Interview: Nanci Hellmich

Nanci Hellmich lost a lot of weight 27 years ago and transitioned that into a reporting job covering health and wellness at USA Today, where she has worked for more than two decades.

Nanci Hellmich lost a lot of weight 27 years ago and transitioned that into a reporting job covering health and wellness at USA Today, where she has worked for more than two decades.

PRWeek: Can you tell us a little about your focus and beat at USA Today?

Nanci Hellmich: I've covered fitness, diet, nutrition, and weight loss at USA Today for about 25 years, and we concentrate a lot on the latest research, cutting edge trends, new ideas, that kind of thing.

PRWeek: How did you get into that area?

Hellmich: Actually, I lost a lot of weight myself about 27 years ago, so it was natural.

PRWeek: How has the health and wellness beat changed over the past several years?

Hellmich: Right now, we're focusing a lot on the obesity epidemic and the health impact, so that's been the biggest change in my area. And then it seems to be snowballing, with all the new research in this area.

PRWeek: Health and wellness and fitness are always a great topic for any reader. Do you find that you have a specific demographic that you focus on?

Hellmich: We considered our readers very sophisticated. We know we have a lot of people that are well-versed in these areas, we can tell from the e-mails and the letters that we get. We try to write to a very sophisticated audience in this area, and we try not to dumb down the information. We try to give them the best information we can in an intelligent way.

PRWeek: Where do you come up with the ideas for your articles?

Hellmich: A lot of news, a lot of trends. I go to conferences. I read a lot of studies produced by universities and nonprofit organizations. I read things American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, those kind of groups put out. And then I have my ear to the ground all the time listening to what people are talking about.

PRWeek: Are there any publications you read as research for your beat?

Hellmich: I read a lot. I get tons of new diet books every week and I look at everything that comes into the office. I read a lot of magazines. I look at Web sites. I look at the competition and newspapers. I read a lot of journal articles in major medical areas that affect my beat.

PRWeek: What is your relationship like with PR professionals?

Hellmich: Mostly very good because I think people are pretty sophisticated. When people call me, they usually have a pretty good idea of what I do. That is really good and they are really courteous and ask if I'm on deadline and if I have a few minutes. Most people have thought through what they are going to offer and they kind of know that it might be a stretch for me, but they have an angle. They are very good at honing in on what we might be interested in. I get a lot of good pitches — I get things that are completely not something we would do too. I tend to avoid new product stories, just because there are so many new food products, so many new fitness products, clothes, equipment. If I went down that road, that's all I would do. I pretty much avoid all of those unless it is such an amazing trend that I need to address it.

PRWeek: Do you have advice for any PR pros who want to pitch you?

Hellmich: I would make sure I'd read through a lot of the recent stories [that] we've done in that area just to make sure it's something that they think we might be interested in, to save both of us time. We do have a reporter index on our Web site, and you can read everything I've written for a number of years. And then, just graciously take no for an answer, if I just don't think it's going to work for us. It doesn't help to call a lot of other reporters in our beat. A lot of people say to me, "Well, who else can I call there?" and I have to say, "Everybody is going to send you back to me." If somebody sends an e-mail to 10 reporters, all those other 10 reporters send it to me. We're very conscientious and making sure everything is covered, so we all send each other e-mails that we get, which is very quickly overwhelming if I get 10 or 15 on the same story idea.

PRWeek: What are some of the favorite pieces you've written recently?

Hellmich: For the last five years, I've done an annual weight-loss challenge, and that's been a huge, huge hit with readers, both in the newspaper and on the Internet – getting tons of hits. We do success stories, people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off. They run different lengths. This year, we're running eight weeks; last year we ran 13 weeks. Those are very great reader participation stories. Those have been wonderful. I like the stories we do from conferences. I always cover the annual obesity meeting, and that produces tons of interesting stories. I think last year, 13 cutting-edge stories. One of the stories I got there was that if you eat an apple before a meal, you eat less calories at the meal. And that got hundreds of thousands of hits on our Web site. And we just like that, we just like it when we've hit something that the readers are interested in.

PRWeek: How involved are you with social networking and online media?

Hellmich: We work really closely with our own dot-com people. We're basically one now. We think alike, we work together. And at this point, I'm producing stories exclusively for the Internet, too, and so sometimes something that we don't have room for in the paper and may not quite be something that matches what we do in the paper, we might put on the site.

PRWeek: Do you blog at all?

Hellmich: I don't blog, because I just don't have time. I have a lot to cover, but right now I have my own sort of vanity Web site called DietChallenge.USAToday.com. And that has all of my stories on it. In fact, that's an easy way to see what I'm doing. On that Web site, we have six, right now, experts blogging for us on this area. I find that that's really great because they have the time to really think it through and do like a half an hour or so a day, time I don't have.

PRWeek: Anything else you want to talk about?

Hellmich: No, mostly I find people to be really willing to help me out at every turn and just provide me every detail I need and do it quickly. And I'm very appreciative of the hard work.

Name: Nanci Hellmich

Title: Reporter covering nutrition, fitness, diet, health, and behavior

Outlet: USA Today

Preferred contact method: nhellmich@usatoday.com

Web site: DietChallenge.USAToday.com

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