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How To Pitch Your Story To Editors

Oli Rahman

NCTJ graduate Oli Rahman

What are commissioning editors after from their freelance writers? How do you get published? What do you need to know about how the whole process works? Oli Rahman shares his tips…

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a free pass for a Guardian Masterclass to find out how to write the perfect story pitch.

Speakers included Time Out’s features editor Caroline McGinn, The Guardian Comment Is Free editor Natalie Hanman, and Delayed Gratification’s Editor Rob Orchard.

They all gave us their insight into how to pitch to editors, starting with something that rarely gets discussed: what does an editor’s job involve?It turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly) that they’re extremely busy people.

They’re struggling to keep the advertising team happy by ensuring that their copy contains a few references to toasters or some other irrelevant product, but they’re also trying to make sure they don’t break too many hearts by ‘spiking’ stories (killing them off before they go to print). And then they have to think about the budget and deadlines on top of that.

Being an editor in short, can be a stressful job. That’s why, when sending in a pitch, you need to be sure that it is something they feel is worth taking the time to read.

Imagine your name is John Doe and you are the features editor for Country Living Magazine. An email arrives in your inbox:

“Dear Joan,

I’m a journalist and I have a great idea for a feature for County Life Magazine.

I know that County Life is an amazing magazine with lots of amazing stuff to do with the county. So I was thinking of writing a feature about amazing stuff in the county, such as riding on horses and rolling in hay scented fields!

Please let me know how much you will pay me for my awesome skills with words.

Regards

Ben Smith”

Hopefully there aren’t many out there who would write something quite as bad as this, but it serves to illustrate my point. It captures everything wrong that can go wrong with a pitch email. It states the obvious “I’m a journalist” (No, really?) and is clearly a generic email that has been copied and sent to lots of people and only hastily edited.

The idea is mentioned but not actually elaborated on. There’s no talk of pictures, and the slightly pushy question about pay is inappropriately early. The pitch doesn’t seem to be tailored to the publication in any way. To add insult to injury, the editor’s name is misspelt, as is the publication’s title. And the idea itself sounds awful.

What an editor actually wants is a person who takes away the stress of them having to use their imagination – they already have far too much on their mind as it is. They want the idea to be almost fully formed so that they can picture how it would look on a page.

Including pictures or at least giving ideas about where good images could be sourced from is always advisable. Being polite can also work wonders. If an editor suggests a change it’s probably because they know their readership a lot better than you do as a freelancer.

The template pitch below is from Timeout’s features editor. She described it as the best pitch email she received in 2012:

“Hello Caroline,

Hope you’re well. I’d like to pitch this story to you as a potential 2-page feature for Time Out magazine. You’re always great at finding a new angle or new way to see the city, so I think Time Out would be the ideal place for it.

Urbex- London’s Secret Explorers.

SELL The rise of place hacking in the capital

When it comes to secret spaces there isn’t a better place to be than London. The combination of dereliction and development in the capital means there are dozens of places people don’t want you to go.

But that hasn’t stopped ‘place hackers’, professional urban explorers who, every night, go in search of the city’s off limit areas. The movement is spearheaded by Professor Bradley L Garrett, a researcher at the University of Oxford, who used the activity as the focus of his dissertation, and subsequently became one of Urbex’s key members in the process. He’s also developed a reputation among police and building site owners as a menace, and has subsequently been arrested (on a plane on the way back from Singapore), and had his house searched by the authorities.

The feature goes in search of the activity known as ‘urbex‘ and the man who leads it- Garrett is releasing a book on his time as an urban explorer later this year.

Links to images below.

I write regularly about new happenings in London on my blog, which you can see here: xxxxxxx.com

I’d love the chance to speak to you about this idea and whether you think it might be appropriate in some way for Time Out.

Many thanks for your time,

John Smith”

There are no clear rules for the right way to pitch, but according to the editors I heard at the masterclass, the above email is pretty close to perfect.

Always remember: the more you’ve thought about your piece and why you’re the right person to write it before you pitch, the less likely it is to end up being deleted or ignored.

