Pitching stories to media outlets can be tricky. Even the most experienced journalists get rejection letters sometimes. In many cases, journalists have to take one story idea to several media outlets before they’re finally commissioned.
As an experienced journalist, you do know what makes a good and important story. But knowing who to pitch it to and how to present your ideas is almost as important as a good idea.
Research the media
Some media websites will have a special section, outlining their guidelines on freelance commissions and the kind of stories they’re interested in. But even if they don’t, take the time to study their editorial content, research the stories that get accepted from your own country or region, then you will be able to understand what sort of stories and angles they want.
For example, although 7iber.com is a predominantly Jordanian website, they have published stories on topics of a greater interest to a wider population – for example, an interview with the team of Citizen Lab, or this article on visualising media censorship in Egypt.
Some media outlets will have clear submission guidelines which you need to read before submitting a pitch. The Guardian, for example, makes it clear that they do not want stories that have been fully written and cannot read more than one story idea at a time. So check the guidelines in order not to waste your time.
Present a clear pitch that leaves little room for ambiguities or questions
Media outlets receive hundreds of applications every month (Al Jazeera International says it receives 100 pitches a week). In order for your idea to stand out, make sure your email is detailed, but not too long. Specify the angle of the story – “illegitimate children in Jordan”, for example, is too general. But a story that follows two or three young men and women who spent their lives in orphanages because they were illegitimate, and are struggling to assimilate into society as adults, is specific and compelling. Show that you have done enough research (fact-checking, statistics, legal background) and you have access to the the right sources and interviewees to get the story.
Do not forget that editors want to know that you can start straightaway and that you can deliver to a deadline.
Most editors will not commission you on the spot. They will come back with more questions so be sure to have the answers ready and to work on the story straightaway if needed.
Like researching media, it would be good to research strong pitches too. Jessica Reed, an editor for The Guardian, shares samples of pitches in her blog “Pitch clinic”. She gives a clear outline of the reasons why they’ve been commissioned or rejected. But you will notice that, in virtually all cases, she did not commission ideas immediately but had more questions for the reporter. So learn to be prepared to answer more questions.
Prove that you are the “right” or “only” person who can do this story
Many journalists are afraid that their ideas might be stolen. How many times have we heard of a fellow journalist who presented an idea to an outlet, and was rejected, only to find out later that the idea was done by someone else?
The bitter truth in this industry is that there is no monopoly on ideas. Your idea could inspire the editor to do another story, similar to yours, but with a different angle, or they might decide you’re not the right person to do it. You need to prove in your presentation that you have the experience and the knowledge it takes to deliver this story or that you have unique access to the sources or locations. It’s a good idea to present samples of your previous work, or to add names of references – editors or colleagues who could vouch for your credibility and professionalism.
Sometimes, an editor might want to attach another reporter to work with you on the story. If you’re proposing a TV documentary, for example, but you do not have the directing experience, they might propose that you work on this project as an assistant or researcher, while you learn from a professional director. Keep an open mind about such suggestions because it is an opportunity to learn and might create opportunities for the future.
Choose ideas that are different and unique
If the media outlet already has a reporter in your country, then you should avoid pitching stories that their reporter already covers. If your main work as a journalist involves covering political stories for one media outlet, find another outlet that could take a different story from you (perhaps a cultural review, a story on technology, or human interest story).
If everyone is pitching ideas about politics in your country, be the one that pitches something different.