Crafting pitches that have an ‘OMG’ factor

Guest blogger: Bret Schulte

When I moved from the newsroom to the classroom five years ago, I didn’t worry much about story pitches. As a reporter in D.C. who often had covered the machinations of the U.S. Congress, a pitch meant a few sentences at a story budget meeting; when I needed feedback on something special, I bounced ideas off my editor and waited to hear if the expletive that followed carried notes of optimism or despair.

That changed when I came to the University of Arkansas and started teaching the next generation of would-be journalists, for two reasons: One, they didn’t know what a story was, forcing me to think about it; and two, I was a would-be freelance journalist, unaffiliated for the first time.

Suddenly, I became concerned with story pitches.

I fired off several. All way too long. Very few with much thought of the audience. Some had a topic but no angle. Others were way too dependent on a news hook that required an instant response from editors; conversely, some were too squishy. Usually, the pitches lacked enough reporting. Naively, I even sent some to the inquiries inboxes that publications put out for freelancers for the same reason my grandparents put out flypaper. Fewer pests.

At the same time, I was teaching a feature-writing class that I imagined as something of an enterprise-reporting class. I had the usual mix of bright and talented and dull and bored. At first, I didn’t bother much with the pitching process. We talked in class about what made a good profile, or what made a good news feature, or what made a good human-interest piece. Then, I kicked them out to do their reporting.

Aside from the students who just got it immediately without much help from me, a few things happened. Some students started working on a story only to have it collapse before the deadline; others turned in a story only to hear from me that it wasn’t a story. No conflict. No arc. No news. Sometimes, no sources, or too few sources or inadequate sources. Their grades suffered as a result.

I spent more and more time talking about what makes a story. Eventually, I introduced the idea of formal, written story pitches. Soon after, I required they deliver their pitches to the class and defend their ideas to their peers. They each needed two. Then, because it became clear that better pitches made better stories, I started grading the pitches. A good pitch needed to have a clear news peg, it needed to have sources already on the record. It needed to have an element of conflict, or lacking that, to use the parlance of our time, an “OMG” factor.

Students occasionally complained that pitches require a whole lot of work. Of course, that’s the point, as I figured out myself. When I pitch a story now, the reporting process can take weeks or months.

I do clip searches on LexisNexis – your library likely subscribes – to make sure the publication hasn’t already covered the topic, or if it has, to make sure it’s in a different way or with a different angle. Clip searches are also useful because it teaches me what type of story the publication likes. By knowing what’s been done already – and how – I save myself a lot of time and needless (albeit deserved) rejection. While I’m at it, I figure out the voice. The New York Times sounds different than Columbia Journalism Review. (Seriously, it does.) Pay attention to the publication’s prevailing point of view, the formality of tone, if the writing is for an audience that is niche or general.

Then I begin calling sources. Lots of sources. I’m not going to use all of them for my story, but I want to get the absolute best material for the pitch. Publications know fool’s gold. And if you can’t offer them a bright beautiful nugget of something rare and special, they will go to someone who can. Plus, I want to make sure the sources are there and willing to talk. By the time I’m done, I’ve typically done half of my reporting for the story. I have learned it’s better to put in the time on the front end to sell the pitch than do a fraction of the work and get rejected.

Then, I ignore almost all of it. I take only fragments of what I’ve learned and pack it into something as tight as possible. Understand that where you’re pitching matters. A magazine will expect something longer – I’ve seen some that go five pages; I’ve never gone longer than one – and more analytical, usually. One editor told me my pitch posed too many questions (which I thought I would answer once the pitch was accepted) and not enough conclusions. Newspapers on the other hand expect the pitch to mirror the articles: short, tight, heavy on facts; light on the writer’s analysis.

The pitch should open as a story. Grab the editor by the shoulders and don’t let her go. Dance with her. Take her somewhere new. Does this sound like seduction? It is. Then explain your vision for the story, and how long it will be. If it’s your first time with this editor, give her your bona fides. Include links throughout the pitch backing up your research. Include links to your own clips.

