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October 18, 2006

Jilted at the altar of publication

For the second time since we released the Read the Bills Act a national publication has interviewed me about the concept only to axe any mention of us from the published story.

It happened last year with Reader’s Digest. That was depressing. A mention in Reader’s Digest would’ve been huge for us.

Now, it’s happened with Smart Money magazine and Initially, I planned to urge you to send Smart Money’s editor a letter about it, but as you’ll see in a moment that would be a random act with little long-term value to us.

You see, I’m not surprised that this happened.

There are two lessons in all of this for those who engage in activism (and I know many on this list do).
Today, I want to share both of these insights with you.

In 2000, I worked for a national political campaign. With only weeks to go before the election I had an insight about how the media operates. I call it the “True Thespian Theory of TV Reporters.”

We’ve all seen successful screen actors go to Broadway to perform on the stage for far less money. They do this because they feel inferior to the stage actors who are more pure, and engaged in “the craft.” Stage actors are the real “artists.” Screen actors want to prove they are “true thespians.”

It’s the same with TV reporters. They want to prove they are real “journalists.” So they don safari khaki, stand in an exotic location, and report the news “on the scene” or “as it happens.” But they know the guys at the newspapers must still be laughing at them. So they start doing investigative journalism to prove that they’re real reporters too, just like the print journalists.

I learned this lesson in a funny way. I took my candidate to a national TV appearance on what was then the highest ranked political show in the country. When we arrived, a research assistant put a stack of paper in my candidate’s hand. My candidate had little interest and handed the stack to me. It was a pile of news clippings from about forty papers around the country – a low-tech newsprint RSS feed.

Someone had to get up very early and flip through massive numbers of newspapers to assemble that stack of articles, and then copy it all in time for the hosts, guests, and producers to digest it before airtime. 

That evening, back in my office, I stared at the stack and asked myself, “What was so important that someone would be assigned to go through all that trouble?”

And then I realized, like screen actors proving they have Broadway chops, the actors on TV news want to prove they can do more than read a teleprompter. They idolize newspaper and magazine reporters. Newspapers have great influence over the TV guys.

And so, if you want to be on television, especially consistently, you need to make sure the newspapers are writing about you.

But there’s a huge problem with newspapers. We can call this lesson the “You Aren’t the Editor Dilemma.” This brings us back to Reader’s Digest and Smart Money: Both reporters blamed their editors. It could be true. Editors are awful people — especially if you believe what reporters tell you about them. The editors set the agenda, not the reporters, and certainly not you, as a person looking to publicize something.

It takes a lot of effort to break through to the editors of the world, and the way you do that in an effective way isn’t what most people might think. It’s a long, involved, expensive process, which requires preparatory steps that most would think have nothing to do with gaining newspaper coverage. To solve the “You Aren’t the Editor Dilemma” you have to take an indirect approach.

This explains why rarely sends press releases and never _seeks_ print interviews. We seek talk radio interviews instead. If your outreach budget is small, you start with talk radio. It generally has one of the best direct response rates for the cost involved, and when you’re starting out, that matters more than anything.

But even more important, you can’t be edited. Talk show hosts may challenge you, but most are pretty gracious and will let you make your points — without a filter. There is no editor to block or change what you say. I’ve done over sixty interviews this year, and had only one mildly negative experience. I know how to get my message heard on air and none of my time is wasted coddling someone through their research only to get jilted at publication.

Someday, we want to be on TV, regularly. That means we’ll need to be in print first, regularly. But before that happens, there’s one more intervening step. We call it Operation Everywhere.

To all activists out there, my advice is this. If you’re getting regular talk radio and feel you’re ready to move to the next level, take your marginal dollars and buy advertising.

You see, the newspaper guys watch TV, listen to the radio, and do other things normal people do. They are curious about what motivates the ads they see and hear. They wonder how the organization running it gets their money and what kind of people support the idea they see being advertised.

Once they notice the ad, if you’re doing sufficient repetition, they’ll start to feel like they’re seeing or hearing it everywhere.

Notice that last word, everywhere, as in Operation Everywhere, our plan to use advertising to make ourselves visible to everyone, everywhere, everyday.

To get our efforts published in print, we must advertise. And to get quoted properly and accurately, we must really ramp up the level of advertising so that it seems like it’s everywhere.

We want to make so many talk radio appearances and do so much advertising that newspaper editors put us on their agenda and allow their reporters to cover us. When that happens the would-be “True Thespians” in TV news will jump on board too, and we’ll be on our way.

But to spend time and money on print interviews now, and try to hold print publications accountable to report accurately, would just be a waste. We’re just not there yet.

I’m eager to get to Operation Everywhere. I’m hoping you’re asking, “How do we do that?” Simple. operates on a very economical budget. If we have $14,000 committed to our efforts each month, then the marginal dollars we raise will go to advertising.

At present, we have approximately $4,800 committed in monthly pledges. Credit card micro-pledges can be for $3, $4, $5, $6, $7, $8, or $9 per month. Most pledgers start at $10, $15, or $25 per month. Others are already pledging, and it’s not uncommon for them to upgrade their pledges to $35, $50, or even $100 a month. We have a handful of people who pledge even more than that.

I’d like to encourage you to choose a level that’s comfortable for you, and join us. The sooner you do, the sooner we’ll reach our goal, and then Operation Everywhere will be underway, with all that that entails for future media coverage.

One last point: In the Smart Money piece, a weak, watered-down version of our “Read the Bills Act,” inspired by our efforts and offered as a safety valve to allow Congress to ignore us, received coverage in our place. Why? Well, it has sponsors in the House.

No one said this would be easy.

But I believe sponsors will come to our Read the Bills Act once we have sufficient Downsizer pressure, advertising, and media coverage — so much so that the legislators no longer feel they can escape this idea, but instead see a real opportunity to build a national following for themselves.

Getting to Operation Everywhere is, therefore, crucial to our long term success. WE WON’T ACHIEVE OUR GOALS JUST BY SENDING MESSAGES TO CONGRESS. We’re going to need to make these guys feel overwhelming, mind-numbing, unrelenting pressure. Part of that pressure will come from lots of advertising.

So if you can’t make a pledge right now, please consider making a one-time contribution. Thanks to two large donors and a host of others, along with our monthly pledgers, we only need to raise $2,480 to meet this month’s goal. It would be extremely helpful if someone stepped forward with a $1,000 contribution, and another two people donated $500. And they were joined by four people who gave $100, on top of eight people who gave $10. You know what you can do, and I hope you’ll do all you can.

Thank you for being a DC Downsizer.

Jim Babka
President, Inc. 

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