The Power of the Pitch: Top Journalists and Editors Discuss How to Craft the Perfect Pitch

Watch the first installment of our new speaker series, Sentient Sessions, for tips and tricks on rising to the top of your editor's inbox.

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The Power of the Pitch, the first in the Sentient Sessions series, brought together a group of award-winning journalists and managing editors who shared their insights into what it takes to craft a successful pitch.

The panel was moderated by Jasmin Singer of VegNews and Our Hen House, and featured Twilight Greenaway, contributing editor at Civil Eats; Jesse Hirsch, managing editor at The Counter; Rachel Krantz, journalist and founding editor at Bustle; and Leighton Woodhouse, journalist and filmmaker.

Identifying Outlets and Editors

Read the (news) room. Before submitting a pitch, it’s crucial to understand what the outlet does and does not cover so that you can tailor your pitch and your story to match the needs of the editors. The panelists unanimously stressed the importance of recommended reading whatever target websites you have in mind, understand the topics and scope of their coverage before submitting. Questions to keep in mind are: Even if they’ve published animal stories, is their focus local, national, international?

Build relationships with outlets and editors. Freelancing isn’t just about the writing. As Leighton shared, it’s an industry of relationships—so putting effort into forming them is a wise investment. When he started out, he was under the assumption many newbies make: that casting a wide net is likely to score you more deals. And he pitched more established, well-known brands with the thinking that these may prove attractive on future pitches. However, the approach that ultimately worked best was to focus on one outlet, develop a relationship, and pitches are more likely to be accepted since they are becoming familiar with you and your work.

Rachel emphasized the importance of relationship-building with editors. Be strategic in your approach: select editors, writers, or even bloggers from a publication you’d love to pitch, or someone with a career you’d like to emulate. Check out Don’t be afraid to reach out to folks and invite them for coffee or lunch—there’s nothing like face-to-face interaction to develop rapport (in a post-pandemic world, of course). Twitter can be a great resource for relationship-building—only make sure to be strategic about your approach. Like or favorite what they are saying, retweet their stories. Just don’t be a “spambot” about it.

Flattery gets you far. Regardless of your approach, keep in mind that a little flattery can go a long way: showing that you’ve read and appreciate the work editors or other reporters are doing is a nice touch that can help get you noticed.

Here are a few resources for connecting with editors:

Pitching Perfect

Ingredients of a perfect pitch: Crafting successful pitches takes time. Although it can be tempting to fire off the same pitch to numerous outlets and hope for a bite, it’s often a more effective strategy to take the time to tailor each pitch to the editor and outlet. Twilight laid out some tips on what she believes makes the perfect pitch:

  • Novelty: it’s a story or angle their team hasn’t thought of.
  • Access: if you’re promising an interview, either have already conducted it, or secured concrete commitments that make you certain you will be able to deliver. If your pitch requires an on-site visit, secure permissions from the facility before pitching.
  • Right person: convince editors why you are the right person to write this story (based on experience, perspective, access, etc.). This is especially important for op-eds.
  • Quick turnaround: especially when there’s a timely news component.
  • Luck: understand that a lot of pitch acceptance has to do with the right place, right editor, and right time.

Overall, keep pitches short and the focus narrowed in order to respect editors’ time. Include a short two-sentence bio that includes hyperlinks to some of your previous work.

Grab attention quickly. Rachel provided these tips for getting the attention of an editor. Keep in mind editors frequently receive hundreds of pitches each day:

  • Make sure it doesn’t read like a press release.
  • Make sure it is right for the tone of the site.
  • Make sure the story hasn’t been covered recently.
  • Include “timely” “time sensitive” in the subject line. If it’s pegged to current news, mention this.
  • If you’ve got certain qualifications or relevant experience for the piece, list those in the subject line. E.g. “Pitch from Bustle editor” or “Pitch from [marginalized community]”
  • Mention any contacts you may have at the given outlet.

Simultaneous pitching. Panelists were divided on the issue of whether it is acceptable to submit pitches to different outlets simultaneously.

Jesse said The Counter tends not to be too “sniffy” about this. However, he acknowledged some editors do take issue with it. Twilight shared how frustrating it can be for an editor to be keen on a pitch, only to find out the writer took it elsewhere. It can amount to a waste of an editor’s limited time, and she cautioned against burning bridges with editors, which can be especially damaging for folks just starting their freelancing careers. One way to avoid this is by extending editors the courtesy of reaching out to let them know you will be submitting or publishing elsewhere. This is more acceptable especially if your pitch includes a timely scoop that can’t afford to wait for 2 weeks to hear back from an outlet.

Op-eds. Jasmin emphasized the importance of knowing the exact specs for opinion pieces, which can vary outlet by outlet. Things like word count and style are important to abide by.

Because op-eds are different from regularly reported pieces, in that they reflect your personal opinion, it’s best to give editors more of a feel for how you plan on executing the piece. Rachel shared her success with submitting full drafts of op-eds, in particular, since editors won’t be left wondering how your opinions will play out in the piece.

Finally, op-ed pitches must reiterate why you are the correct person to write this, based on your experience, education, social locations, and so on.

Getting Animal Rights Stories Published

Find the human angle. This is particularly important when pitching to outlets that aren’t focused on animal rights. Find a human angle to the story—which can take the form of a human protagonist, a labor issue, or connections to the climate emergency—will make the story appeal to readers that aren’t yet conditioned to care about animals.

Know your stuff. Make sure to do sufficient pre-reporting: understand the issue beyond reading a few articles about it. Have interviews prepared, and keep up-to-date on emerging news on the topic as it arises.

Find sympathetic editors. There are many editors who care about animal causes and will be more likely to accept a piece on animal rights. However, these folks might work at publications that aren’t focused on animal issues, so they aren’t all that easy to find. Fortunately, Rachel’s Twitter followers include a bunch of editors who tend to be interested in animal rights stories.

What is reasonable, and not, for a new freelancer, in terms of compensation?

Starting out very small. The unfortunate reality is that freelancing is often unsustainable, especially for those just starting out. Leighton called awareness to the fact that journalism is an industry in crisis, and not to take things like low pay personally. He provided an example of a story that took him five days to produce that paid $250—a pretty low hourly rate. Yet this tends to be typical of freelancing.

Bigger isn’t always better. A common misconception is that bigger outlets pay more money. However, it is often the case that these outlets actually pay less. They know people will take less money as long as they can get the cache of a fancy name for their byline. Yet as mentioned earlier, this doesn’t always amount to greater pitch acceptance. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is—and another reason why targeting smaller publications is a good idea.

Anchor job. It’s common for freelancers to have a steady job on the side, especially when they are just starting out—and often even when they’re getting published regularly. One way to publish animal rights stories on the regular is to encourage one of your favorite nonprofits to hire you as a writer so that you can regularly produce content while being paid a living wage.

The next instalment of Sentient Session, Nothing But the Facts, is happening on July 23, 2020. Get your ticket today.

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