Before you pitch a story, you need a story to pitch. Need help getting started? For helpful websites where you can “find” ideas and examples of great stories, check out this post about story ideas.
Before we get into tips for pitching the best story, we need to talk about the preparation a good journalist does to develop the story idea before the pitch. Students often ask me where I find story ideas. I think it helps to shift our thinking away from “finding” an idea which insinuates that we just stumble upon them. Sure this can happen sometimes, but with solid enterprise stories that often make the biggest impact on your audience (and your career), you should spend time developing a unique and thorough plan for your story.
Has anyone covered this before?
One of the first things you should do in the story pitch process is to see if anyone else has covered this story in the past. It shocks me how many reporters skip this important step only to discover hours into their work that someone else already reported on the story.
There are a few issues here. First, you waste time. Second, you may be chasing a story angle that’s already been done so your story won’t be unique. When you pitch, you should reveal to your editor or producer how this story has been covered, who has covered this story before and how your version of the story will offer the audience additional and unique value.
Don’t pitch a topic, pitch a story
A good way to get your pitch denied is pitching a topic like poverty, war, homelessness, etc. Stories are much more focused. Stories have plots with characters, action, drama and suspense. Instead of pitching a broad topic, you should pitch a specific story with specific people who you’ve already researched and reached out to.
Your pitch should explain why your story should run now. Even if your story isn’t a breaking news event, there should still be a reason why your audience should care now. Why is this relevant now?
Once you ask yourself this question, you’ll find yourself doing a bit more research that will not only prepare you to pitch, but it will give your story context. If you can tie a story to a topic, you’ll find a much greater response from your editor or producer, and your audience often walks away from the story having learned something new.
What’s the big picture?
Your story can help your audience understand a bigger picture. If you’re doing a feature story about a cancer survivor, then find out how many people have this cancer and what the audience can do about it.
If you’re doing a story about a center that helps at-risk kids stay in school, find some statistics about the school to prison pipeline that explain how these kids got into trouble and why it’s important to save them from the system. Use this as an opportunity to enlighten your audience about the role they play in perpetuating injustice so they can be more informed voters.
If you’re covering a bill or amendment, don’t just focus on that specific bill. Explain the context in which the bill is being proposed. Have similar bills failed in the past? Why? Helping your audience understand the big picture will help them see how they are affected and why they should care.
You should also have fact-checked links to studies ready to go from credible sources to back up any claims you make in your pitch, for example, the Pew Research Center.
Why are you the reporter who should cover this story? What expertise and connections do you have that make you credible to tell this story? Have you done similar stories before? If you fail to address this question during a pitch, your boss may give your amazing story idea to your coworker.
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time for the pitch. Most reporters pitch stories in editorial meetings with a room full of journalists who are in a rush to get to work. So the most important part of your pitch is that it’s concise.
Start with the best story pitch. Yes, you’re expected to pitch more than one idea if your pitch isn’t approved. Make sure you start with one or two sentences that clearly sums up all of the points we just discussed.
Don’t forget to explain what steps you’ve already taken to further the story. For example, if you already have an interview scheduled, this will help convince your manager to let you pursue the story. Don’t mislead your manager. You want to overdeliver, not leave them disappointed.
Your manager might be quick to dismiss your idea. Know when to keep fighting and when to move on. If you’re going to fight for the story, it better be good. But don’t be afraid to explain the value your manager may have missed from your pitch. Just do it quickly.
If you cannot convince your manager to let you pursue this story, move on to your next pitch quickly and professionally.
Don’t get discouraged
When you first start pitching stories, it’s common to be turned down. Don’t give up. This is part of the process and you are not alone. Every reporter and editor go through this learning curve so it’s important to remember to learn from your pitches. If your manager says no to a pitch, ask why so you can tailor your pitch to them next time.
Don’t get discouraged. It is very common to have to work through many pitches before one gets approved. That is why it’s important to always come prepared to a pitch meeting with several pitches ready to go. When you’ve had a few years of experience, you may only need about three pitches a day. But when you’re starting, aim for at least five to increase your chances of getting one approved.
Practice makes perfect
Like many things in journalism, you just have to practice. The more you pitch, the more confident you’ll become.