Have you struggled to get your story pitches picked up by editors? Or have you been successful with your ideas? Share your thoughts by commenting below or joining the debate on Twitter with @Journograds

Reporting Overseas And Making Contacts

Olivia Crellin in Ecuador

Olivia Crellin reporting for The Guardian International Development Competition from Ecuador

Graduate Olivia Crellin has freelanced internationally for major news providers. In the second of a three-part series, she shares her tips on finding work overseas…

One of the great aspects of starting out abroad is that when you pitch your story to the international editor of a paper back in London, New York, Sydney or wherever, he or she is not asking themselves whether you are a 22-year-old,  fresh-faced graduate or a seasoned pro.

All they want to know is what the story is about and in as few sentences as possible. Ideally that pitch email should be less than 200 words.

This set-up is a great leveler. As long as your ideas are good (and yes, there is a certain amount of confidence needed to stick by these and shop around with them a bit) you have a head start.

Being somewhere where others aren’t

You are on the ground. Instead of competing with every journalism graduate for those coveted internships in London, you may be the ONLY journalist in Yemen when a revolution happens – as was the case with my friend Tom Finn – and then EVERY outlet will want a piece of you.

The first piece of professional journalism I had published was a sports blog on Chilean rodeo for The Economist, of all publications!

The editor liked the idea and knew he needed my local byline, so he invested the necessary time and effort into the piece during the editing process and I learned a huge amount just from that one encounter.

Network like crazy

When you arrive in the country, or even before, don’t be afraid of getting in touch with the competition.

They can help with mundane issues, like telling you where the best places to rent are, or what to do if you have a visa crisis, or which specialist shops sell the home comforts you crave!

While you will definitely feel much lower on the food chain than the bigger correspondents for outlets like the BBC, Al Jazeera or Financial Times, these journalists can be great sources of advice, contacts, and work.

I would often get hand-me-downs from other journalists who couldn’t take work like fixing or radio interviews because they were busy with other stories or on holiday. They can also become great friends (or salsa partners!) in what is often a lonely business.

Local journalists or photographers, especially those who work for international media, are also very good people to know. This is their country after all.

While their grasp of English and contacts might stop them from writing for UK or US media, they will probably still have great ideas they could feed you and may even be willing to collaborate.

I almost set up a mini-bureau with a Reuters cameraman, New York Times photographer and another Chilean journalist – the idea would be that their contacts and local knowledge combined with my English would generate more work for everyone.

When you get back home keep those contacts up. You never know when someone may be looking for a fixer or an expert in the country you have just come from.

Local English-language papers

Doing what I did – taking an unpaid internship at an English language paper in Santiago for the first four months – is also a shrewd move, which I would definitely recommend.

These establishments are full of people with contacts, connections and knowledge of the country you have just arrived in and will automatically give you a platform for your work. If you are lucky the editor will be a journalist with more experience than you and could also act as a mentor.

Producing work for one local outlet, even if it is very small, can help you to focus and keep you writing (unlike just blogging, which can sometimes feel pointless, difficult to sustain and alienating), while plans for bigger ideas that you can pitch back home can continue to develop until you feel ready to tackle them.

The social atmosphere of papers like these is also invaluable and can give you a safety net of people who know you and can help out if you have any tricky situations or are finding it difficult making friends with locals.

If these papers pay for work, then offer to freelance for them too. Don’t underestimate the paper’s status as a go-to for international media.

My first on-air journalism gig was for the BBC on my second day at the paper when a producer phoned up asking for a specialist for a story they had come across. Two hours later, when I was chatting away with the show’s anchor, I was that expert!

Olivia Crellin is a freelance journalist who has covered stories overseas for the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian and The Economist. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter @OliviaCrellin.

Journalism Abroad: How To Get Started

Olivia Crellin Malawi

Olivia Crellin reporting overseas in Malawi

Graduate Olivia Crellin has freelanced internationally for major news providers. In the first of a three-part series, she shares her tips on finding work overseas…

Just dropping everything and going abroad may seem scary, but if you don’t like the idea of further study or being placed within the structured, rigorous confines of a grad scheme, then starting your journalism career away from home may be the perfect move.

Graduating with absolutely no idea of what you want to do can be daunting. I intended to put off all of those ‘serious career decisions’ by taking a post-uni gap year in South America.

I had been a reporter and editor for a couple of my university newspapers but I still was not convinced I wanted to be a journalist.

My journey

I persuaded myself that I was being very sensible by getting all those South American clichés (following the Inca Trail, salsa dancing until dawn and eating steaks as thick as my bicep) out of my system while I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Plus, the UK was still in the grip of a recession.

