The Secrets Behind the Stories

staff | May 1, 2008

Inside Thirteen Blogger: Debra Falk, Communications

Last week, The New York Times ran a feature on Thirteen’s own SECRETS OF THE DEAD, a series I have publicized for the majority of its eight seasons. After seeing the piece, someone came up to me and commented how great it was that the Times’ story happened, and asked me if I knew they were running it…so here’s a behind-the-scenes look into that process.

For this particular story, it went down like this: weeks prior to broadcast, my colleague Donald Lee and I determined which media outlets would receive materials about the upcoming SECRETS premiere shows. Screeners and releases were duplicated and sent, then we start leaving messages in inboxes and voicemails. When the moons align, we chat with a real, live person. “Did you get the screener? Do you need more info? We have producers and experts to interview…interested?”

We always try to hit everyone we think might be interested at the New York Times, from the Arts & Entertainment editor to the TV Decoder blogger–you never know who is going to bite on the story.

The “pitch” suggests packaging all the new episodes into a bigger story about the series and brags how successful the series has been over the years, and says that if you haven’t dug into SECRETS in a while, you should talk to its executive producer, Jared Lipworth. The response? Nothing. For weeks. We try again. Still no response.

I start getting a little nauseous at the prospect of no news = no coverage. Then about a week before the premiere broadcast, I get a call from the Culture Desk writer. Seems that the A&E editor I’ve been barraging wants her to do a round-up story on the new season, and wants to talk with Jared and representatives from all four episodes. I do an endzone dance in my cube. I high-five Donald. I call producer Jared (I think he did a dance, too). Then I realize that I have to round up all the shows’ experts, none of whom I’ve spoken with to date–and who are scattered around the world–to do interviews starting immediately. We have just a few days to make this story happen.

So I start off with the Aztec Massacre expert in the U.K.; I think I have her office number, so I call to leave a message. After all, it’s 11:30 p.m. there.’s her home number–she picks up. Not the way I’d hoped to make her acquaintance, but she’s good-natured about it, and excited about talking with the Times about her work. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice, so the rest of the calls wait for morning. It takes a couple of days to track down researchers that are in Crete for “Sinking Atlantis” (and Crete seems to be riddled with spotty reception), Jerusalem for “Escape From Auschwitz”, (and I’m trying to reach him over Passover, no less) and Seattle for “Doping For Gold” (I talk to him while he sits in the Boston Airport waiting for a plane). Meanwhile, Donald is hustling the photos through internet channels to the Times photo desk.

The day before the story runs, we’re on-call for last minute fact-checking. I drag my Blackberry everywhere–including the ladies room–just in case they need anything. I contact our research and Viewer Services department for more information. I re-send releases and transcripts and synopses to the writer.

That night, I throw pennies into a fountain and salt over my shoulder, wishing for the story to become real (because despite all this legwork, if big news breaks in the 11th hour, our story can get bumped). I hope that it says what we want it to say, and sleep very little.

The next morning, I spring out of bed and log on to the Times, and there it is. The story that just “happened”. After another endzone dance, it’s on to making the next one “happen.”