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Pitching for Publication: What Media Want

20 November 2009 | PROJECT NEWS


As part of its RELATE project, EJC presents the third in its series on pitching best practice.In this interview with Dr Markus Lehmkuhl of the Freie Universität Berlin, we ask what different media want and how to build a network.This follows interviews with Professor Mark Brake and Seema Jilani of the Science Communication Research Unit at Glamorgan University (UK). 


What are your three main tips for pitching science news? 

ML: Well, it depends on where you want to publish. Is it a daily paper, a magazine, or radio? The rules—and chances—of getting published by a magazine are different compared to the chances of being published by a daily newspaper. It really depends on the medium, as each may have very different editorial styles or cultures. The main problem is when the editor doesn’t know who is proposing a topic. 

So trust is important? 

ML: Yes, trust, is a big issue. It is not very usual to propose a full script or a story already written. The editor, so far as I know in Germany and the USA, will want short proposals. They will ask: What is the message? And what is the issue? 

So it is about developing a relationship and then constructing the idea together? 

ML: In general, yes. There is only one area where this is different: regional or local papers. They prefer ready texts, at least in Germany. They do not want to work together with freelancers on the angle or even the main message of the article. They want to have a text that is ready to publish. 

Is that unique to Germany or is it the same in other countries with federal systems, like Spain or the United States? 

ML: I really don’t know. Here it has to do with the difference in the budgets or of the papers. The bigger the budget, the more likely editors will want to work out the main message together whoever proposes the topic. People in the big papers, they usually don’t want ready texts, but rather to influence the story. Editors want to shape things from the very beginning 

How different are things in radio and TV? 

ML: Radio stations are similar to the big papers. They do not want ready texts, they want proposals or short abstracts. When it comes to TV, well, this is not a sector where you can author something without knowing the editorial team. 

So TV is a more closed system? 

ML: It is generally impossible to propose an issue to a science programme on TV in Europe. First of all, we have few specialised programmes that broadcast scientific news. If you want to realise your proposal then you need the help of all the technical staff behind TV programmes. This makes it very difficult to act as a single freelancer on this market. Very difficult. 

Networking at festivals and conferences must be a key way in? For example journalism or EU events. Is that what you’ve found? 

ML: Yes, of course, these are good opportunities for freelancers to get in touch with the staff of news organisations of any kind. This is a crucial aspect because it gives the chance to get in touch personally with people who are decisive in this respect. 

Does membership of the university or a journalism union help your credibility in that sense? Or is it not that simple? 

ML: I think it is not that simple. TV programmes get many, many proposals every day from different people. And it is quite hard to assess how good somebody is, even when he claims to have a degree from a university or whatever. It is very difficult because every media outlet has their own - let’s say – language, their own things they want to have, their own style of writing and things like that. And when they don’t know who is proposing the topic then it is difficult for them. So you have a degree and you may be able to write an article. Fine, but this is not enough. They need people who write in the way they want to. 

How did you get your ‘big break’ as a younger journalist? 

ML: I sold my stuff to radio because I did a one year internship; it is called “Voluntariat” here in Germany. It is an internship, a trainee programme or whatever. This is just a year where the news institution, in this case the broadcaster, educates you to become an editor. And after that, I started my freelance career and sold the stuff to the editorials where I was working for in my internship. This was quite easy. They knew me and I knew them. I knew what they wanted to cover in their sections and so on. This is vital, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible in this respect. So when you are active, and successful in publishing science stuff in the media, then your credibility grows in a way. Other journalists recognise what you did in section a, b or c, and that in turn enables you to work for them too without doing an internship. 

So it snowballs? 

ML: This is one of the strategies we recommend to younger people: that they should start with an internship and after that pursue their freelance career. Starting from this point, they become known by other editors. After that, you can work on more advanced strategies, like getting published in national newspapers (although they don’t pay very well). But you publish your stuff there to become better known by other editorials; they read the national newspapers, and special sections, which are always searching for new authors, new talents. 

What was your toughest pitch to the biggest publication? 

ML: The most challenging for me was to get published in the biggest national newspaper in Germany, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, located in Munich. It was a section for which I hadn’t worked before. It was quite hard to get published here and it took quite a lot of effort. It was a matter of credibility. They didn’t know me and this was challenging for me. But this is 15 years ago at the very beginning of my career. The start is always quite hard. 

So you convinced them through sheer persistence? 

ML: Well, it was the topic that was decisive, because it was relevant and interesting, but specialised to an extent that no other reporters wanted to cover exactly this story. It sounded interesting, but nobody else in the paper wanted to cover this topic. And that was decisive. 

The unique angle was the key? 

ML: Yes, well, it was also the topic. They did not have this topic on their screen. But it was relevant and so they decided to publish it. But, once again, it was not a full text. I made my proposal based on an abstract. That was it. 


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). Dr Markus Lehmkul sits on the Advisory Board for the RELATE project. 

Embedded Science Reporting with RELATE
Week-long encounters brought journalists and researchers together, getting researchers out of ivory towers and journalists out of deadlines. These punctual collaborations paved the way to a more knowledgeable and trust-based relationship between researchers and journalists, improving, ultimately, the quality of science reporting.