Summary: This post describes the steps I took to use a breaking news story to promote Effective Altruism causes in an op-ed piece, so that anyone can take similar steps.
Since many in the EA movement have excellent writing skills, we can take the opportunity of breaking news stories to write articles for public venues that channel attention to EA-relevant issues we care about. More generally, gaining and channeling attention is a widely-used practice among marketing and PR experts, bearing the technical term newsjacking, if you want to research it further. In this postm I want to show you how to use it for the sake of Effective Altruism.
First, remember that it should be done as early as possible in the life cycle of a news story for maximum impact for drawing people's attention to our ideas.
Some of you may have heard about the Wounded Warrior Project scandal that came to light five days ago or so. This nonprofit that helps wounded veterans had fired its top staff for excessively lavish spending and building Potemkin village-style programs that were showpieces for marketing but did little to help wounded veterans.
I scan the news regularly, and was lucky enough to see the story as it was just breaking, on the evening of March 10th. I decided to try to use this story for the sake of Effective Altruist causes. With the help of some timely editing by EA members other than myself - props to Agnes Vishnevkin, Max Harms, Chase Roycraft, Rhema Hokama, Jacob Bryan, and Yaacov Tarko - TIME just published my piece.
This is a big deal, as now one of the first news stories people see when they type "wounded warrior" into Google, as you can see from the screenshot below, is a story promoting EA-themed ideas. This is mainly about effective giving, but also bringing up the concept of EA itself and such EA organizations such as GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, Animal Charity Evaluators, and effective direct-action charities such as Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly. Many people are searching for "wounded warrior" now that the scandal is emerging, and are getting exposure to EA ideas about effective giving.
Writing an article quickly and getting published in TIME may seem difficult, but it's doable. I hope that the story of how I did it and the steps I lay out, as well as the template of the actual article I wrote, will encourage you to try to do so yourself. Remember to be careful when you do so in what exactly you're spreading - it's important to frontline EA-themed effective giving ideas rather than the EA movement itself, to prevent non-value aligned people from flooding the movement. However, as I did, it's quite appropriate to leave bread crumbs in the piece that would lead people to EA.
1) The first step is to be prepared mentally to find a relevant story and be vigilant about scanning the headlines for any story that is relevant to EA causes. The story I found was about a scandal in the nonprofit sector, a breaking news story that occurs at regular intervals. But a news story about mad cow disease spreading spreading from factory farms might be a good opportunity to write about Animal Charity Evaluators, or a news story about the Zika virus might be a good opportunity to write about how we still haven't killed off malaria (hint hint for any potential authors).
2) Once you find a story, decide what kind of angle you want to write about, write a great first draft, and get it edited. You are welcome to use my TIME piece as an inspiration and template. I can't stress getting it edited strong enough, the first draft is always going to be only the first draft. You can get friends to help out, but also tap EA resources such as the EA Editing and Review FB group, and the .impact Writing Help Slack channel. Get multiple sets of eyes on it, and quickly. Ask more people than you anticipate you need, as some may drop out. For this piece, for example, I wrote it on the morning and early afternoon of Friday March 11th, and was lucky enough to have 6 people review it by the evening, but 10 people committed to actually reviewing it - so don't rely on all people to come through.
3) Decide what venues you will submit it to, and send out the piece to as many appropriate venues as you think are reasonable. Here is an incomplete but pretty good list of places that accept op-eds. When you decide on the venues, write up a pitch for the piece which you will use to introduce the article to editors at various venues. Your pitch should start with stating that you think the readers of the specific venue you are sending it to will be interested in the piece, so that the editor knows this is not a copy-pasted email but something you specifically customized for that editor. Then continue with 3-5 sentences summarizing the article's main points and any unique angle you're bringing to it. Your second paragraph should describe your credentials for writing the piece. Here's my successful pitch to Time:
I think TIME readers will be interested in my timely piece, “Why The Wounded Warrior Fiasco Hurts Everyone (And How To Prevent It).” It analyzes the problems in the nonprofit sector that lead systematically to the kind of situation seen with Wounded Warrior. Unlike other writings on this topic, the article provides a unique angle by relying on neuroscience to clarify these challenges. The piece then gives clear suggestions for how your readers as individual donors can address these kinds of problems and avoid suffering the same kind of grief that Wounded Warrior supporters are dealing with. Finally, it talks about a nascent movement to reform and improve the nonprofit sector, Effective Altruism.
My expertise for writing the piece comes from my leadership of a nonprofit dedicated to educating people in effective giving, Intentional Insights. I also serve as a professor at Ohio State, working at the intersection of history, psychology, neuroscience, and altruism, enabling me to have credibility as a scholar of these issues. I have written for many popular venues, such as The Huffington Post, Salon, The Plain Dealer, Alternet, and others, which leads me to believe your readership will enjoy my writing style.
Hope you can use this piece!
4) I bet I know what at least some of you are thinking. My credentials make it much easier for me to publish in TIME than someone without those credentials. Well, trust me, you can get published somewhere :-) Your hometown paper or university paper is desperately looking for good content about breaking stories, and if you can be the someone who provides that content, you can get EA ideas out there. Then, you can slowly build up a base of publications that will take you to the next level.
Do you think I started with publishing in The Huffington Post? No, I started with my own blog, and then guest blogging for other people, then writing op-eds for smaller local venues which I don't even list anymore, and slowly over time got the kind of prominence that leads me to be considered for TIME. And it's still a crapshoot even for me: I sent out more than 30 pitches to editors at different prominent venues, and a number turned down the piece, before TIME accepted it. When it's accepted, you have to let editors at places that prefer original content, which is most op-ed venues, who get back to you and express interest, know that you piece has already been published - they may still publish it, or they may not, but likely not. So the fourth step is to be confident in yourself, try and keep trying, if you feel that this type of writing is a skill that you can contribute to EA causes.
5) There's a fifth step - repurpose your content at venues that allow republication. For instance, I wrote a version of this piece for The Life You Can Save blog, for the Intentional Insights blog, and for The Huffington Post, which all allow republication of other content. Don't let your efforts go to waste :-)
I hope this step-by-step guide to using a breaking story for Effective Altruism will encourage you to try it. It's not as hard as it seems, though it requires effort and dedication. It helps to know how to write well for a broad public audience in promoting EA ideas, which is what we do at Intentional Insights, so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want training in that or to discuss any other aspects of marketing EA ideas broadly. You're also welcome to get in touch with me if you'd like editing help on an EA-themed newsjacking effort. Good luck spreading EA ideas broadly!
EDIT: Retitled the post based on feedback from Owen and Stefan below.