Pitching for Publication: Starting Out


Evolution of a Pitch

Pitching is tricky at the best of times. Things are even harder in the financial crisis, especially if you have little ‘pure’ journalism experience. With this in mind, and as part of its RELATE project, EJC presents a series on pitching best practice. Please see related interviews with Dr Markus Lehmkuhl (Berlin) and Professor Mark Brake (Glamorgan).

The aim is simple: to help young and aspiring journalists get a ‘foot in the door’ and their names in print. Who do I contact?  How persistent can I be? Should I send teasers or links?—Just a few of the questions tackled in the interview below.


Seema Jilani is a physician, a fellow of the Science Communication Research Unit at the University of Glamorgan (GB), and one of the first to join our Research Labs for Training Journalists (RELATE).

As she has already been published in The Independent (UK), The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, EJC asked her about her first pitch and to share a few tricks of the trade.

1. How did you pitch your first article? How did you get your foot in the door?
My first publications were in my local newspaper in the form of blogging.  I had previously worked in Israel and Palestine providing health care, and also reported for a radio station while there.  I remember returning from my trip, lamenting that I was not more proactive and never really wrote about the incredibly intense stories I got from that region. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I contacted my local paper several months prior to my my next trip to the Middle East.  Pitching to a newspaper was a new endeavor for me and I learned a tremendous amount.  I searched online as to who I should contact and came across the managing editor’s name and email address.  I remember thinking that perhaps I should contact someone lower on the executive ladder first, but then decided to close my eyes and hit the send button and see what happens.

I started out by simply stating my profession and that I’d been reading the paper for years.  I think a vital part of pitching is to know your audience and your editors, and really understand their demographic.  Pitching to a local media outlet is a lot different from pitching to mainstream media.  I highlighted that I was a local physician and then appealed to them by mentioning my global scope.  Instead of paying someone to fly and report from the Middle East, here I was, prepared to do this of my own accord.  I tried to highlight that I could be an asset for them, rather than a liability.  This is a difficult quality to cultivate, but an important one in this line of work.

