How do you pitch ideas to editors as a journalist and get work? When I was asked this question recently I realised there tend to be three broad approaches. I may well have overlooked others – if so please let me know.
Plan A: Specialist knowledge and contacts
The most obvious way to pitch your journalistic services is to have something that others do not.
Anyone can review a film, rewrite a press release or interview a local MP. But not everyone has built good relationships with people who work in healthcare, or can get the person in charge of transport to return their calls, or knows who organises the local running club.
Picking a specialist field or area and steadily building up contacts and knowledge in that field or area is one of the best-worn routes to a job in journalism for the simple reason that:
- It gets you leads that lead to original stories, and
- It means you can respond to breaking stories in that field more quickly: you don’t need to spend time gathering background information, or finding contacts, and they’ll probably respond to you first.
It doesn’t mean you will always be reporting on that field: it simply demonstrates that you can take on an area and become the go-to person for news there.
It also means you’ll have original stories to pitch, and you’ll hopefully be the first person editors turn to when they need a quick turnaround on a piece in that field.
For that reason, avoid vague and over-populated fields like music, film, fashion or sport unless you really do have personal relationships with Premiership footballers, models, directors and MOBO winners. If you are set on a field like this, pick a niche within it. For example:
- In sport, pick an under-reported sport like volleyball, or a less glamorous aspect like performance data.
- In fashion or music, look at the business side of things
- In film make contacts in areas which are less obvious, like prosthetics, costume and make up
On the whole, the principle is…
Plan B: Responding to demand
Publishing is a business; journalism is writing for an identified audience. That means writing about what the audience want to know about. Editors respond to, and try to anticipate, that demand, and commission accordingly.
If you want to pitch ideas to an editor it’s wise to be anticipating that demand too – ideally one step ahead of the editors themselves.
An obvious aspect of this is planning your editorial diary. There’s a general election next year: what sort of stories are editors likely to want? What events will they need covering, and how? There’s an important decision to be announced next month; a controversial issue to be discussed at a council meeting; an important trial; a significant anniversary.
What rumblings are going on which may erupt in a few months’ time? What problems recur every year or two?
You get the picture. If you can pitch your services for those events ahead of time – including preparing background material, making contacts and looking for leads – then you’re more likely to be successful than if you’re behind the curve.
Plan C: Stories with a unique angle
Besides the ability to anticipate topical developments is the ability to spot timeless, generally human interest, stories.
This relies on meeting lots of people, or knowing where to look on social media, and keeping an ear out for the unusual, the surprising, and the touching. But then following up on that to get all the details needed to tell that story well. Increasingly this also means pictures, video or audio.
Having one or two of these in your pocket is always a useful fallback when Plan A and Plan B don’t come through.
All of the above
A journalist needs to be adaptable above all else, and the three approaches above are not exclusive. Not every editor wants a specialist, and not every editor wants a generalist. Human interest stories can wait.
Certainly having a specialist field is the most productive approach of all, because it also allows you to respond to demand in that field, and you have the relationships to follow up on human interest stories.
But you also need to be able to adapt when you’re sent to cover a royal wedding, or a funeral, or the local schoolteacher who has overcome adversity.
Any other ideas and suggestions very welcome.