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Landing your story on A1: Tips from a former New York Times journalist

By Ed Wyatt

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Tips for maximizing your impact and making yourself a valuable source of ideas for a reporter.

In 20 years as a reporter for The New York Times, I received thousands of pitches, many of which, unfortunately, were barely worth the time it took to listen to them. From narrow marketing pushes to wildly off-base angles, most of them failed to recognize what drives a reporter or what, from my point of view, would constitute a good story.

And while reporters can often be cynical about pitches, a good story idea is usually welcomed by a journalist who is scouring their beat for potential topics, all while filing multiple articles a day, fending off “good ideas” from their own editors, and juggling the responsibilities of home and family life.

Take, for example, one of the best pitches I got, in early 2005, as I was covering the publishing business in New York. A publicity agent for a publishing house was trying to get attention for a relatively new imprint focused on pop culture popular with a 20-something audience. Instead of pitching a straight-up profile of the product line, why not come to a meeting with the imprint’s publisher and staff, the publicist suggested, where they brainstormed new ideas for books that might capture the pre-social media zeitgeist of the mid-2000s?

The result was a prescient portrait in The New York Times of what would become one of Simon & Schuster’s most successful publishing imprints. Now known as Gallery Books, it publishes more than 200 titles a year, by such bestselling pop-culture authors as Amy Schumer and Tiffany Haddish, and is still overseen by the same publisher, Jennifer Bergstrom.

What made the pitch successful in my mind was a chance to go inside the business of how publishers try to figure out what their audience is looking for and how the company might deliver it. I had worked on other articles with the publicist who pitched the idea, and I thought I could trust her promise to let me peek behind the curtain at how the sausage gets made. The resulting meeting showed Ms. Bergstrom and her editors at their most vulnerable, as they wrestled ideas to the ground and caught each other up on everything from their favorite bands to what other publishers were rumored to be pursuing.

So if you want to make a successful pitch to a journalist, here are a few tips for maximizing your impact and making yourself a valuable source of ideas for a reporter:

  1. Don’t let your pitch be your first contact with a reporter. If you represent a client who has relevance to a reporter’s beat, you should establish a relationship first, to learn what kind of stories or sources they are looking for and assess the reporter’s tastes. Is the reporter’s style to be more of a fly-on-the-wall type or do they take an active part in pushing the directions of an encounter? The answer could vastly affect how you cloak a successful pitch.
  2. Know the reporter’s audience – because their audience is your audience. A profile of a hot new publisher is going to read vastly differently in The New York Times than it would in Publisher’s Weekly, and thus the reporter is going to be looking for different kinds of key moments around which to build an article.
  3. Have a news peg action item. Almost inevitably, the day one of my articles ran in the paper, I would get calls from one or two eager young public relations associates telling me that “if you’re doing another story on this topic, you might want to talk to [my client].” The trouble with that pitch is that the last thing I wanted to do was another article on the same topic. Instead, I wanted to hear something new, “here’s what your next article could be” rather than “here’s what you just did.”
  4. Have a Big Thought. My editors at the Times told me to spend at least an hour a week “thinking big thoughts” – discerning what the macro forces were that were shaping the industry that I covered, what their biggest challenges were, or what seemed to be changing below the surface. I often thought of my job as a reporter like that of a lifeguard on the beach – sitting on the lifeguard stand watching the activity around me in search of that single dorsal fin that would break the surface and signal what was lurking underneath. You must be able to explain why your idea is not just a story about your client, but how it makes a bigger point about the world about which the journalist writes.
  5. Be on the record. Nothing frustrates a reporter more than arriving at an interview and the subject expressing doubt about what the ground rules are. Be sure your client knows that they will be on the record, and prepare them for how to react if the reporter attempts to cajole your client into saying something with the promise that it won’t be sourced to them.

Pitching reporters can be fruitful, and though many of them are loath to admit it, reporters love a good story pitch, because its execution will make them look good. But it requires doing some work ahead of time, knowing what interests the reporter, and how their interests converge with those of your client.

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