On December 5th the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas: an old tradition that usually involves buying presents for family or friends and writing a poem to go along with it. After years of dreaded rhyming efforts, someone invented an online poem robot. You simply enter the name of the person you bought a present for, their hobbies, home town and some characteristics. With one click on the button you’ve got yourself a poem. If only it worked like that for story pitches…
The Oxford Dictionary says a pitch is “A form of words used when trying to persuade someone to buy or accept something”. When it comes to a journalism pitch, I would add to that: “by convincing the editor that his readers/viewers/listeners will find the story interesting.” (Yes, I used ‘his’ by default here as news editors in particular still are more often male than female, with too many sadly suffering from the ‘grey man in grey suit’ syndrome).
Considering how vitally important a pitch is in the life of a freelancer, and how many journalists these days -by choice or force- become independent, it keeps surprising me how little pitching is taught in journalism degrees. When I meet new freelancers, students or graduates at workshops or mentoring sessions, they almost always ask about how to pitch. In my experience as both a journalist and an editor, I have found that three things that are crucial:
Know the media outlet you pitch to. Read, watch or listen to their output and work out where your story fits. Try to find a certain page, category, programme slot, series or column that suits your story particularly well and mention it in your pitch. It shows that you have done your homework and helps the editor envision the piece in his publication, channel or online. This also is a good way to test whether your story actually fits the outlet you are aiming to pitch to. If you cannot find a good slot for it or struggle to picture it, that medium might just not be the best match.
Research what has been done before. This sounds like a no-brainer but you would be surprised at how often it does not happen. As an editor I once was presented with a pitch almost identical to a story which featured right on our homepage at the time. While it is impossible to check every story in every outlet’s archive before you pitch (particularly in big news media), there is no excuse for not doing at least a couple of quick online archive searches and browsing their latest work and social media posts. If a story has already been covered in some way, you can often find another angle to still pitch it. Do try, but always mention the previous story. It shows you know what you are doing and highlights your creative abilities to engage an audience regardless.
And finally, just have a good story idea. I have written hundreds of pitches to get my own work sold, read many books, blogs, tips and tricks about pitching for my workshops, received and commissioned story ideas as an editor and have imputed into pitches from freelance colleagues and friends over the years. Turns out there is no secret sauce. What ultimately makes a good pitch stand out from a bad one simply is a good idea.