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Pitch craft: How to develop story ideas & build media friendships

Recently, I was asked to write about ways to come up with story ideas that catch reporters’ eyes and help build meaningful media relationships for the long term for CURRENTS, the official magazine of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). I was flattered to get the invite, and it proved to be really good for me. A lot of what I do, I often feel, is done sort of semi-unconsciously or is more formless than it should be, really. So I was grateful for the opportunity not only to share a few thoughts with CASE’s loyal readership, but also to have a chance to provide myself a little clarity on what I do and how I do it.

If you’re interested in reading the column, the good folks at CASE have made it available to non-subscribers for the next three months. So if my meager math skills are still functioning, you should be able to see this until about mid-February.

The executive summary:

Reporters are busy and getting busier. They don’t have the time or patience to mess around with off-target pitches.

– There are two rules to landing stories: You need a good story, and you need credibility with journalists. Neither is easy to attain or maintain.

– Developing good stories requires getting out of the office and a fierce curiosity about your campus. You must know the researchers, teachers, students and administrative assistants in the colleges and departments. Deans, directors and administrators are great people, but they often have a very different idea of what news is.

Monitoring the news is time-consuming, but it is time well spent. You have to understand what’s going on in the world. Spend time on Google News and social media platforms to judge the currents flowing through the media. That’ll help you conjure up pitches based off the news.

Think like an assignment editor. When considering a national story, ask yourself how the local paper, TV or radio station might cover it. Story and source ideas will flow easily from that.

– Maintaining credibility requires a balance in your relationships with media. Don’t be the pain-in-the-butt PR person who only contacts them when you need something. Be a helpful resource, if you can, even if it doesn’t directly help your institution. And don’t be afraid to help reporters spread their influence on places like Twitter and Facebook and Google Plus.

The best pitch may just be the one you never send. If it doesn’t pass the basic news test — is it timely? Unique? Affect a broad segment of society? Have conflict? Evoke emotions? — then maybe it’s not worth risking your reputation with a journalist. Choose your battles when pitching stories.

– Last, be sure to be brutally honest with yourself, and try to think objectively about your pitches. When evaluating a pitch’s chances of landing, the best question to ask yourself is the old reliable: “Who Cares?”

I’m sure there are tips and tricks of this science/art that I’ve overlooked. Feel free to add them in the comments.

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