In fact, it turned out there was no need to persuade myself of anything. A year later my ‘serious career decisions’ were miraculously made for me (at some point between dodging Molotov Cocktails in the streets of Santiago and reporting from Ecuador for The Guardian!)

Throughout my time abroad I’ve been able to build a serious portfolio of work, been offered a place at Columbia University in New York to study a Journalism Masters, and gained a readership that includes Julian Fellowes (email me if you want to know the story behind this one).

So, if this sounds like an option you hadn’t explored but are willing to, you will want to know the following – how can you prepare yourself before your trip, and what are some of the key things you should be taking into account?

Location, location, location

It may sound obvious, but think about where you want to go. Do you already have family or friends in a place that could provide you with free accommodation or contacts?

Did you study languages at university or have a particular connection to anywhere in the world? What is safety like for journalists in that country and are there any official schemes or internships in place in the region?

Of course, be strategic. For example, Syria might not be the best place to head off to as a beginner, but Turkey could be a clever move. It’s right next to Syria and will be getting a lot of refugees streaming across its borders, bringing with them a lot of news and stories of their own.

Learn a language

If you just want to stick to the English, you naturally have a lot of options – many parts of Africa, India, and Pakistan to name a few.

I would say, however, that picking up another language is immensely rewarding – both on a personal level, and for your career.

After returning to the UK I spent three weeks as an intern with the BBC World Service. I was the only member of my team who spoke Spanish during the days that Hugo Chavez died, and then when an Argentinean was announced as Pope.

Brits are impressed by foreign language skills and even if you decide at some point journalism is not for you, you have a skill for life that could lead to very exciting opportunities, completely unrelated to your current aspirations.

Lay the foundations

Before you go it is best arranging meetings with foreign editors at the publications that you would like to work for. I never did this when I set out – mainly because, at the time, I wasn’t intending to work professionally.

I’m planning on heading off again though and will be making a wish list of those I want to meet face-to-face over a coffee. That way, when my email lands in their inbox, they might be slightly more inclined to open it.

Another journo grad friend of mine who is planning a move to Turkey later this year recently met with editors, taking his CV and portfolio with him.

He got up early that day, checked the wires and local Turkish news and wrote up an article specifically aimed at the editor he was visiting. “That is what I would have written for you today had I been your stringer in Istanbul,” he said.

The editor didn’t even look at the portfolio or CV but read the piece and promised to look at future work my friend sent. Nifty move that I will definitely be employing myself in the future.

Olivia Crellin is a freelance journalist who has covered stories overseas for the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian and The Economist. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter @OliviaCrellin.

Journo Course Costs Can Be ‘Huge Barrier’

Oli Rahman

Oliver Rahman – studying hard for media law

NCTJ trainee Oliver Rahman stresses the importance of formal training but questions the costs…

Ex Sun-Editor Kelvin Mackenzie expressed his views on journalism education in 2011 by saying: “I’d shut down all the journalism colleges today. If you want to be a print journalist you should go straight from school and join the local press.”

To some extent I agree. I’ve already written about how much I love local journalism, and the way it can be a brilliant training ground for budding reporters.

But the idea that formal journalism education is a waste of time has problems. Being taken on as a trainee directly after school with minimal qualifications, as Kelvin was, seems unlikely in today’s world.

I take his point about how colleges have become a great business model for semi-retired journalists, and in some cases are exploitative.

But the world is less forgiving of reporters in the wake of Leveson, and much more is expected of them.

As an editor you can’t just send a person with no understanding of media law or shorthand to do court reporting. You might end up on the wrong end of a defamation lawsuit.

Nor can you expect a high standard of news copy from someone without some formal training.

Mackenzie’s assumption that journalism education focuses too much on theory is something I disagree with, as my own experience of the NCTJ suggests that it is more practical than theoretical.

Education is never a bad thing, although affordability can be a huge barrier.

Less privileged kids stand little chance of breaking through; their parents might be unwilling to support them through endless stints of unpaid work experience, or perhaps they are unable to afford the training.

Take for example The Guardian’s masterclasses. A feature writing course costs £400, and an investigative journalism course £500.

It seems hard to justify these prices, and there’s no doubt that they would only be available to a privileged minority.

It would be brilliant if newspapers were still prepared to snaffle up the smart school leavers and train them up into premier news hounds.

