I don't know that I made any headlines for the participants at today's discussion with the
Austin chapter of the Society of Marketing Professional Services, "Making Magic With the Media," luncheon and media panel. As a member of the panel, I did do my best to answer some interesting questions. Joining me on the panel was the editor of the Austin Business Journal, Colin Pope; managing editor of Community Impact Newspaper,Shannon Colletti. Our moderator was Rebecca Martin, senior vice president of marketing communications at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Below are the panel questions put together by the chapter and the answers I gave. I hope that what I offered was not necessarily magic but, "just the facts, ma'am." My goal was to give insight into the workings of media relations and journalism today.

SMPS: What issues or trends are “hot topics” for your publication? What types of stories are you most likely to cover?

Schwartz: We are always looking for breaking news as well as ongoing stories in the A/E/C world such as interesting developments in green building and new urbanism or  new equipment and technology, such as building information modeling. Without editorializing, our goal is to give our readers the latest news along with the latest views of experts in these areas. We do so through our monthly, statewide magazine, Texas Construction, our weekly, national/international news magazine, Engineering News-Record, and through free content such as blogs and news briefs posted online and through various social media outlets as well ENR's daily news alerts and Texas Construction's biweekly e-newsletter.

SMPS: How is the economy affecting how and what you cover? 

Schwartz: With unemployment hovering around 9.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, we consider every major or minor instance of increased or decreased employment in construction, design and engineering worlds to be of vital interest to our readers. We report these and the opinions of experts on the potential, overall economic impact. We are equally alert to developments in the various market sectors, the oil and gas and transportation industries, and the hiring—and firing—of legal and illegal—immigrants in our industries and how these impact our economy. We have followed the ARRA or stimulus projects and will continue to do so as they keep rolling in with this next infusion of funds. Our mission statement in our “stimulus and recovery” section states: “Public works stand close to the center of the U.S. economic recovery, and construction industry firms, hit hard by the recession, are eager to find out more about the planned spending program.” We report the latest headlines, and offer comprehensive stimulus sources.

SMPS: How are you using social media and/or the web for story ideas? How does it affect what’s published?
Schwartz: This is still a whole new ball game. Social media and the web, in general, have given us a 24-hour news cycle, and for that I’m grateful. But instantaneous, unverified reporting on the web can become frenzied and give life to stories that do not necessarily merit these flurries of attention. Not to introduce controversy, but as an example, witness the case of Terry Jones, the media-hungry pastor of a 50-member church in Gainesville, Fla. When Jones announced his plans to burn the Koran on 9/11, the social and the “traditional” press covered the story like the Second Coming and gave international exposure to Jones’ proposed stunt. Compare, for instance, the case of a renegade pastor and his flock from a church in Topeka, Kansas, that set fire to a Koran on a Topeka street corner in 2008. The traditional media ignored them and their "protest" went nowhere. (A mention of this appeared in stories recently in The New York Times and the Austin American-Statesman.) But to answer your question. Yes, I do absolutely do find story ideas through social media and blogs, but naturally I always double check the source for accuracy and authenticity. Those news stories that do merit coverage are often getting posted ahead of the print issues, even skipping print altogether. In such cases, social media and blogs are vital in circulating the story. Generally, I prefer LinkedIn or Twitter for our industry. As well, McGraw-Hill Construction events and forums as well as LinkedIn groups are great resources for ongoing dialogue.

How and when do you prefer to be contacted with story ideas? What information do you need and want?
This is a fairly simple question. I prefer press releases clearly marked with relevant names, dates, references and background, sent via email. Because my inbox is always filling up like a rapid-fire Twitter feed, I appreciate a news release that includes the subject line in the title, and attachment of the release and the copy to be in the composed message. It makes the life of a busy editor and reporter much easier when you don’t have to guess what is in a message simply titled “press release.” You’d be surprised how many of these I get, and to be completely honest, I won’t open something if there isn’t some sort of teaser to tell me what it is unless I happen to recognize the sender. But even then, it might get buried in a sea of email. As for the follow-up call, I appreciate them sometimes. There really are those times I scan over something that I may have otherwise overlooked. But I will not always return a call just to say, “yes, I received it.” I would say the rule of thumb should be that if it is really a big story, the follow-up call is warranted. Otherwise, make sure the press release is thorough and visible and there shouldn’t be any need to call.

Do you have any do’s and don’ts regarding the use of PR agencies?
We understand the need to outsource publicity in many cases where a firm has limited resources. There are many good agencies in Texas and I’m happy to work with those professionals. Of course, we do want to get to the sources at the firms the agencies represent in a more direct way once initial contact has been made. On another note, in some areas the line between PR and journalism is disappearing. I have contacts who sign their communications with me as “journalist and public relations specialist.” You seldom saw this five or 10 years ago. Today when I see this, my reaction is, “What???” I don’t refuse to work with well-informed people who are playing this dual role, but I always make sure they are forthright about who or what they may be representing. If they are up front with me, then we can work well together, but it does make sifting through and verifying information more time-consuming.

What is one thing you think anyone dealing with the news media should know or do?
Despite, or perhaps because of, today’s 24-hour news cycle, the American public still relies on even-handed, fact-based, old-school journalism where major, life-changing events are concerned. For instance, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last May, both BP and our governments kept releasing figures on the amount of the spill which were—to put it mildly—understated. But American journalists—both print and web journalists—gave the world the facts. McGraw-Hill Construction covered the disaster from a unique angle. We did so on a daily basis. And the facts were that the spill was much greater than what BP or our government were claiming. In all fairness, I should note that local residents contributed helpful, eye-witness accounts throughout this episode on Facebook and Twitter and similar outlets.

So, I would tell anyone dealing with the media today to remember that what we want is vital information—the facts, not the frenzy. They should also remember that journalism is not a dying profession. Far from it. Newspapers and magazines, as we know them today, may be in deep decline but they are reinventing themselves online. And I believe journalism will not only survive, but thrive, as the newcomers learn from the old-timers—and vice versa.