Whether by choice or circumstance, more and more journalists are going the freelance route. Yet they share a common complaint: it has become increasingly tough to land a successful pitch — especially when trying to break into top outlets.
Budgets have shrunk; calendars are already clogged. Editors can disappear for unforeseen stretches. Sometimes you don’t hear back from them at all.
Often, it seems like you’re sending pitches out into an abyss. When I started freelancing full-time, I was happy just to get a polite “no” from an editor. An acceptance was almost too much to hope for.
But whether you’re new to freelancing or just in need of a refresher, there are still strategies for increasing your odds of a positive response. Here are some guidelines for landing bylines in big outlets and boosting your pitching success rate.
Some outlets prefer you to direct your pitches to a general email address. However, more often than not, those emails risk ending up in an unread slush pile. To help ensure that your well-crafted pitch actually gets read, look up the outlet’s masthead and address it to an editor by name. And that brings us to…
Staff turnover is high at many outlets. Search Twitter bios to make sure your contact is up to date. And be sure you’re targeting the right vertical. The editor’s beats are usually listed, but a quick search is always a good idea before you hit the ‘send’ button.
Let’s say you’re shopping around an idea for a hard-hitting piece— or maybe an op-ed. You’ll have an easier time finding takers if you can loosely peg it to a news item. Even evergreen content will find a home more easily if it has a peg, so keep an eye on the news cycle for inspiration.
National outlets have staff reporters that work exclusively in certain areas, or are based abroad in regional bureaus. So do your research. Try not to pitch a story on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an outlet that has a Jerusalem correspondent. That doesn’t mean you can’t cover the story. Just find somewhere that doesn’t have a staffer already on it.
Big news stories over-saturate quickly, and editors can get battle fatigue. But if you can find a fresh take on an ongoing news item, then you’ll still get their attention. Get creative. Think of something that hasn’t been written, or a new way of looking at something that has.
Once you have a close relationship with an editor, a three line pitch can be enough to get the go-ahead. But when cold pitching, pre-reporting is the norm. Give the editor a feel for the story and the way you would write it, adding a few atmospheric details. It will serve as a helpful outline once you’ve gotten the commission, so don’t consider it time lost.
Simultaneous pitching is controversial. But if your pitch is time-sensitive, then sending it out to multiple editors will increase your chances of it finding a home. Worst (and best) case scenario is that two editors will want the same idea, so be ready with another great potential story to offer one of them instead.