What makes a good pitch? NPR editors weigh in
©2017 National Public Radio, Inc. NPR report titled “What makes a good pitch? NPR editors weigh in” by Alison MacAdam as originally published on training.npr.org on January 27, 2017, and is used with the permission of NPR. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.
Pitching is hard.
Every one of us has gotten excited about an idea, prepped it, pitched it … and been shot down. It’s disappointing and, sometimes, demoralizing. Of course, no journalist has a 100 percent pitch acceptance rate. But there are ways you can approach pitching that will increase the likelihood of getting a “yes.” For this post, we cast a wide net in the NPR newsroom, asking editors what they look for (and what annoys them) in a pitch.
First, it must be said: All editors are not alike. They expect and need different things. Once you have an established relationship with an editor, the pitching process will get easier. So if you are searching for one perfect pitching template, you won’t find it here. But still, there’s a lot of agreement among editors on what makes a pitch work.
1. There is a story
This may sound obvious but anyone who fields pitches for a living will tell you it’s not.
An event (a Senate race, a protest, a hearing), a topic (access to health care, the World Series) or a planned trip (I’m headed to Uzbekistan. Does NPR want anything?) is not enough. Good pitches include basic narrative elements: a specific focus, a central question, stakes, a conflict and/or a central character. Ideally, something happens in the story.
2. It demonstrates reporting
Good pitches illustrate that the reporter has already made some calls, gathered information and/or identified the main players in a story.
Editors generally want to know — before green-lighting — that the story is more than a curiosity or a wild goose chase. Reporters who are ready to pitch have already done enough work at least to answer the questions, “Why is this story important?,” “Why now?,” and “How could I best pursue this story in the time that I have?”
It can also be helpful — especially once you’ve developed a relationship with an editor — to offer a heads-up when something important is happening in your beat or region. This doesn’t need to be a full-fledged pitch; it’s a chance to get the conversation started.
3. It is short
You’re pitching to busy editors who have good intentions but little time. Send them something they can digest quickly and explain easily to others. Keep your pitch to one short paragraph.*
Some editors expect more brevity than others: Science editor Chris Joyce is particularly merciless, saying, “If a reporter can’t pitch a story in one or, at most, two sentences, he or she doesn’t know what the story is.” And that’s the primary goal of keeping your pitch short: It demonstrates your focus. And pay special attention to the first few lines of your pitch; this is your most important chance to stoke the editor’s curiosity.
*Obviously, the total length of the pitch may depend on the scope of the project. The pitch for a documentary may follow different rules than the pitch for a four-minute audio story or 800-word digital story.
4. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum
Do your research! A good pitch knows that it fits into a crowded stream of coverage. Have other outlets covered this story or similar ones? What is different about your story? Has the outlet you’re pitching to already covered this?
If you’re pitching to NPR, be prepared to demonstrate how your story advances NPR’s coverage of the topic. Sure, you might not have access to our internal broadcast archives, but try your best to survey the landscape. It can be helpful to include links to past coverage you’ve done or to other outlets’ coverage.
5. It considers the audience
Why would a listener or reader care about this story? We all, at times, have a tendency to get sucked into our stories and assume others are as interested as we are.
When writing a pitch, try to put yourself in the mindset of someone without a vested interest. What would be their entryway into your story? And don’t assume; whenever analytics about the audience are available, use them.
6. It is surprising
The best pitches will make editors curious. If they read your pitch and respond, “Wow, I never knew that. Tell me more,” you’re on your way!
Of course, not all stories will present a brand-new, unreported situation, but a pitch shouldn’t be predictable. A pitch about how hard it is to be homeless, for example, needs to offer more than that well-known fact. Will your audience learn anything from this story? Will this story challenge what we thought we knew?
Some other tips
Don’t knock yourself out detailing scenes and lists of interviewees: The editor would rather build those plans with you once he/she has accepted the pitch.
Be careful about using the word “new” or other superlatives: “New” can mean a lot of things. Better to be specific about the timing: This report was published yesterday. Homelessness has exploded in City X in the past two years. Superlatives like “biggest” “oldest” and “first” are often wrong — verify them.
What is the headline? If you’re struggling to focus your pitch, this can be a great way to do it. Write down some possible headlines and see if any clarify your thinking. (Find great tips on writing headlines here.)
Ask the person you’re pitching what they want in a pitch: Since all editors are different, just ask. What format should I use for my pitch? How long should it be? Many editors even have their own specific pitching guidelines or examples they can send you.
Try to understand the needs and style of the news outlet: Ask yourself, Does this program or media company produce stories like mine? Do they have common formats? Do they have a vision or mission statement that might affect their approach to coverage? Even if you’re pitching something unusual, it helps to know what’s usual.
Consider your perspective: Nothing kills a pitch like a tone-deaf, biased or anthropological representation of a person, group or situation.
Watch your spelling and grammar: Even if your pitch is decent, editors may consider small mistakes or sloppy writing a warning sign that you might not be careful in your reporting.
Don’t pitch a time-sensitive news story as your first offering. When time is short, editors must have total confidence that a reporter can deliver. If you’ve never worked with the editor or outlet, it’s good to establish trust first by pitching a less pressing story.
It’s always a bummer when pitches are rejected, but as Parallels editor (now correspondent) Greg Myre says, “Don’t be discouraged. Good [reporters] seem to learn something every time they get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ They refine their pitches and figure out what we like and don’t like. When we see this, we’re much more inclined to entertain their ideas.”
Special thanks to all the NPR editors who offered pitching advice for this post: Ken Barcus, Hannah Bloch, Luis Clemens, Andrea de Leon, Jason DeRose, Steve Drummond, Gisele Grayson, Scott Hensley, Chris Joyce, Russell Lewis, Greg Myre, Brett Neely and Marc Silver.