How To Pitch Journalists More Successfully

Alex Kingsbury and Michael J. Socolow outline six things academics can do to get on the same page with editors.

September 28, 2017

Just because you can read a newspaper, doesn’t mean you can write for one. Sure, it’s writing at a sixth-grade reading level. But writing well for a newspaper or magazine audience can be a vexing challenge for people who do it every day, let alone those who only dabble with an op-ed once a year.

Yet in the age of fake news and pseudoscience, the need for academics to reach the public is more urgent than ever. Scholars seek relevance in public debate, and impact for their research, while news editors are starving for compelling ideas, thoughtfully expressed.

This transaction should be symbiotic. Often it is. More often, it isn’t.

 In the interest of getting academics and editors on the same page, we’ve composed a short list of tips for pitching a journalistic outlet and joining the conversation:

Have a newspeg: There must be an immediately apparent reason why this piece is relevant right now. Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Time is compressed in journalism, and scholars need to envision what it’s like to work under such pressure. To think strategically, scholars should look at the calendar.  Is there an overlooked anniversary coming up? A vote in Congress that most readers won’t be aware of? Is there a pattern of occurrences that speak to a larger trend in your field? Look at recent events and deduce how today's news will likely be repeated soon. 

For example: It’s an unfortunate reality that a police officer will be caught on video shooting a suspect and that the video will go viral sometime in the near future. Or a scholar might look at the several recent episodes of political violence - everything from the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise to the brutality that occurred in Charlottesville - and conclude that another similar episode is inevitable.  Start writing that essay now - so you're ahead of the news. Draft up the 600 words, and keep it in a file. When something does happen, update with a strong lede and pitch quickly. Newsrooms do this often for the obituaries of famous people. Many events are predictable, which is why fortune -- and the front page -- both favor the well-prepared. 

 Start with a great lede: A 'lede" is the opening of any piece of journalism. It should pierce the cheek like a fishhook with a barb that’s strong enough to hold the reader and pull them through the piece. A sentence or two is all you get to do so.  A good lede is short, tight and engaging.  If your lede fails to capture the editor’s attention, your essay -- no matter how fabulous -- likely won’t get the chance to hook any readers at all.  It is the most important sentence in your piece and should be written for your gate-keeping audience of one. Write it and re-write it. Try going short -- cut out the commas and extra clauses. Read it out loud. It can be very difficult to sculpt a memorable lede. But when it works, you’ll know it.

 Write tight: Too many academics simply don’t know how to communicate clearly and succinctly.  To write effectively, one must be able to express complex ideas in clear, simple prose. Abandon adverbs. Embrace brevity. Learn to love sentence fragments. This problem is deeper than just wordiness and avoiding jargon. Basic compositional flaws often bog down what should be engaging writing.

For example: a dearth of action verbs slows an essay. For some reason, academics just don’t employ enough action verbs. Action verbs propel sentences. They establish rhythm. They comprise the foundation of journalistic communication.  Meanwhile, sentences that are overly long, ponderously caveated, lousy with intellectual digressions and lacking in lyricism slow down even the most compelling pieces. Short packs punch.

Advance the conversation: This might appear a low hurdle, but a surprising number of academics approach public communication with a more educative and less engaging goal. Nobody is interested in an academic synthesis that encapsulates scholarly debate. With fewer than 800 words, you simply don’t have time for an introductory exposition summarizing multiple perspectives on the issue at hand. Any summary and synthesis must also be stimulating and engaging. 

Scholars might dismiss this as selling clickbait, but it's about finding the most effective way to package the added value of your expertise. In today’s social media universe, it's likely that your specific idea or take has already been tweeted and circulated. In the hypercompetitive world of contemporary journalism, most journalism outlets expect those who submit material to not only know details of current discussion, but to also be able to clearly identify their specific addition to that discussion.

Read where you’re pitching: The best way to learn the writing style of the outlet where you’d like to be published is to read it. Many of the pitches that editors receive are either bulk submissions, sent to hundreds of editors, or completely unsuited to the publication they work for. Read to improve your writing and write for where you’ll be read. Pitch your intended publication pieces they’d be crazy to reject.

Learn how to handle rejection: The rejection rate for a large daily metropolitan newspaper can surpass even the most prestigious academic journals. Every day hundreds of excellent essays cross the transom at America's top newspapers. That’s not an exaggeration. Unlike applying to university, there are no fees. So essays can go to hundreds of editors simultaneously in an email blast. Skilled wordsmiths employed by strategic communication firms earn big salaries by composing op eds in newspapers around the United States. Scholars pitching journalists are no longer competing in their niche research domain; rather, they are pushing into a huge public conversation that’s severely constricted by multiple factors.

There’s the real estate in the actual newspaper, or the number of stories that can be promoted on any given homepage. But there’s also the protection and promotion of the brand. Newspapers in the big cities, and their websites, are -- to some extent -- the last bastion of the text-based mass audience. They still provide the essential building blocks of communal knowledge and local political engagement. That remains a huge responsibility. In this sense, the daily (and even hourly) mix must always be carefully and selectively curated.

For this reason, an outstanding essay on a subject covered elsewhere in the newspaper two days earlier might very well not make it. Rather than assume the editor is an idiot who can’t recognize genius, or be personally affronted or insulted, view rejection as an opportunity. Tinker with the essay and pitch it again elsewhere. Put it away and try again when the moment is more accommodating.  All writers possess pieces they love that have been rejected that remain in their computers awaiting their moment. Rather than consider rejection as a finality, use it as motivation. Keep plugging away.

Publishing will always be more about perseverance in the face of rejection than any instant recognition. But if scholars truly seek to shape public discussion and reach audiences outside of academe, they should have at least passing fluency in the way that journalism works.


Alex Kingsbury is deputy Ideas editor at the Boston Globe. Michael J. Socolow teaches journalism at the University of Maine.

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