Devlin's Angle

March 1997

How to Get Into the Newspapers

With Mathematics Awareness Week coming up soon, many a university mathematician's fancy will be turning to thoughts of getting a story into the local newspaper. How is this done?

Well, there are no magic secrets, at least as far as I know. Over the years I've achieved some degree of success, and in this column I'm going to note down a few reflections. But I don't claim any particular expertise in the matter. If you don't agree with something I say, well that's fine. If you think I have missed something out, please drop me an e-line and let me know--I am always looking for new ideas. My comments are directed at university mathematicians. That is the only perspective I am familiar with.

1. The first thing to ask yourself is what is it you are trying to say. Can you summarize your main point in one or two sentences in a way that a non mathematician can appreciate? If you can't, you are probably not going to get very far. Before you approach your local newspaper, try out your one or two sentence summary on colleagues outside the sciences. If they can't grasp your point immediately, what chance do you have with an editor (who in turn will be an "easier sell" than the average newspaper reader you are trying to reach).

2. Second question. Why should the newspaper want to print it? Alternatively, why should people want to read it? These are not the same question as "Why do I want to write it?" or "Why do I think people should want to read it?", let alone the not uncommon "Why do I think it would be good for people to read it?" Remember, newspapers are not in the business of education, and people don't buy newspapers to be educated. The purpose of newspapers is in part to inform, in part to entertain. Your article should have either news value or general interest value. Ways of giving news value to an article are to link it to an upcoming or recent local event, the announcement of a scientific discovery made locally (there aren't many of those), or a multiple-of-five anniversary of some important event. For instance, the recent, mythical birthday of HAL, the computer in the film 2001, was covered by most national newspapers, and I managed to get a "Where is HAL now?" piece into my own local Sunday newspaper.

Be aware that news can be created. You just need an appropriate event. My own institution recently managed to get two major stories on one of our faculty: the first when he made a discovery (event 1); the second two years later when the research article he wrote was published (event 2). (Local prof gets published in distinguished learned journal was the angle second time around.) The content of the newspaper report was virtually the same, what changed was the new angle--the reason for publication.

3. Remember that you are not writing for the New York Times. (If you are, good luck to you. With JPBM Communications Award winning journalist Gina Kolata covering mathematics for them, I have never even tried.) Take a good look at the kinds of article that appear regularly in your newspaper. Assuming the editor knows what his or her readers are interested in (and the chances are huge that the editor has a better handle on that than you do), this initial exercise should give you a good idea of the kind of issues, and the level of presentation, that stand some chance of finding their way into print. And don't forget to check the length of the articles that the newspaper typically publishes. It is probably quite low--between 400 and 700 words. Brevity will have to be your motto. Even if the editor likes what you have written, if it is too long, it will be cut before publication. It's better to make the cut yourself, than run the risk of your carefully crafted theme being lost when someone else hits the delete key.

4. Your audience (to say nothing of the editor you have to get past first) is not interested in mathematics. Yes, I know that's a shame, and wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone in the world shared our passion for x, y, and z, but the sad fact of the matter is that they don't. What are they interested in? Other people, mostly, and things that affect their own lives; sport; TV personalities; housing prices; the cost of living; Madonna; O.J. Simpson; possibly a few other things. So that's where you have to start. Those are the pegs onto which you have to hang your article. Education is another of those "human interest" entryways, but remember that for the vast majority of people, mathematics education means elementary arithmetic, and will their kids be able to do their sums and get the right answer as well as those oh-so-smart Japanese children we keep reading about. (Notice that: we keep reading about them! Get it?)

5. Not only is your audience uninterested in mathematics, they know virtually nothing about it. Incidentally, if you can't utter that last sentence without a trace of condescension or condemnation, you might as well give up now. The reader you are trying to reach has been getting on just fine without your help so far; why on earth should they voluntarily read through an article that makes them feel ignorant or inferior?

6. Make sure you really understand what it means to say your reader does not understand mathematics. Really not understand. If your university has a "pre-college" level mathematics class (don't even think of calling it a "remedial class"), sit in on it for a few sessions. Then remind yourself that these are the people who have gotten to university, and who have a motivation to learn mathematics (even if it's not the motivation you would like to see). Most of your readers did not get that far in their education, and what's more it was a long time ago that they were last in a classroom. So forget all thought of formulas or assuming any concepts beyond whole numbers and triangles.

Avoid any temptation to "be precise." You are not trying to get past the editor of Annals of Mathematics. The editor of your local paper cares not one whit about "convergent power series." You'll do well if you get the phrase "infinitely long polynomial" past him. (Sic. You might also find that your conscious efforts to use gender-neutral language are all in vain, though things seem to be improving on that front these days.)