Getting onto a traineeship with the BBC or a great local title is what most people would do if they had the opportunity, but with the dramatic increase in the number of hungry university graduates, this can never be guaranteed.

Mackenzie would be right if we lived in a perfect world.

What do you think? How important is formal journalism training, and are the costs always justified? Tweet us your views @Journograds or leave a comment below

Telegraph Scheme Is ‘Perfect Laboratory’ For Real World Of Journalism

Telegraph journalist and former graduate trainee Jonathan Liew

After being crowned Guardian Columnist Of The Year at the 2007 Student Media Awards, history graduate Jonathan Liew wrote for various sports publications before landing a place on the Telegraph trainee scheme…

Fast-forward to a year later and Liew had secured a full-time role at the broadsheet as a sports writer, where he’s since covered major tournaments and events ranging from the latest football, cricket and rugby world cups to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.

Today, the 2011 SJA Young Sports Writer Of The Year continues to provide comment, opinion and analysis for the paper (when he’s not being taught how to throw a javelin by Olympic athletes or attempting to set a record in the pizza box long jump).

We caught up with Liew to find out how the scheme helped him kick-start his journalism career:

Q: What was your background prior to starting the Telegraph graduate scheme? Did you already have much experience in journalism?

A: Four years at Edinburgh University, where I putatively did history but in reality did very little of anything. Except the student newspaper, which in retrospect was probably where it all started.

I did try and get involved in the school newspaper when I was about 16, but because of my reputation as a ‘troublemaker’, failed to get a look-in, despite being the only person in my year who knew what the word ‘soporific’ meant.

The man responsible for that decision was a crotchety, whimsical fellow called Mr Keenlyside. He’s dead now. Those two facts are almost certainly unrelated.

From Edinburgh I sent off a few letters to various publications that interested me. I didn’t go crazy on the letter-writing, partly because I didn’t generally rise until about 2pm, but partly because somebody from the Wisden Cricketer magazine wrote back, sardonically pointing out that writing letters was “a bit 20th century”.

So I did two weeks there, which led to a feature which I sort of pitched a few months later and suicidally attempted to write at the same time as my dissertation. I also did a couple of weeks at the much-missed Observer Sport Monthly, followed by another month during my final year of university.

Those four weeks were my first taste of paid journalism. Back then, the idea of actually getting paid to do journalism seemed giddy, fanciful and ridiculous. Now, of course, it seems… well, much the same.

Q: Looking back, why do you think your application was accepted? What unique qualities do you think you were able to portray?

A: I wasn’t even on the interview shortlist for the Telegraph scheme. I got a call telling me I was on the reserve list, and that if someone dropped out, I could have an interview. Someone clearly did drop out.

I went down to London, got on the Tube for the first time in eight months, got lost, and turned up dishevelled and 20 minutes late.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that it was probably the interview that did it.

It was the easiest, breeziest, most pleasant interview I’ve ever done. I cracked jokes, I spoke with brevity and precision, I neatly sidestepped the question about whether my own political views aligned with the Telegraph’s (as my mother once told me, there are three things you should never discuss in polite company: politics, religion and your aunt’s wooden leg), and showed them clear, concrete examples of my work.

The feature I wrote for the cricket magazine seemed to impress them. They liked how I’d just pitched it, done all the work for it and written it. It showed gumption. They’re still waiting for me to show gumption again.

Q: How challenging was the application and interview process? What advice would you have for any graduates looking to apply to this year’s scheme?

A: It was hard. But it wasn’t hard like an exam, which you can revise for. And it wasn’t hard like a court case, where you’re either guilty or innocent.

This was more hard like appearing on television or radio. Needing to think on your feet, and sound clever, and be clever, and remembering to smile, and remembering to make eye contact, and remembering not to cite the cryptic crossword as your favourite section of the newspaper.

It’s a multi-skilled, multi-layered juggling act, which I think is why girls tend to do better out of the process than boys. Being a girl is one long juggling act. I sense I’m digressing, though, so, um, just be yourself.

Q: What do you think were the most valuable skills you gained from taking part in the scheme?

A: Practically, shorthand helped a lot. Law helped a bit. Learning to operate a video camera that was about to become obsolete did not help a great deal.

