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Pitching perfect

Updated: March 2016
 


Written by Paul Raymond and Rima Marroush

As professionals who depend on journalism for a living, freelancers face the same challenge as any other business: producing a high­ quality product and convincing someone to buy it. 

Two things can make this hard: lack of demand and over­supply. If your country is low on the international news agenda, you may have to find imaginative ways to grab editors’ attention.

On the other hand, your country might become today’s big story. Journalists fly in from all over the world. Suddenly, your biggest challenge is convincing editors that they should commission your work, not someone else’s.

But with a bit of imagination and a good pitch, you can significantly increase your chances of convincing an editor that your story needs telling ­ and that you’re the person to tell it.
 

The Angle

Your starting point is The Angle.

This is the main point of the story, and you need to state it briefly and clearly in your pitch. Editors don’t want to know what subject you’re going to cover ­ problems facing the Russian opposition, for example. They want to know what you’re going to say. Be specific.

“My Number 1 piece of advice on pitching is this: A topic is not a story. Tell me what the story is going to be, and tell me what the point is. The sharper, the better,” says Christian Caryl, editor of Democracy Lab (a Foreign Policy blog).

An original angle, even on a familiar topic, can improve your chances of being commissioned.

“Tell me something new ­ preferably something that will surprise me,” says Caryl. “Offer an original framing that goes against conventional wisdom.”


Why should I care?

Even when your story is surprising or unusual, you still need to persuade the reader that they should care. Think about the reader. A Daesh attack on an oil terminal in Brega could be big news for a Libyan or Arab audience, but probably won’t interest the average Canadian. A colourful profile of a local commander guarding the terminal might.

“When pitching stories you might need to explain WHY this is important,” says Emma Beals of Frontline Freelance Register. “Don't expect the editor to know everything about Libya, they don't.”
 

Link to news themes

One way of making local stories relevant to an international audience is to link them to topical news themes. What’s the big story in the world this month? Does your story relate to it? Can you link to an important anniversary? 

f you’re writing a health story, can you tie it to World Health day? Is an important international conference taking place next week to discuss an issue that affects your story? Try to pitch something in good time to publish on the day.


Pitching Strategies 1: Tailor pitch to publication

It’s worth spending time building a database of outlets, with notes on the kinds of stories they publish and the contact details of editors. Look at the specific sections of a publication. Do they have a regular “Letter from...” section, a personal narrative from a different country every month? Do they run short stories on innovative solutions to environmental problems?

Do they run a weekly profile of a prominent political figure? Do they commission writers to gather material for infographics? Think about the stories you’re working on. It may be that you can tailor your pitches to fit a section you hadn’t thought of.
 

Pitching Strategies 2:­ Pitch multiple editors

Nobody has a 100% success rate when pitching, so it’s worth pitching multiple editors. You can often use one set of research to sell stories in several places.

Two different outlets might commission a 250­ word story and a 900 ­word feature on the same subject, told from different angles or in different styles.

It’s usually a good idea to give the editor a deadline to commission the idea before you take it somewhere else. Remember: you still need to tailor each pitch to the individual editor.


Writing the pitch

Before writing your pitch, ask yourself if you’re ready ­have you done enough research?

“I try to have an idea pretty well hatched and largely reported before I pitch it. So I’d better be right, otherwise I’ll have wasted a lot of time,” says Roy Gutman, a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for Foreign Policy and the Atlantic.

Your pitch needs to answer the basic questions: who, what, where, when and why should anyone care? Once you’ve covered those bases, you’re ready to pitch.

For more advice on what to include and how to write a pitch, check out this blog post.
 
Paul Raymond is a European Press Prize-nominated freelance journalist based in London. A fluent Arabic speaker, he worked for an NGO in Jerusalem for 3 years prior to joining McClatchy Newspapers to report on Syria. Since then, he has reported from Turkey, Morocco and the UK for The Economist, Al Jazeera, Daily Beast, BBC World Service and others. He was a founding member of the editorial team at NewsFixed, a pitching and commissioning hub linking freelance journalists with editors in need of content. 

Rima Marrouch is a Syrian freelance journalist with 7 years of experience as a reporter. Covering mainly Syria and Lebanon, she has also reported from Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Turkey, and most recently Greece and Germany. After graduating with an MA from New York University's Journalism school as a Fulbright scholar, Rima joined the LA Times as special correspondent in their Beirut Bureau. Since then, she has worked for NPR as a Beirut-based field producer, Reuters Video News as a TV producer in London and recently joined BBC Arabic.

Image credit: Nader El-Gadi

 

Go to the next page: Quickfire Q&As with commissioning editors