The Story Pitch: Three Basic Rules

http://judithsmelser.com/

I often start my editing training courses by asking people when in the life of a story the editing process begins. Usually someone says what I believe to be the “right” answer, namely, editing begins at the pitch stage.  But then I ask about the pitch processes in their newsrooms, and the answers are often something like this:

“Oh, reporters just say what they’re working on in our editorial meetings.”
“Well, we kind of have informal conversations about story ideas.”

I’m all for conversation about story ideas and communication about what reporters are working on, but if you don’t have a formal pitch process, how can editing begin with the pitch?  A written pitch is an important part of the pre-editing process.

Pitches don’t have to be long or fancy, but they do have to be focused and compelling.  And while you certainly don’t have to report the whole story before you pitch it, you have to do enough reporting to be able to convince your editor that the story is worth spending time on.

Often, we only give thought to the pitch itself when we’re proposing a story to an editor outside our own newsroom – but we shouldn’t sell our own newsrooms short.  As an editor, I often get pitches that don’t do much to get me excited about the proposed story.  They’re vague, they’re not very timely, and they don’t tell me what the end product will look or sound like.

The next time you get ready to pitch, ask yourself these three basic questions before you hit “send” on that pitch email:

  1. Am I pitching a story or just a topic?

    Topic: I want to do a story about invasive frogs.

    Story: The wildlife agency says it’s counted 20% more invasive frogs this year than last. My story will investigate why, the effects of the increase, and what’s being done about it.

  2. Am I pitching a timely story that’s relevant RIGHT NOW?

    Not timely: I want to profile the local homeless shelter’s tutoring program (that’s been going on for ten years).

    Timely: The local homeless shelter is considering expanding its tutoring program to include high school as well as elementary students. I’ll profile the tutoring program but also look into other shelter programs that might have to be cut if the expansion goes forward.

  3. Have I identified the types of voices and scenes I expect to include in the piece?

    Example: I hope to go with a wildlife officer on a frog-counting expedition. I’ll interview him/her about the invasive frog problem and record frogs croaking and general outdoorsy sound.  I’ll also talk to a scientist from the local university who’s developing a new way to trap invasive frogs and a state lawmaker who’s introducing a bill to make it illegal to import frogs.

There are more tips I could give on how to make your pitches stand out, but first, practice those basics. Your editor will thank you for it!

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The Story Pitch: Three Basic Rules

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