Pitching is a skill and an art that journalists should master. In our field, it’s so important to know how to summarize a story in a few sentences and pitching a story to an editor is just that. When you pitch a story, you’re making a case for that news outlet to run it and have you report it. This is especially crucial for freelance journalists.
I’d say that a pitch needs to tell an editor three things: 1) the nuts and bolts of the story 2) why it matters now 3) who you’re gonna talk to (your access).
A good pitch starts with research and I can’t emphasize this enough. Primary sources – talk to people on-the-ground; make your phone calls, get in touch with a journalist in the community who knows what’s up. There’s no substitute from hearing from the people at the grassroots. Then, you can talk to people who may be further away from where the story happened but who are also following it, like a security analyst or scientist. When you’re calling folks to get information, it’s a good idea to let them know that you’re not actually interviewing them. If they think it’s an interview, they’re gonna expect to see the published story and you’re not even sure if you have one yet. So here’s what I tell people, “Hello, I’m doing preliminary research for a potential story that I’d like to work on. Do you mind talking to me about…?” The buzz words here are “preliminary research.” I think reporters who are just starting out may sometimes forget that half the work is research. You may have to visit a library. That leads me to the next source.
Read what’s been published about the issue, secondary sources. Follow conversations about the topic on social media, too. You’ve got to let the editor know what kind of access you have to really capture the story and offer any exclusive reportage. Access means the connections and entry points you have to get into the story. In journalism, access is everything.
Then, when you’re ready to write your pitch be sure to pitch a story not an issue. The difference? An issue is a topic. A story has a subject, a beginning, middle and an end (even if you don’t know the ending at the time of pitching).
Pitch: I want to do a story on climate change in Mozambique.
This is an issue and we don’t want to pitch issues. We’re in the business of pitching and telling stories. So, let’s reframe it:
Pitch: How Muslim and Christian groups are helping farmers and fishers in Mozambique’s coastal communities mitigate the effects of floods, cyclones and droughts
With the second pitch, we have an idea of subjects: fishers, farmers and religious people. We’ve narrowed the region of interest to Mozambique’s coastal communities and we’ve specified the elements of climate change that the story will focus on to flooding, cyclone and droughts. When putting the full pitch together, include statistics, like this: Mozambique’s coastal cities are among the most vulnerable in Africa to climate change. By the 2040’s, Mozambique’s coast could lose up to 4,850 km2 of land and almost 1 million people could be forced to migrate inland.
Here are real pitches that I’ve sent to editors:
1) Pitch on criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria for Al Jazeera
Pitch: Nigeria’s recently signed anti-gay bill, colloquially known as “Jail the Gays” has garnered a wave of approval from a majority of Nigerians and resounding condemnation from the international community, including the UN Secretary General. The law bans all gay associations, with penalties up to 14 years’ imprisonment for marriage. Police raids in major cities have begun taking place, with at least 4 arrested, according to Amnesty International. The gay community is reacting- some are speaking out, while others are going further underground. This story profiles an openly gay Nigerian man and includes voices from activists and those who can speak on how this controverial legislation will affect the country.
Here is the published story: Gay Nigerians targeted as ‘un-African’
2) Pitch on the political activism in the DRC’s Catholic church for Voice of America
KINSHASA CATHOLIC CHURCH For decades, the Roman Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been on the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, demanding government accountability and human rights for the people. Responding to pressure from rights group, governments, local civil society organizations and the Catholic Church, President Joseph Kabila recently announced that he will not be seeking a third term. Elections are slated for December. The Catholic Church is keeping pressure on the government to ensure that free and fair elections hold as scheduled. But some church members are paying a price for their activism, living in hiding and some have even been killed in recent protests. In this story, we meet members of the Catholic Church and the family of a slain activist to learn more about their demands for a better democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Published story: DRC’s Catholic Activists Keep Up Fight for Democracy
3) Pitch on scientific innovation in Rwanda for Voice of America
RWANDA – LOOKING FOR AFRICA’S EINSTEIN
The search for Africa’s geniuses will kick off at a massive three-day forum in Kigali, Rwanda from March 26-28. Sixteen African scientists have been chosen to compete in a competition that will award innovative projects aimed at solving problems in African communities. In this story, VOA meets some of the innovators and learns more about their creative tech.
Keep in mind that every news organization will have a house style for how to pitch. Some may have a document that you have to populate with information. Some places are more flexible. You should know what a slug is. If you’re going to include photography, mention that, also give an idea of the word count for the story. The way you pitch to an editor you’ve worked with several times will be very different from the way you pitch to a new one. I’d say to keep pitches punchy, short and engaging. Lead with something that will grab the editor’s attention. Finally, if your story ends up steering away from what you’ve pitched for whatever reason, that’s OK too, just let the editor know because changes could affect the way the news organization frames the coverage.
There you have it. Later, I’ll talk about how to pitch a TV story.