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Finding work
Pitching your way to a full story calendar

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life


Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working


Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists


Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?


Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers


Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression


Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

One of the most critical skills for journalists to succeed as freelancers is writing story pitches. Even for independent journalists with steady clients and editors who approach them with story assignments, knowing how to bring in new business helps a freelancer keep a steady flow of work — and acts as insurance in case a major client pulls up the anchor.

In today’s competitive market, pitching stories has become something of an art. Just keep in mind that no single formula works for every journalist, publication or story.

Despite the contradictions among colleagues in how they approach pitching, most seasoned freelancers give similar basic advice on writing story pitches that sell: Tell the editor or news director not just what the story is, but also why it needs to be told now and why you are the best person to tell it.

Know what story you plan to pitch.

Having an idea of what you want to write about is the first step to landing an assignment. Narrowing down a story idea within a broader topic may require you to do some research before you can write the pitch.

Focus your research so that your pitch can answer all three of these questions:

Addressing these issues from the outset offers benefits beyond giving you fodder for crafting a pitch. It also can help you hone the story idea, even narrowing or sometimes changing the angle to something more interesting or salable.

Do enough reporting up front to make sure there’s a story, but don’t waste time reporting on something that isn’t likely to go anywhere. It’s a tricky calculus, says independent journalist Bob Sullivan, but one worth learning.

Line up information and sources. Make a note of professional or personal connections you have with people involved with the data or in the story, to highlight in the pitch.

Identify publications that might run a story like the one you are proposing.

Independent journalists who are trying to break into a certain publication or market may already know where they intend to send a story pitch, but it doesn’t hurt to have back-ups, in case you hit a wall with your first pitch on a particular story idea. So, make a list.

You may have uncovered potential markets while researching what’s already been written about the topic. A Google News search while looking to pitch a story about how solar panels are holding up, for example, not only uncovered new data sources for use in the story; it also included several off-point results from publications that might be interested in the pitch.

Online listings like the one at onlinenewspapers.com can help, not only with geographical listings of newspapers but also with topical listings of magazines. Other lists of newspapers linked from the Library of Congress Newspaper & Periodical Reading Room are less useful because many of them are not up to date. However, the Reading Room also links to current news services and other sources that might be helpful as your story develops.

Study the publications to make sure they are a good fit — and that you want to work for them.

To find out more about specific sites or publications and how they work with freelancers, start with the online version of the old standby Writer’s Market ($39 per year), which offers profiles of publications to pitch stories to. The profile of your target may lead you to names and/or email addresses for sending the pitch.

Read the “about” page on the outlet’s website to find out about its mission, scope and target market. If the story fits, try to find submission guidelines for the publication. Start with the SPJ Freelance Community’s crowdsourced list of Pitching Guidelines. If it’s not listed there, find a staff listing — it may be in Writer’s Market, or the outlet’s website. If you see someone you know, ask her or him where to find the guidelines and whom to send the pitch to. Never pitch without reviewing a publication’s site and, ideally, a couple of past issues.

Sometimes publications’ submission guidelines or profiles in Writer’s Market tell what rates they typically pay. If not, try one of the databases linked from the SPJ pitching workbook’s Pay tab. The rates and other information in the databases are useful to help you decide if you are in the ballpark for the publication, but they are not definitive — so get ready to negotiate! As SPJ freelancer Torey Van Oot said in an interview with Medium.com’s The Write Advisor, “Always. Ask. For. More. Money.” (See the chapter on asking for more money in the Making a Living section.)

Take time to read, watch and listen to recent stories on the outlet’s website to see what approaches the editor has accepted in the past. Then search their archives to make sure they haven’t run a similar story recently. If you are suggesting a follow-up, acknowledge that in the pitch and include a good rationale for revisiting the topic now.

Write an interesting, engaging pitch focused on the story you have to tell.

Unless otherwise instructed in the publication’s pitching guidelines, start with an excellent subject line. As L.A.-based freelancer Ann Friedman advised in How (and Where!) To Pitch Your Writing, “If you wouldn’t be tempted to click it as a headline, it’s not a good pitch subject line.”

Some successful freelancers suggest writing an interesting subject line even if the submission guidelines dictate something else. That may be good advice if you have worked with the publication or editor before. It also might work for some editors you are approaching for the first time, but it may raise a red flag about your inclination and ability to follow instructions. It’s a case-by-case choice.

The structure of story pitches varies among writers, and the best ones are crafted specifically for the target article and publication. Another common trait is that they need to be engaging from the start. As Rachel Deahl wrote for The Balance Careers, every story needs a hook — an interesting angle that “grabs the attention of the reader long enough to get them to keep reading.” The same can be said of story pitches, but from there, no one size fits all.

Sometimes the best approach is to start off with the lede you would write for the story with the information you already have gathered. This technique demonstrates to the editor or news director that you know a good story when you see one and can produce copy that will appeal to the publication’s audience. Chances are good that the lede will change before publication, or even before you submit the assignment, but the time you take to craft a good opening sentence or two will be well spent.

If you don’t have enough information to write an engaging lede for the article, start the pitch with a hook anyway. This might relate your personal connection to the story (“When I was 10, I saw my first orca … ”), or the information you want to find while researching — something interesting and pertinent to the pitch. Just as with an article, burying the lede of your pitch risks losing the reader before he or she has a chance to discover why this article belongs in the publication and why you should be the one to produce it.

Once you have the editor’s or news director’s attention, there’s no magic formula. Some successful freelancers advocate making relatively quick work of relaying the particulars: You propose doing a story about “X,” which they want to commission now because “Y,” and you are the best person to produce it because “Z.” If you choose this route, lay this information out in a way that shows you can complete the assignment, but without telling the whole story or revealing all your sources.

Keeping the pitch short has the added advantage of acknowledging that editors’ main job is putting out the publication, and they don’t have time to read long emails. But having a great hook — truly capturing the editor’s attention — can counter that desire for brevity. Annotations of successful pitches at Nieman Storyboard show how longer pitches have worked in some circumstances, particularly with outlets that publish longform journalism.

Longer stories, longer pitches? Not always. If you are pitching news rather than features, shorter pitches generally are better, even if the story can’t be told in just a few paragraphs.

Before you click send …

This should go without saying, but editors keep saying it in interviews, submission guidelines and articles about how to get published: Read through your pitch to ensure that all the information is there, and that all the information there is needed. Make sure there are no mistakes or typos. Check links to make sure they work.

Nothing turns an editor off like a misspelled name or incorrect date. If you aren’t good at proofing your own work, consider finding a pitching buddy to trade services with.

And afterwards, do follow up …

The advice of successful freelancers, and the editors who hire them, about following up when you don’t get a reply varies as much as advice on how to structure the pitch. News pitches to outlets publishing real-time or daily can be followed up the next day, with the information that you will pitch the idea somewhere else if you don’t hear back by a certain time.

For longer stories, it might be OK to follow up after a week or so — with this caveat: If the submission guidelines or “about” page say not to follow up, or give a longer waiting period, go with those directions. Few things irk a news director or editor more than a reporter who can’t or won’t follow directions. If instructions not to follow up or withdraw an idea will keep you from pitching the story elsewhere and you are not willing to let it go, let that be a red flag for you.

There are plenty of stories for us to tell. There are plenty of news directors and editors who want to publish them. Perfecting the art of the pitch will help you tell more of them.

Contributors: Hazel Becker, Bob Sullivan

Resources:

Last updated: December 2018


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