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If story pitches were movie scenes

For all the talk about how social media has changed the landscape of communication, some things stay remarkably the same. It’s nearly the end of the first decade of the 21st century and the best way to successfully pitch a news reporter is still e-mail. It is, and will remain for some time, the central application in journalists’ lives. That’s the good news; the bad news is that, because e-mail remains so very, very popular with journalists, they get a ton of it. So if you’re hoping to make a media placement on your whiz-bang story idea, then the pressure’s on these days to really stand out. Here are a few ways, with a little help from some box-office friends, to give your pitch a little more staying power and to bolster your e-mail’s chances of sticking around a reporter’s inbox.

1. Think and write in headlines. It’s certainly what journalists do when presented with information or a potential story. This is where you make the best use out of your e-mail’s subject line. A simple, subject-verb headline in that space that leaves no question to what your e-mail might be about can go a long, long way toward your pitch being read. The punchier, the better. If you have trouble with forming headlines, think about Billy Pretty in “The Shipping News” explaining to Quoyle about how to grab someone’s attention with a headline:

Billy: Now, have a look. What do you see? Tell me the headline.
Quoyle: “Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds.”
Billy: No. “Imminent Storm Threatens Village.”
Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?
Billy: “Village Spared from Deadly Storm.”

2. The shorter, the better. It’s a pitch, not a news release. It’s not a full-blown treatise about the subject. You might be as excited as all get-out about the story, but you can’t expect journalists to plow through a seven-paragraph description of it. A couple of paragraphs, with an offer to share more if they’re interested, works best. Before you hit send, rake through your e-mail pitch one last time and tighten up any loose writing. Kill off needless adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and clauses. Speak in an active voice. This will hold their attention much better than a series of run-ons that lead you nowhere. Journalists are busy people, who are often easily distracted. Think of them as the Alpha dog in Up:

Alpha: Mayhaps you desire to — SQUIRREL!

3. Timing is everything. The difference between a successful pitch and failure is often the time of day, week, or year that you send it. There’s no empirical data on this, but I can tell you what my gut and a few years of experience has proven to be true. In general, pitch in the morning hours, when many journalists are setting up their schedules for the day. In general, pitch early in the week — Tuesday tends to be better than Monday, since Monday is often crowded with leftovers from the weekend (and a lot of up-and-at-’em pitches that show up first thing Monday morning). Thursday and Friday can be difficult, because many journos are filling for the weekend and aren’t able to take the time to consider new pitches. And in general, there are two very good times of the calendar year when the path to placements has a little less resistance: the “dog days” of summer and the weeks around Christmas. The former is a good time because newsrooms are hit by lots of late-summer vacations, leaving editors scratching for stories. The second is a good time because nearly everyone is out of the office, meaning sources can be hard for reporters, stockpiling evergreen stories to get their publications through the holidays, to find. Pitches that once seemed impossible with reporters who once seemed impenetrable may stand a better chance. I call it the Hans Gruber Effect:

Theo: And you better be right because this one’s going to take a miracle.
Hans Gruber: It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer.

4. Kill ‘em with kindness. I’ve mentioned before that on average, the pitch-to-hit ratio is about 10:1. That means you’re going to get to hear “No” a lot. And sometimes, that “No” will be a little more … emphatic than others. One of the first pitches I ever threw out was returned by a journalist so brittle he might have crumpled to dust if poked with a stick. He told me I was a huge waste of time and that he had absolutely no interest in reading my “trivial attempts at pushing academic propaganda.” At first I wanted to write him back in kind, but instead I replied with a brief e-mail thanking him for at least giving the story idea a quick read and providing some feedback. He actually wrote back with an apology, with a few thoughts about how to better approach him — which I duly noted. Since then, he’s been much more amenable to hearing from me. If you have trouble with this one, think of Dalton from Road House, telling his bouncers about how they were going to conduct themselves from now on:

Dalton: All you have to do is follow three simple rules. One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. And three, be nice … if someone gets in your face … I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

5. Actually, it IS personal, so be personable. Before sending, do a little research. What does this journalist cover? Write about? Tweet about? Do in his or her spare time? Where is he/she from originally? Learn these things and find common interests with them, and personalize your pitch accordingly. Think you’re being crafty by cutting and pasting the same pitch to three dozen different reporters, and are “personalizing” them by merely changing the name of the reporter in your introduction? Yeah, um, journalists can spot that little trick a mile away, and they resent it. When writing a pitch, I envision I’m talking to a friend about it — besides helping me eliminate industry jargon and make the pitch clearer, it also connotes a sense of authenticity and care to the pitch that tells the journalist, “this is for you and only you.”

Jerry: We live in a cynical world … And we work in a business of tough competitors. You … complete me. And I just –
Dorothy: Shut up. You had me at hello.

6. You can’t afford to be wishy-washy. With e-mail pitches, you’ll likely only get one swing at the reporter. So make it count and don’t beat around the bush. Do you want them to look at some research from a faculty member? Say so, and offer to send it to them in a follow-up e-mail. Do you want them to interview said researcher? Say so, and include the researcher’s contact information. Do you have other sources they might talk to, who might not be affiliated with your institution? Say so — it’ll enhance your credibility and position you as someone who is doing more than shilling for their university. You’ll be a helpful resource that they can turn to in the future. The point is, don’t be oblique or vague. Be bold and come out with it. Like the cathartic scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s characters finally dispense with pretense:

Crash: Come on, Annie, think of something clever to say, huh? Something full of magic, religion, bulls___. Come on, dazzle me.
Annie: I want you

There you go. Keep these scenes in mind the next time you fire up your Outlook, your Gmail or your AOL with the front page of the New York Times in mind. Wait, does anyone have AOL any more? They do? OK, wow.

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