By Brittany Duggan
“The Globe has a freeze on freelancers for another month,” a colleague told me recently while we brainstormed where to pitch a story. A Toronto editor told her this after a pitch she really liked.
“Try the guy who runs the real estate pages in Vancouver. It’s all freelancers in that section,” another colleague told me months ago. After spending hours putting together that pitch, I learned that this section has two dedicated writers and a limited budget, so it was a no-go for my story.
As a staff writer previously, I’ve been in positions where I’ve told my editor that I’d like to do a story on X and I got a quick “Great, go for it.” But without being in editorial meetings where you can learn what an editor is missing or looking for, it can be plain frustrating to try and sell a story — especially when you’re new to a publication.
It’s more or less a crapshoot, I’ve heard time and time again. But there are a few ways to observe and pitch the kinds of stories that staff writers have a harder time completing. After talking with a few Canadian editors, here’s what they advise.
Be familiar with the publication and its audience
This is the obvious and required place to start — making sure your story is a fit for where you’re pitching. Equally important, though, is making sure you’re pitching something the publication hasn’t covered — or, if they have, that you’re pitching an updated angle. DailyXtra editor, Robin Perelle stresses this search step. Nothing says “I’m just trying to get published anywhere” like not knowing what what they’ve already done.
Let your niche knowledge work for you
There are a lot of ways to approach one story, but thinking about how your expert knowledge could lend itself to multiple angles could help land you a win. “In-depth sports reporting or technology are two things we don’t really cover, says Vancouver Magazine senior editor, Jessica Barrett, “but maybe we would if there was an angle that was very Van Mag.” Barrett says, as an editor, she likes getting a sense of the community that freelancers are connected to, where their interests lie, because even if she can’t use your pitch right now, she’ll think of you when a story comes up and when she needs a journalist like you down the road.
Think niche, but don’t forget to zoom out
Let your niche guide you, but expand your focus to make bigger connections, highlighting larger themes and ideas. For an arts magazine, for example, Lee Slinger, editor of The Dance Current asks, “How does it speak to wider contemporary social, artistic, and political trends?” Slinger curates very specific editorial content but needs each piece to connect to larger themes being explored in each issue. Profiles are easily assigned, she says, but bigger think pieces that connect many dots are less so.
As freelance budgets shrink, the expectations placed on staff writers grow. Being on the ground anywhere becomes more of a luxury for a writer who has to file multiple stories a day. Let staff take the smaller stories and try aiming for bigger feature pieces. For the Georgia Straight in Vancouver, arts editor Janet Smith says: “What will sell are original stories that break out from the preview-review mold and get at the larger, pressing issues in the arts in the city — the emotional, financial core issues, like lack of housing for artists.” Smith says busy newsrooms don’t necessarily have the time to find primary sources for those kinds of stories and so she’s happy to farm them out.
Even if you’ve had a pitch rejected, most editors want to see you succeed, especially if they liked your story idea but it just wasn’t quite right, or they didn’t have the budget at the time. Ask for feedback: what does the editor need more of? Less of? See if some of your ideas can be re-worked to fill a gap. When asked, This magazine editor, Erica Lenti, says what they don’t need is more personal politics. “We get a lot of personal essay/memoir/op-ed pitches and plenty of arts pitches, so if you are pitching either, it has to be extraordinary to stand out.” What is less common? Pitches about actual politics, investigative stories and longform.
Freelance pitching is not easy and being successful is about more than finding and selling great stories. At the end of the day you’re filling a need and if you don’t know what that need is you’ll keep hitting dead ends. Chances are, it’s not that your story ideas aren’t good or that you’re poor at communicating them, you just need to know where they’d live best and how to adjust them to fill an editor’s needs.
Another tip, this time from a busy freelancer, is to test the waters around what staff writers may or may not be able to cover by batch-pitching. “Sometimes I’ll give an editor five ideas that I’ve just sketched in and I’ll ask them if they’d like me to develop any into full pitches,” says Mark Mann, a Montreal-based freelance writer who specializes in longform narrative journalism. You should only use this approach after a first introduction to an editor, but it’s one efficient way of narrowing down pitch ideas. It saves both of you time and it could work to improve your pitching success.
In the end, there’s no perfect set of rules to follow, but being aware of a publication’s realities will help you land any available work.
Brittany Duggan is a freelance journalist and editor based in Vancouver. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio and in the Georgia Straight. Brittany is a research assistant for Canada’s The Conversation and is a lover of the arts. Follow her on Twitter @brittanynduggan and find on her LinkedIn.
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