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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

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

Local Journalism ‘Great Training Ground’

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Oliver Rahman brushes up on karaoke skills during his year in Japan

Graduate Oliver Rahman is currently training at News Associates, one of the UK’s biggest NCTJ schools. He tells us what he makes of the course so far, and describes the merits of regional journalism…

I studied Japanese and Italian in Manchester, and spent much of my time in Japan blogging, writing for a local magazine and perfecting my karaoke talents.

My summer in Italy was spent smoking and learning new Italian swear words. I was in Perugia, where the Amanda Knox trial (Foxy Knoxy, as she was known) was taking place.

For any wannabe journo, the sight of a real press mob is pretty damn exciting. Particularly if it involves Italian TV reporters, who are always entertainingly flamboyant.

After graduation I organized a stint at my local paper, the Wells Journal. I loved it. Stories about lead thefts from church roofs or milk fixing scandals are a lot of fun.

Some trainees would hesitate to admit that they love local journalism, but I think that the regional press can be a great training ground.

After a few months working in London for a TV company, I decided to pack it in and just get onto an NCTJ with News Associates in Wimbledon.

I’d been to one of their open days in Manchester two years ago and it had left a lasting impression. It consisted of a workshop simulating a live news room.

You get given basic facts (a fictional explosion in Birmingham), and as press releases/news clips with new facts keep appearing, you have to rejig your copy and try to fit in all the new info before the deadline.

Wannabe journos get a chance to interview sources by phone, and at the end file their copy like pros. Really good fun, if a bit stressful. And as it’s free, I’d definitely recommend it.

News Associates’ entrance exam is divided into a general knowledge section, a writing test (something to do with exploding hotdogs), and a few basic data questions.

Then there was an interview in which Richard Parsons, course director, sat me down and asked me a few questions about my portfolio. I remember little about it except for some serious mustache stroking that gave away his status as a true newsroom veteran.

As well as the formal classes in media law, shorthand and reporting, part of the course involves a placement.

I’m at the Ealing Times with another trainee, so we’ll be covering all those important local issues: firefighting squirrels, water skiiing budgies and maybe even some real news.

Are you currently on an NCTJ course? If so, how has it helped you? Or are you thinking about doing one? Feel free to post your comments or questions below.

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