NEW YORK & ZURICH – We published here general tips in pitching to editors. Here at Pro Journo, pitching is the most critical step for both first-time and seasoned reporters to ensure that we keep writing stories that are newsworthy and relevant. And for many of our applications, we ask you to practice this because this is oftentimes the toughest hurdle that young writers face in transitioning from writing analytical papers for an academic audience to writing impactful stories for a general audience through journalism.
Journalism vs Academic Writing
What makes a piece of writing journalism instead of academic writing? Here are our five principles:
- Know your audience. You’re no longer writing for a community of scholars and researchers, fellow students and professors. Our audience today is generally young, well-educated, and pretty global. Therefore, one of the first questions you should ask is: Is this interesting for the mainstream audience?
- Zero in on a story (avoid macroscale). Academics tend to focus on complex, macroscale issues. Even with global issues, journalists start local, thus thinking about current, locally contested or newsworthy stories around them. Rather than asking, “What knowledge contribution can I make?”, you should be asking, “What is the untold story?”. You would find that zooming out comes naturally if the story is told well at microscale. This means connecting your local stories to broader issues in society, national debates, and, like in academia, challenging common assumptions and dominant ways of thinking.
- Determine how much you have to explain (finding the sweet spot). With all the material gathered for the story (i.e. informal conversations, interviews with experts, etc), don’t fall into the trap of trying to fit in everything. The best writers use only 10% of the material that they gather. In academia, researchers will typically read, sort through and analyze plenty of papers and empirical data, which turn into the foundation that their arguments are built upon. In journalism, the research is done to familiarize with the context of the story in order to provide a realistic and keen account in a short amount of time for the reader. This staff writer for The New Yorker does 60-100 conversations for a profile story. He explains: “I like the feeling of knowing more, of giving myself more choices and collecting the little nuance-y details that encourage the reader to relax and trust you as a guide and companion.”
- Tell all sides of the story. A story is multidimensional, and often multidisciplinary. This means making sure you get multiple sources for your story so that you’re not relying on just one source. For some stories, this also means thinking of nontraditional sources that can make your story “come alive” and more relatable. For example, are you reporting on China’s water quality? Don’t just talk to scientists and municipal representatives. Talk to the people that makes the story interesting, like the 68-years-old woman who brings her grandchildren to the algae-filled lake for leisure.
- You are not the expert in the story. In academic writing, you write to show that you are the expert. In journalism, you have to be an expert storyteller — an expert in knowing who to talk to, what questions to ask, and ultimately communicating the story and expertise of others. Every statement or claim you make in your article should be backed up by a quote from an expert or a well-sourced fact. Do not simply make statements of your own opinion that you can’t back up. And unless you are clearly writing an opinion piece, don’t fall into the trap of letting yourself be the expert or main character in your story.
Guide to the Student Reporter Pitch
Keeping these principles in mind, a standard pitch for us is composed of the following: [example pitch included in italics. The story, written by Patricia Nilsson from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, was published October 3rd, 2013]
- Story headline: In a short sentence, what is the story about? This should draw the reader in right away.
Once a Nuclear Power Plant, Now a Museum
- Core of story: One brief paragraph detailing what your story is about. Make sure you are pitching a story, not a topic (see this post if this is not clear).
On one of the most idyllic shores in Scania in Southern Sweden, overlooking the Öresund strait that separates Sweden and Denmark, the Barsebäck nuclear power plant looms. Inactive since in 2005, it is not empty: The plant is the only one in the world that welcomes tourists, as it awaits total demolition. The nuclear museum’s fate reflects changing attitudes in Sweden regarding nuclear power–ranging from people who hold nuclear power close to their hearts, to people who will never forget why and what happened to to Chernobyl and Fukushima.
- Reporting strategy: How will you research this story and who will you interview? As Roy Peter Clark says, “This is journalists’ secret, where they stand above many other writers. They don’t write with their hands. They write with their feet.” A rule of thumb for us is that you need at least two real sources.
To get a good feeling of the nostalgic history of the closed down power plant, I will work closely with the Communications Manager at Barsebäck. Furthermore, I will interview the personnel at the Museum of Kristianstad who were involved in the large project of mapping the cultural legacy of the Barsebäck nuclear plant. Finally, I will tour the plant to talk to guides, employees and visitors.
- Why now: Why does this story need to be told? Why now? What new information will the reader get? This is where you need to identify your focus.
Whether hated or loved, Barsebäck power plant stands on the coast as a striking remainder of how the nuclear industry helped build the Swedish welfare state. In a few years, the building will be forever gone and citizens will lose the possibility to explore one of the most controversial of cultural and historical landmarks in Sweden.
Editor Brendan Spiegel also helped develop key elements to this guide.