just copy it into your story. Find out what it means first."

If you have any tips about how to handle press releases, please share them below.


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