I’ve learned that the easiest stories for me to sell are those that are most particular to where I live. Fortunately for me, I live in Arkansas. (How many times have you seen that sentence?) It’s a land bobbing with OMG stories but with relatively few reporters reeling them in. If I was still living in Washington, D.C., I don’t know what I would do as a freelancer that the legions of media are not already swarming.

Finally, I find the right person to contact. Avoid general inboxes. Find an editor; find the right editor. That process alone has taken me months. Contacts are hard earned and kept like national secrets (back when we still had them). Freelancing is a tough game. So pardon me for keeping that part to myself.

Perhaps the best way to learn how to write a successful pitch is to study them. This site is enormously helpful and contains a databae of examples. And here is one from my own collection, for this story I wrote for The New York Times:

A wave of idealistic young people are settling in the Mississippi Delta, celebrated for the blues but mostly known for its entrenched poverty and poor education. Many of them attended prestigious universities and hail from faraway exotic places, such as New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Wisconsin, Washington state, and Colorado. Some are from elsewhere in the South. Almost all came as part of Teach for America, which annually brings hundreds of young people to serve two-year stints in delta classrooms. Though it was never part of the plan, some have stayed. Perhaps ironically, they say it’s because of the opportunities.

Doug Friedlander is the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Helena, Ark. (pop. 12,000). He’s a native of New York City and a graduate of Duke University. He turned down lucrative corporate work to join Teach for America. After his two years were up, he decided to stay. He helped launch a local Boys and Girls Club and says he wants to rebuild the hard-luck river town. He and his wife, who is from Champaign, Ill., married in a synagogue in Helena that had been recently renovated and dubbed an historic landmark.

Julia Malinowski is the first employee of the Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission. She is a Teach For America alum from Seattle and who served in New York City. She came to the Arkansas delta after finding a job there through a Teach for America website. She said she instantly connected with the TFA alum she interviewed with, Tim Schuringa, who worked in Helena forSouthern Bancorp. “In a small community, you have the opportunity to make a tangible difference and see that difference in a way that’s really impossible in a larger city,” she said. Plus, it’s easier to get ahead. “For a normal person to make it in New York is just so much harder.” Plus, she owns a house. So does her husband, another TFA alum. “So, that’s cool,” she said.

Many TFA alums have continued to teach in the delta schools after their two-year commitment. Some are now principals or in other administrative roles. One has created a public policy nonprofit focused on education in Mississippi. Another is the director of the arts organization in Greenville, Miss. One TFA alum from New York City has opened a yogurt shop in Cleveland, Miss.

Communities are changing as a result. In Clarksdale, Miss., the former home of Robert Johnson, who notoriously sold his soul to the devil for greatness on the guitar, a new café/restaurant is filled with Teach for America workers, who longed for such a place. A local lawyer, John Cocke, put up the money. “There’s no doubt the Teach for America influence was behind its development,” he said. “It’s been good for everybody.” Cocke believes the restaurant will be the impetus for more development downtown.

I think there’s a story in how these urban, middle-class 20-somethings are faring in the delta and what seduced them to a place devoid of cache, at least in the New York sense. Forget about night clubs and Whole Foods. What do you without a pizza place or a movie theater? What does it have that the rest of us aren’t seeing? How are they regarded by locals? Do strange bedfellows make good neighbors?

I look forward to hearing from you.

New.Bret.headshot Bret Schulte, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas, worked as a reporter and associate editor at U.S. News & World Report, 2004 – 2008, covering a number of Washington policy battles and political races, including the 2004 presidential campaign. He interned at The Washington Post and was a Style editor and writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

He freelances for The New York Times. He has also written for Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Nieman Reports, and National Geographic News. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He joined the University of Arkansas in 2008.

He is a winner of three Green Eyeshade Awards, which recognizes the best in Southern journalism, and was a 2012 finalist for a national Mirror Award.

 

 

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