7. Okay, so you have figured out what you want to say, why people might be interested in it, and how to say it. The next step is to take your draft article to the person on your campus who deals with public relations. He or she is probably a former newspaper reporter, and knows the business. At this stage, you are no longer the expert; your PR person is. Remember, he or she is on your side; the newspaper editor you are trying to get to accept your article is not. So listen to the advice you receive. If you hear the words "Ah, here is your real story!" your reaction should be one of absolute glee. You have just made it to first base. Chances are it is not the story you wanted to tell, or the one you thought you were telling. But, hey, now you know you have something that people might want to read. That's already a major victory. Make the changes your advisor suggests. Don't argue; make them! Remind yourself yet again that, just as you are the expert on mathematics, your PR person is the expert at getting stories into the press.

8. How to submit? One way is to let your campus PR person take over from now on. He or she has the contacts, and can ensure that your words are at least glanced at by someone in the newspaper's editorial office. If you do have to do it yourself, send in your article to the appropriate editor with a brief cover letter, and say you will call in a few days to see if they want your help to make any changes. (This is just an excuse for you to give them a nudge.) Give your home and office phone numbers so they can contact you if necessary.

9. How to improve your chances? One way I have used that has been very successful is to find something that is going to be covered--or just has been covered--by the national press, and give a local slant to the story. (Remember those local newspapers that published stories under headlines like "Local couple killed at sea" on the day the Titanic went down.) In your cover letter, you can say something to the effect that "The Washington Post (or whatever) just published an article on X, and I wondered if you would be interested in the following local angle on the story." (That's how I managed to get my HAL piece into print. I told the editor that I was sure most of the national dailies would cover the event. The only local angle about my version was that I wrote it. But that was enough. The newspaper even printed a file photo of me alongside the article, rather than a still from the movie, in order to play up the local angle.)

Finally, let's suppose all your efforts have paid off, and your words appear in print. That is not the end of the process--unless you want this to be the only time you (and possibly any other mathematician within a fifty mile radius) get an article into the newspaper. There is one more thing you should do, and something you should not do.

10. What you should do is call or write to the editor thanking them for their help in getting the word out, and expressing your hope to work with them again at a future date. Start to build up a relationship. You never know, the next time there is a major news story with a mathematical angle, you might find your editor calling you up for a quote or, even better, an op-ed piece.

11. What you should not do is complain about the way the copy editor mangled your story and completely obscured or misrepresented your main point. This is almost inevitable; newspapers are put together at great speed by people who are expert at cutting text to fit a particularly sized slot, but who are dealing with topics of which they have little or no knowledge. Your article is just one of many that pass through their computer. (Newspapers never show you the final copy of your article, by the way, even if you send it to them well in advance of publication. Don't even suggest it. It's not the way they work--and if you have gotten this far in the process, you are well inside their territory, where their rules prevail.)

If you want to see your words appear exactly as they came off your printer, don't send your article to a newspaper. Post it on your Web home page where you (and probably you alone) can read your words to your heart's content. Remember, your main aim was (or should have been) to get your local paper to say something--anything--about mathematics. Those few readers who can see there is something wrong with the mathematics as printed will have no problem making the appropriate mental correction. For the others--the vast majority of your readers--why worry? You did not--or should not have--set out to teach your readers anything. Heavens above, the students who sit in our classes for three or four hours each week have trouble remembering what we tell them several times over. The person who glances over your article as they eat their breakfast cereal is unlikely to remember any mathematical content by the time they have emptied their bowl, let alone when they are fighting the traffic to get to work. The most you can--and should--hope for is that a little bell has rung briefly in their minds, saying "Mathematics." You have added your epsilon increment to that far-off Nirvana where everyone appreciates that mathematics is an important and relevant part of contemporary life.

So don't complain. Don't even hint that there was anything wrong. The odds are, if a story with any mathematical content has gotten into the paper, the editor decided to "take a chance." Be grateful. If the result of taking that chance is that the editor is made to feel incompetent, ignorant, or just plain stupid, then the next time a mathematician comes along, the decision will more than likely go the other way. Remember who is doing the asking here. If you don't like the rules, play another game.

Well, my fifteen minutes are up. If you don't like being lectured at this way, but for some perverse reason have continued to the bitter end, you can always decide to stop reading "Devlin's Angle" in the future, just as people can skip over your newspaper masterpiece. Writing a column for commited fellow professionals is not the same as writing a newspaper article, but columnists too can easily find that if they don't follow the rules, the outlet dries up. One of the rules about writing a column is don't lecture to your readers. On this occasion I have deliberately broken that rule. Direct your complaints to the MAA's Director of Publications. He has the ultimate editorial control. He can fire me.

- Keith Devlin


Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.


Keith Devlin ( devlin@stmarys-ca.edu) is the editor of FOCUS, the news magazine of the MAA. For many years, he wrote a twice-monthly column in The Guardian newspaper in England. A selection of those articles was published in book form by the MAA in 1994, under the title All The Math That's Fit to Print.