Pitching to the Economist


Getting your work published in the Economist, one of the world’s most respected magazines with a global readership of 4 million, is no mean feat. Doing so with an article about old tyres while still a student is quite an achievement.


Tiffany Stecker, a Franco/American participant in ‘REsearch LAbs for TEaching journalists’ (RELATE), wrote about the TyGRe project while on a tour of Marmara University in northern Turkey. Here researchers are heating old tyres with sand and turning them into silicon carbide, a material worth up to €10,000 a tonne, used in stopping everything from bullets to cars.

It wasn’t an easy sell, but the fact that she had done an internship with the paper gave her a great advantage. It proves an earlier point made by Markus Lehmkul, that getting your foot in the door is half the battle won.

Tiffany still had to fight her corner; much like Seema Jilani, another RELATE participant who has written for papers including The Independent, Guardian and Washington Post. Both had to rewrite their stories before winning over hard-nosed editors and getting their articles into print. Perseverance really is key.

In this brief interview, EJC editor Howard Hudson asks Tiffany how she found her internship, what motivated her to write about the TyGRe project, and how she finally got published in the Economist.

Click here to read Tiffany’s article.


HH: How did you get your internship at the Economist? How competitive was the process and how long did the internship last?
TS: I was enrolled in the City University Science Journalism course in London, and all of the students were required to do a work experience internship once a week. My course director alerted our class that one of the science and technology correspondents at the Economist was looking for someone to help her research palm oil production for a feature. Since I am interested in environmental issues, agriculture and the economic implications of the environment, I jumped on the opportunity. Three people were shortlisted for interviews and I was finally chosen. The internship lasted from October to June. After I completed the palm oil research, I was able to pursue some of my own ideas and published two stories on the Economist Online: one on the environmental impact of health care and the other on my experience at RELATE.
HH: Why did you focus on the TyGRe project?
TS: I liked how the process of turning tyres into silicon carbide had a kind of narrative—from the landfill to an ingredient in disc brakes and bulletproof vests. It also fits in a variety of different subheadings: waste reduction, energy production, green technology. And the collaboration across Europe is interesting.
HH: What was unique and topical about your subject and approach? How did you pitch your article to your editor?
TS: Green tech is always a popular subject, and the imagery of tonnes of tyres polluting landfills was also a sell, I think. My editor and I didn’t always agree about what was interesting about the story. For example, I really wanted to push the fact that TyGRE was a Europe-wide project and that one of the partners was Turkey—a country vying to enter the EU. She suggested that I drop that idea. I was lucky to be in a position where I knew the editors well and could discuss the story with them, rather than pitching an idea to a faceless person and simply getting a yes/no response.
HH: What didn’t they like about it first time around? How persistent were you when they refused?
TS: I think I became too descriptive with the physics and chemistry of the project. The writing was a bit too ‘sciencey’ and not clear enough. Most Economist readers are not scientists and don’t have time to process such complicated stories. The editor who had helped me write the piece was not the same one who was in charge of the science section that week, and instead of asking me to rewrite certain parts, he decided to drop it. I was a little discouraged after that, and thought I had missed my chance and should try to start over with another article. As time went on, I thought the story had gotten old and was no longer newsworthy, so I didn’t push for its publication. After my internship, I did some temp work at the Economist (in a completely unrelated area—business education) and the science editor noticed that my story was still unpublished on the web site. He helped me rewrite some parts and finally published it.
HH: Was it your idea to publish during the quieter month of August? How many people did it reach in total?
TS: I think this was really a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was able to stay at the Economist and continue being in contact with the same people I had worked with during my internship, and that gave me the chance to continue making and developing relationships. According to the editor, it got just under 11,000 hits in the first seven days.
HH: What’s next? What are your future plans for a career in science journalism?
TS: Eventually, I would love to be an editor at the science or environment section of a web site and work more in multimedia journalism. Right now, I am still trying to develop my writing, audio and video skills and applying for jobs. Freelancing can be fun, but I don’t have the network or discipline to make it a successful career—yet!

...What is RELATE?

REsearch LAbs for TEaching journalists (RELATE) is a project funded by the European Commission under the Science in Society research area of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
In 2009-10, 80 young journalists are visiting labs across Europe, interviewing researchers, then publishing their findings. They are ‘embedded’ on week-long study tours, giving them the inside track on all kinds of research.
Project partners include the European Journalism Centre (The Netherlands), Minerva Consulting and Communication (Belgium), and three European research bodies: ENEA (Italy), EPFL (Switzerland) and TÜBITAK (Turkey). In 2010, the project welcomed new labs, including ICFO (Barcelona), INRA (Paris) and LENS (Florence).
Additionally, please see our interviews with Dr Markus Lehmkuhl of the Freie Universität Berlin, Diederik S. Wiersma of the European Laboratory for Non-Linear Spectroscopy (LENS), Alison Fay Binney of the New Science Journalism project, as well as Seema Jilani and Professor Mark Brake of the Science Communication Research Unit at Glamorgan University (UK).
Image: Flickr user CompoundEye