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Ask mb

Our new advice column debuts with the lowdown on press credentials.

By Celeste Mitchell - April 11, 2003

Here's what chickenlittle63 once asked on the bulletin board: "I am new to the freelance market, having always had a FT job with a news organization. How does one get press credentials, say, from the New York City Police Department, when you don't have a company writing you a letter to say you work there?"

Chick's got a point: If you're on staff at an established media company, it is easier to get press credentials. But there's no reason for freelancers to fret; even without a staff gig, the sky is not falling. Plenty of indie journalists apply for and receive press credentials.

Press identification cards for New York City are issued by the Commissioner of Information for the New York Police Department. Anyone can apply, but you won't be considered seriously unless you can prove your status as a professional working journalist. Members of the print media must offer relevant clips, and broadcasters should have video or audiotapes that demonstrate work on breaking news stories. Freelance reporters are also asked to present at least two letters from news agencies that have commissioned their work in the previous six months. These credentials will allow holders to cross police and fire lines, and reporters who have them will also often find other non-governmental agencies willing to accept police-department credentials as proof of their press status.

For more information on the NYPD's credentialing protocol, and for an application form, go to the relevant section on the department's website.

But what about folks outside the city? The job of issuing press documents can be handled by different government agencies. Usually, the local police department provides them. Even if they don't in your locality, the public affairs department at your local PD will point you in the right direction.

Although these things are considered a hot commodity and difficult to obtain, some wonder just how useful official credentials can be. In many cities, for example, one can gain access to breaking news events by simply flashing a business card that shows an affiliation with a news agency or your title as an independent reporter.

Take California, where some press credentials are issued by the California Highway Patrol. (Last year alone, the CHP issued 10,800 passes to media professionals, from breaking news reporters to field producers and photographers.) "Everyone wants one of these things," says CHP spokesman Tom Marshall. "Officially speaking, these passes will take you past the yellow tape or a road block where CHP is running the scene. But the reality is, if someone shows up at a roadblock with a business card or an employer's ID, they will be allowed in."

In Portland, Oregon, this form of press documentation doesn't exist. The city operates on something of an open-door policy. That is until recently, when the war forced a slight tightening of the reigns. "Press conferences are considered public meetings and anyone can attend," says Sarah Bott, director of communications in Portland's mayor's office. "For security reasons, we just started asking journalists for identification," she says. "We feel that a news conference is not an appropriate venue for anti-war demonstrations."

Some people believe that a government-issued credential offers special privileges not afforded to ordinary citizens. "There is a general perception that these things will get you out of parking and speeding tickets," says CHP's Marshall. "But that's a myth." And the same is true for easy and free entrance to rock concerts, sports, and other organized commercial events. In order to attend special events, film festivals, and trade shows as a media professional, you have to get approval from the event organizers themselves.

In these cases, the process is usually pretty straightforward. First, check the event's website for contact info for the media relations staffer. This person can give you detailed instructions to follow. At the very least, expect to produce a formal letter from you or your editor indicating what media outlet you are representing "In your letter, include names of places you've been published, whether or not they relate to the topic of the event," says Howard Walker, a veteran freelance journalist who covers the automotive industry. "Apply for yourself only—not for friends and family—and make it clear you are a reporter, and not someone seeking financial benefit."

And, plan in advance. For mega events like the Sundance Film Festival, passes are reviewed and distributed weeks prior to opening day. "We start accepting applications in September with a mid-November deadline," says Patrick Hubley, who handles media relations for the famous festival, held each year in January. "We have limited space available. First priority is given to returning journalists and left over spots go to new applicants." With about 900 picture ID badges to dole out each year, competition is stiff. Consideration is given to media outlets of all sizes and country origins, from high school newspapers to international broadcasting companies. "We rarely accredit freelancers without a letter of assignment from a producer or editor," Hubley says.

So round up those assignments—or at least editors willing to say they have you on the lookout for stories—before you send in your application. But even if you really want to go in unencumbered, searching for whatever story you might find, remember this: Nearly all credential applications are free, so it never hurts to try.

Celeste Mitchell is a New York-based freelance writer based and a writing instructor. She'll be writing "Ask mb" on a regular basis, answering questions posed on the bulletin boards.

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