How to place your story with the right publication

Following on from part one of Dan Synge's tips for journalists from his new book, The Survival Guide to Journalism, this excerpt looks at effective pitching:

So you’ve made some useful contacts and have got into the habit of carrying an ideas book which is positively bulging with great news and feature stories. Now you just need to find a home for them.

Here’s the bad news. Even experienced journalists have trouble interesting editors in publishing their work, so for the novice it’s time to get real and accept that some of your stories just won’t get off the ground.

Those with a clear target market have a head start, however, and a sharp awareness of different titles and their current content will ease the sometimes painful process of selling your story to an editor.

You should instinctively have a feel for which publication is the right tone to approach. If you don’t, this is a skill that, hopefully, you will develop over time.

Say, for instance, you want to write a piece about the pitfalls of adopting African orphans. It should be quite clear to you that the best market for this is a women’s weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement or possibly a parenting magazine. It should be obvious also that the subject matter is not remotely suitable for a teen or fashion title and you can discount these immediately.

Likewise, you can be sure that a story on eco-friendly bars belongs in the food and drink section of a Sunday newspaper and not a car or computing magazine.

The next trick is to know exactly where to pitch your story – if possible right down to the precise section or page. By examining the market in closer detail you are not only widening the odds of your story being accepted, but finding new places where your writing might be published.

You should, by this stage, be clearer about what kind of article you are going to write. Is your story an in-depth profile, an opinion piece or a short news item? Your story subject and angle should guide you.

A proper journalist would never dare approach the editor of a title they had never even read, so familiarize yourself with any new title in detail, noting the page headings where your copy is most likely to appear. This doesn’t count the gossip page ghost-written by the television soap star or the opinion column written by the media-friendly politician, but somewhere within its pages will be an opportunity for a hungry contributor such as yourself.

Knowing when to put your story forward to an editor is another consideration.

You wouldn’t suggest a piece on the attractions of Christmas street markets in the middle of summer (at least not to a daily newspaper). Likewise an investigative report into sleaze and corruption on the professional tennis circuit is probably best left until the build-up to Wimbledon - the exact time of year when practically everybody is focused on the game.

And if you can find a really convincing reason to run your story at a particular date (journalists call it a ‘peg’), then you have doubled your chances of getting a commission.

Popular pegs include:

• linking to a current news story, report or survey

• the launch of something popular (film, book, television series etc.)

• linking to a major sporting, political or cultural event (the Olympic

Games, G8 summit, Glastonbury festival etc.)

• major anniversaries (especially 1, 10, 50 or 100 years)

• linking to a celebrity (you’d be amazed how easy it is to do this)

• seasonal link (Christmas, school holidays, Ramadan etc.)

Exercise: Placing story ideas

Find specific publications and possible publication dates for the following stories:

1 An article on how to give up smoking

2 A story about the sharp increase in mature students at British


3 An investigation into solar powered transport

4 A first-person account of a British woman who left her

family for a Turkish waiter while on holiday

5 A piece about how flirting with work colleagues helps you to

climb the career ladder

Pitching your story

Whether you are a seasoned pro or a new kid on the block, there is no getting round the fact that you will have to pitch any new story idea to an editor.

A really hot news story such as the sighting of a high-ranking cabinet minister leaving a Soho massage parlour doesn’t need much in the way of an explanation; a quick call to the all-too-eager news desk will do.

If, on the other hand, your story isn’t the kind which demands the utmost urgency in terms of exposure or publication time, you may have to spell it out in more detail.

Timing is the key to most successful pitches, and if you can provide your editor with copy that he needs now (or at least thinks he needs now) you are on your way to your first commission.

In my earliest days as a freelance, I was left with no option but to cold call editors, and would be left practically speechless with nerves as they patiently ummed and ahhed as I struggled to interest them in my latest features proposal.

The alternative in those days was to send a brief fax message, but this didn’t always arrive on the intended editor’s desk and could at any time be picked up by a junior staffer and, God forbid, passed off in the next features meeting as their idea. Ideas, incidentally, cannot be copyrighted, so you are taking a chance by giving out information to anyone other than the intended editor.

Nowadays, of course, we don’t actually need to speak to any editor if we don’t want to. We send our story outlines via email and await their reply in the hope of a commission. I have been selling stories consistently to some editors that I have never even met, let alone spoken to, yet the professional relationship hasn’t necessarily suffered.

What they are interested in is your story, not you, so try to spell it out as clearly and quickly as you can. Remember, editors are stressed-out and busy people and in the context of them editing new copy, commissioning high-profile writers, attending meetings and dealing with floods of PR calls, your story proposal is pretty low down on the list.

By all means call an editor if you truly have the confidence in your story and your ability to sell it. In reality, however, this is an undeniably daunting prospect for unpublished writers. Editors too tend to be reluctant to hear from as yet unknown or aspiring freelances.

In this case it is advisable to send them a short email message outlining your idea and approach. Three or four paragraphs should do it. Any more, and your already overburdened editor will switch off and delete.

The Survival Guide to Journalism by Dan Synge is out now published by Open University Press priced £14.99 ©  2010



12th November 2010

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