Initially, I didn’t hear back for quite some time.  So I emailed the editor again, saying that I understood that he was a very busy man, but that I thought this professional relationship could be mutually beneficial and worth investing in.  I heard back from him a few days later and secured a blog with the paper; many of my posts from abroad landed on the front page of the online edition, much to my surprise.
2. Do you use teasers and/or refer to previous work?  Do you have a website/portfolio or just link to articles in emails?
I try to keep my initial pitch succinct and to the point.  I first explain who I am, my qualifications, and hint only at a few of my previous bigger publications, mostly to show my credibility and to be taken seriously. I then move on to the story I am pitching for their paper.  The last part of my pitch is usually something that I find many people leave out - I elaborate on my personal connection to the story and why I pursued it.  For instance, when I interviewed ex-Guantánamo Bay detainees, I mentioned that many of them actually worked for charitable non-profit organizations which were subsequently shut down in post-9/11 hysteria.  When I pitched this article, I mentioned how this story impacted me, as someone who frequently works with similar organizations on an international scale.  I have received a lot of positive feedback when I mention this.  I think it piques the editor’s interests and helps them to see me as a person rather than a cold writer on the other end of the email.  Many times I also reference the paper’s prior stories run on the same subject.  This shows that I regularly read their publication, have done my homework, and that I am committed to their paper in particular, not just trying to get published anywhere.  When I reference prior stories, I note what a good job their paper did covering the story and how my story would add another angle or follow up that would be unique.
Usually, if the editor is intrigued, he/she will contact me asking for prior work, clippings, links, etc.  I used to submit my CV in my initial pitch, but later found that I was not getting as many responses with this method.  The recipient often finds it overwhelming to have to sift through websites, links, CVs, etc.  I typically just give a three-liner teaser about my professional history, then add that I would be happy to submit my past work at their request.
I have definitely heard that having a personal website where your work is easily visible and well-presented is the best way to get noticed and it also shows you are a committed professional.  I am working on this but haven’t yet been able to solidify a website; however, I definitely would recommend it and think that it offers an advantage to those who invest in the effort.
3. How important is it to make personal contacts for pitching? How important is networking at festivals, events and conferences?
It is incredibly important to build personal relationships within the field.  These connections will never make up for pure talent, but they certainly do help.  I found this out the hard way.  As a physician, I have minimal contacts in the journalism world and found this to be a great hindrance in many ways.  Like most professions, it is a large but well-connected community and word of mouth carries people rather far.  I found this perhaps the hardest part of pitching – reading an article that really wasn’t all that good in the paper that had just turned me down was rather disheartening… until I realized the author of that article had a personal connection with someone at the paper.  Having your work passed from the hand of a trusted contact into an editor’s hand is priceless and no matter how many times you approach the editor on your own, it will never mean the same thing.  The best way to start making connections is simply to ask others in the field for advice.  Some will be forthcoming and very giving of their time and perhaps you can cultivate a mentorship that way.  Attending conferences and press junkets and other such events will also get you into the field and noticed. 
4. How did you pitch your last article?
My last articles were written during my time in Bosnia.  One was on the anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, which was published in The Independent (UK).  I approached this pitch knowing that The Independent did not have any foreign correspondent on the ground in the Balkans.  While the subject matter wasn’t earth shattering, I knew that every major paper would cover the event, and that tensions in the Balkans were heating up once again.  I wrote to the editors at The Independent and submitted my article on Srebrenica, noting that this would be a good opportunity for them since they did not have anyone reporting directly from the Balkans.  Within days I heard back from them and they indicated their interest in the story.  Later, when I asked why they chose my story, they told me it was precisely because I had a unique angle – not only did I report on the commemoration of the genocide itself, but I also touched on current and more relevant news, such as ongoing ethnic tensions.  In addition, they conceded that it was in their best interest as well, since it would be a report from the ground, not just a commentary.
The next article I published was on my interviews with ex-Guantánamo Bay detainees of European citizenship.  I interviewed a few of Bosnian citizenship, and one that President Sarkozy accepted into France.  All the interviewees were highly coveted, very private and exceedingly difficult to track down.  I emailed close to 85 media outlets for publication, and perhaps received about 10 replies, about 3 of which were solid.  After much perseverance, they agreed to print my story.  I was surprised I did not have a greater interest in the story as these interviews were rather exclusive, but also realized the controversial nature of the piece and that many publications are not willing to take these risks.  Even with the ones that ended up publishing my material, there was an intense editing process and fact-checking sessions that were very time intensive.  My initial dry pitches did not pique anyone’s interests, but I sincerely feel that my amateur and inexperienced way of approaching this might have helped in this situation.  It was after a few passionate emails, detailing my personal connection to the story and appealing to journalistic integrity, that my pieces were actually accepted.  I was told that this sense of honesty was rather refreshing, so perhaps that is something your audience would like to know.
5. What are the main things you learnt between your first and last pitch?
Be succinct, fact check and do your homework, both on the story and the particular publication you are pitching to.  Remind the publication why they need your story, not vice versa.
b) Do not give up easily.  I have come to the realization that persistence is an eloquent way of saying that someone nags.  I have learned that nagging is ok, and sometimes even expected.  I worked with a particular publication for over four months to get a story that I had already written published.  Often, I did not get emails back for weeks, but made sure I sent gentle “reminder” emails to the editors about once or twice a week.  Initially, I thought I was being pushy, but then realized how busy they must be and felt like I was probably just keeping them on track.
c) Be prepared to edit, and edit and edit some more.  Then edit again, and again, and just when you think you’re done, edit even more.  When the publication agrees to take on your article is when the work just begins.  I have learned to go into the process knowing what I will and will not compromise in the editing process.
d) Admit your weaknesses.  I am not a journalist by trade; I am a physician.  Once during a few fast and furious emails sent back and forth between editors and myself, I simply wrote that I would need assistance and admitted my relative inexperience.  At first, I thought I had made the wrong move, but I received overwhelmingly positive feedback from that comment.  It broke the tension and showed that I am amenable to change and willing to work with others cooperatively.  It gave them the freedom to correct me, but also made them feel a moral responsibility and not take advantage of someone new to the trade.  (At least that’s what I like to think.)  They respected me because it shows a great deal of honesty and even vulnerability, which is not easy to do.
e) Tailor the pitch to the media outlet you are pitching to.  It is always important to highlight why your voice is so unique or would be beneficial for them to print. Are you an expert in something obscure?  Do you happen to be in a place where the newspaper does not have a correspondent?  Are you getting the story that no one else is getting?  Do you have a non-traditional slant on the piece?  Ensure you have done your research and ask advice of anyone and everyone you meet along the way.  Even when editors turned me down, I wrote them back immediately, thanking them for their time and asking how I could change my story in the future so it would be more acceptable for their publication.  At the same time, I would urge journalists to know their limits before pitching: What thoughts are you willing to compromise on in your article and what thoughts are you willing to change for publication?  If you do not know this ahead of time, you will be challenged during the editing process and no one likes a journalist who signs on to publish, then backs out at the last minute.  It is important to know how much of your work you are willing to change before you embark on the editing process, mostly so that you do not regret your compromises later. 
Note to editors:

RELATE is a project funded by the European Commission under the Science in Society research area of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Up to 80 young journalists will visit labs across Europe, interview researchers, then publish their findings. Their articles should ‘make sense of science’ for a non-specialist audience. Project partners include Minerva Consulting and Communication (Belgium), the European Journalism Centre (The Netherlands), and three European research bodies: ENEA (Italy), EPFL (Switzerland) and TÜBITAK (Turkey).

As part of RELATE, Seema will visit the ‘Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne’ (EPFL) for a week in November 2009. There she will interview and shadow researchers working on cancer bioengineering. She aims to improve her knowledge of science and journalism, before sharing her findings with the media and general public.