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An Activist's Guide


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Three months' open access to the world of solutions.

The United Nations' HABITAT has compiled a vast and informative database containing over 1,600 proven solutions to common social, economic and environmental problems, collected from 140 countries. Use of this data bank is normally limited to those who subscribe to it. However, until 31 March 2003, UN-HABITAT has given NI readers unlimited access to search the database and read the wealth of material it contains. Go to http://www.bestpractices.org then click on 'Database search' and insert this password: GEN26.

Just before I started preparing for this magazine, I met an activist from Kenya who was colourful, insightful and doing wonderful things in his community. Together with an Australian aid worker, we talked for two hours. Afterwards, the aid worker and I chatted about how valuable the work of the activist was. When I asked the aid worker whether she thought it would make a good story, she said 'No'. And I agreed. Because print journalists like me, and the newspapers and magazines they write for, avoid good news like the plague. From bitter experience we know that - while good news may be worthy - it often doesn't hold readers' attention. That's why editors don't publish it.

Yet this magazine is all about good news. It breaks journalism's rules. There's value for activists in good news: either in publicizing projects or in providing examples of alternatives that work. Whether you're preparing press releases or writing an article yourself, there are ways of telling stories that have been used in these pages that might help you to get your good news into print.

1 Choose an angle that grabs:

. Play up the drama and conflict. It's the stuff news feeds off. Good news is often about solutions. A solution means that there was a problem that needed solving. So start with a no-holds-barred description of what that problem was and how it was affecting people. Describe the wrongdoers and the resources at their disposal: the battles between oppressors and oppressed can give a 'David vs Goliath' excitement to the text.

. Big is beautiful. Accentuate it. Some concepts - by their sheer magnitude - will capture people's imagination, like China's Chengdu initiative on page 12. Sure, initiatives in China are likely to affect many more people than in other countries. Nevertheless, the potential scope of many projects outside China can often be substantial. Yet the sphere of potential influence of positive initiatives is often overlooked. Think about how many people could benefit if the project or scheme you're writing about were applied more widely.

. Draw out quirky or unusual angles. This appeals to the reader's imagination. When you think 'That's interesting - I haven't heard of something like that before' then it's likely that others will feel the same way. So it's worth including.

Bring on the future: women of Goree island, Senegal dance away from the island’s slave-trade past.
Photo: Paul Weinberg / Panos Pictures

2 Keep readers reading:

. Make it personal. 'Human interest' in stories is always a plus. Bring out the voices and experiences of people by using direct quotes. Make your words paint pictures of settings and surroundings. Or use photographs that will immediately connect readers with the people featured.

. Avoid process. Pedestrian detail of the inner-workings of committees, organizations or projects may interest those who are already enthusiastic advocates of a programme but it's a real turnoff for newcomers to the idea.

. Use suspense. If you say up front that everything is now fine, everyone is happy and there is no longer a problem, the incentive to keep on reading can be lost. Problems that have emerged in developing solutions - things that could have derailed the project but didn't - can give your story the edge that it needs.

3  Hook the interest of journalists or editors:

. Phone them. Sending emails doesn't guarantee connection in the same way conversation does.

. Keep the central theme simple. Summarize it in two sentences. Telling a friend or colleague beforehand what the story's about over a drink or meal usually produces immediate results: the theme that most interests them is likely to interest others.

. Develop an angle or perspective relevant to readers. For instance, describe how a project that's working elsewhere could be applied to the community where the article will be distributed.

. Be conscious of word limits. Editing long pieces down takes time that many journalists and editors, meeting daily deadlines, don't have. Whatever is submitted, the word length should roughly fit into the space where the writer wants it to appear.

Chris Richards

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New Internationalist issue 352 magazine cover This article is from the December 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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