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How to pitch your development story?

You have a great idea for a story on development. You have been working on it for a while and you are convinced it can really have an impact, but you are now facing a wall: how to get your story published?

During our last boot camp for Journalism Grants winners, we asked journalists how they go about pitching their stories to editors. The editors in the room – representing several European media – joined the discussion. Having many years of experience under their belt, they taught the journalists a thing or two about the perfect pitch. How to approach editors, structure a pitch and publish internationally? This article sums up the main lessons resulting from the fruitful discussions.

How to get the editor’s attention?

The first step is usually the hardest: you send email after email to pitch your story to various media outlets and you do not even get a reply. How to succeed before giving in to frustration?

  • Keep in mind the importance of human relationships. People give more attention to whom they know already and this is especially true for editors, who receive hundreds of emails every day. For this reason, find someone you know and trust who could introduce you to the respective editor. Alternatively, invest resources in getting to meet the editor in person.
  • Jump on a phone call – especially if your email does not generate any response. Get straight to the point and be concise, as the attention span you are granted on the phone is rather limited. Be wary you do not come across as a seller that the editor wants to get rid of, but do take advantage of the fact that it is harder for editors to reject someone over the phone.
  • Be persistent. Do not be afraid of trying again and again. The worst thing that can happen is to receive a ‘no.’ But do not cross the line into the editor’s private sphere: messaging them on Facebook or Whatsapp will probably annoy them and make them even less willing to listen to you.
  • Pitch yourself, not just your story. Regardless of the communication channel, the storyteller is as important as the story for the media you approach, so pitch yourself first. Build trust and establish your credibility by showing what professional experience you have and where your interests lie. You have to show you are a reliable journalist before even mentioning the story you want to pitch. The single story may be rejected but you will have established a connection that might prove valuable for the next pitch.
  • Target the right media. The key is not to publish your story everywhere, but to find an outlet where your story fits. Think about the editorial line of the media or specific stories the outlet has already published. Explain why your story would make a great fit and do so by targeting the right editor.

How to put together a successful pitch?

The magic has happened: the editor has expressed his or her interest and you have arranged a follow-up meeting or call. How to get the most out of this opportunity?

  • Bring your portfolio. As previously mentioned, it is very important to start by pitching yourself. Show the editor which stories and projects you are most proud of and share your past experiences as a journalist. Bring print versions of your best works with you if you get to meet the editor in person. Alternatively, send the editor PDF versions of your stories. URLs are more likely to get lost than something editors can physically see in front of them.
  • Keep your pitch brief. Once you start pitching the story, bear in mind that editors think in terms of headlines. Therefore keep your pitch short. Stick to a few lines explaining the core ideas of the project.
  • Pass the pub test. It may sound silly, but how would you explain the story to your friends in the pub? Or to your own mum? When pitching, make sure to tell a story that is not only watertight but also entertaining. It has to be engaging, even to those who know nothing about the topic or have little time to read it. Think as a reader. Ask yourself: why do readers need to know my story? What can they learn from it?
  • Be realistic in explaining what you can deliver (and what you cannot). The editor needs to know exactly what kind of project you are planning to develop. A feature piece, a web doc, a scrollytelling story? Define both your role and the outlet’s in developing the story. What is expected of every party? Which internal deadlines can you set? Make this clear from the very beginning.
  • Put yourself in the editor’s shoes. Keep in mind that media have constraints and limitations regarding the kind of stories they publish. Deadlines may be pushed back due to breaking news or technical limitations. Put yourself in the editor’s shoes and ensure them that your story is a safe investment that will not create any complications or hassle.
  • Be transparent. Make sure that all communications between you and the editor go smoothly right from the start. Be transparent about your plans and talk things through non-stop. If there is a friction between you and the editor in the beginning already, problems will accumulate and cause a lot of frustration.

How to publish internationally?

Most of the projects funded by the IDR Grant Programme get published by media of different countries. But the path to international publication is not lacking bumps and obstacles. How to overcome these problems?

  • Work with your network. Stories funded by our grant programme have been published by a very large number of international media. This means that grantees can tap into a large network of colleagues who can give you useful suggestions on how to approach specific media. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Attending (international) journalism conferences can help too.
  • Seduce media by including international partners. Media usually like feeling part of an international coalition, as it gives them both credibility and visibility. When approaching media in different countries, inform them about the other partners you are negotiating with and promote that sense of coalition. Suggest to publish your story in different media, in different languages (translation is something the media are usually willing to contribute to) and on the same day. This strategy not only increases the size of your audience, but also makes the media feel proud of being part of an international alliance.
  • Look at different types of media. When planning publications abroad, research carefully what kind of media will allow you to reach the widest possible audience. Radio, for example, might not be the most common medium in Europe, but in many African countries it is still the first source of information for a large part of the population.
  • Reuse and repackage your story. You have produced a long multimedia reportage, with a combination of videos, written articles, infographics and so on. Perhaps some media are reluctant to publish the whole package. In that case, build your project in a way that allows single parts to have a life on their own. Pitch only parts of it. In this way, different media will have different but equally interesting content. You can also think of follow-up stories related to the core story: there is always more to tell.

Bonus tip: think long term!

The story you are working on at this very moment is not the last step in your journalistic career, but just one step. To think long term is essential: fight to get a fair financial recognition for your efforts but ask yourself: what repercussions will my story have that could have a wider, positive impact on my reputation? Money is, of course, your main concern today, but different elements such as leverage, credibility and visibility also pay great dividends tomorrow.

Nevertheless, even though money should not be your only focus, do not accept to give away your story for free. Some media will tell you that they are very interested in the story. They would like to publish it, yet they do not have budget for it. Be resolute and insist on being paid: even a low fee has a strong symbolic value and involving the media in the financial process will have relevant consequences for the commitment that they make to your project from start to finish.

This article was written by Mattia Peretti, Project Coordinator at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht. Special thanks go out to all journalists participating in the boot camp, as well as the four editors, Karel Smouter, Sonja Gillert, Christina Elmer and Thomas Frostberg.

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