This is going to sound nebulous and boring, but perhaps the best thing about the scheme was that you essentially got to learn how news works. What makes a story, and what doesn’t.

You may think that as a consumer of the media, you know what you want to read, but you don’t really. You only really know that you want to read something after you’ve read it.

Journalism is essentially the process of working out what people want to read before they do. The new idea, the fresh angle. How do we present it, and when do we put it out? Writing is just the easy part.

That’s what I learned, anyway.

Q: How were you able to impress during your time on the scheme and secure a job afterwards? What advice would you give to future trainees looking to do the same?

A: The regional placements were a bit of a laugh, to be honest. I did some work, but not a lot, and certainly nothing important.

In fact, the highlight of my entire time in Glasgow was getting off with Izzy, the beautiful, dainty, flaxen-haired video journalist, at the pub one night, and spending the next month unsuccessfully trying to close the deal.

Getting back to London, and actually inside the Telegraph, was a different matter entirely. It was a perfect laboratory for the real world of journalism, in that the quality of your work mattered a lot less than getting to know the right people.

I got to know David Bond, the sports editor (now doing a very fine job at the BBC), and over a momentous if slightly unconventional conversation in the gents’ toilets, he casually asked if I would be interested in filling a vacancy they had in the department.

Up to that point, I had displayed little more than a working knowledge of more than one sport and a willingness to go to Milton Keynes on a cold Monday night to cover League One football.

Q: What was the most challenging task you were set during your time on the scheme, and how were you able to rise to it?

A: Man, these are getting hard! I’d have to say it was probably the time PA sent me to stake out the BBC during the whole Andrew Sachs palaver and wait for Mark Thompson to come out.

I got there at 8am and spent eleven hours in the deadening cold, holding a microphone up to a motionless door, unable to eat, drink or go to the toilet in case the Director General should emerge at that exact moment.

Eventually, at about 7pm, he did emerge, walked 20 yards to a waiting car, and got in, although not before I was able to shout: “WILL YOU RESIGN, MR THOMPSON!” at him.

That was my day. I don’t know whether I rose to the challenge, exactly, but I was certainly there.

Q: What is it like working at the Telegraph? What do you enjoy most about working there?

A: The Telegraph is, simply put, one of the dwindling band of media organisations that still values good sportswriting.

It still places a high premium on superb ideas, thorough research and clean design. But – and this is maybe something that has changed in the last decade or so – it still feels incredibly fresh and current.

It still sets the agenda rather than follows it. It’s not afraid to go in the other direction to everyone else. As a writer – and erstwhile schoolboy cross-country runner – who has made a habit of going in the other direction to everyone else, this makes things pretty exciting.

It means you can pitch an idea or feature that Sport magazine wouldn’t go near, and not only make it work, but see it through to the page.

You get to work with some fascinating people. You actually get read by people who care about sport, rather than bored barbershop customers and racist cab drivers.

Oh god, I love my job.

Q: There is a growing perception amongst many young journalism graduates that newspapers might not be the best place to be right now – that it’s a dying industry. How would you respond to that?

A: Oh, gosh. Let me put this succinctly. Let’s say you write a thing. The thing goes in a newspaper. But as well as going in the newspaper, the thing goes on the web, where deeply rational, broad-minded souls with generous spirits can comment on it.

It also goes in the iPad edition that someone reads on a bus the next day. Later that afternoon, a girl reads the thing while running on the treadmill at the gym. After she’s showered and changed, she decides to put the thing on Facebook, where 14 people ‘like’ it.

One of those people puts it up on Twitter, where the thing gets retweeted and reshared a few dozen times, one of them by someone reading the thing in an internet cafe in Jakarta, who didn’t really like the thing, but doesn’t really quite understand how Twitter works yet.

By which time, of course, you’ve probably already written another thing.

Now, doesn’t that sound like the most wonderful thing in the world? It’s not – I’ve romanticised it – but I still maintain that I’d rather be a journalist in 2012 than in any other year you care to name.

Are newspapers dying? Yeah, probably. Is news dying? Only if new stuff stops happening, and I’m yet to be convinced that we’re anywhere near that stage yet.

This year’s scheme is now closed, but you can follow us on Twitter @Journograds and ‘like’ us on Facebook to stay up to date with job postings and reminders of application closing dates. To read Jonathan Liew’s work, head over to his Telegraph column or follow him on Twitter @jonathanliew

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