How to make the best possible pitch.

Most of you are about halfway finished at the J-School – the midpoint of the middle semester – and you’re realizing what it takes to be a professional, to get the OK to do the stories you want to do, to get someone to publish them and even sometimes pay you for them. You’re realizing how important a good pitch can be.

As coaches, we get a fair number of requests for help with pitching, and we’d like to get more. The goal is to get more work published, and to get paid for it whenever possible. Don’t think that pitching is for freelancers only; even if you work in a large news organization you’re constantly pitching to be able to get the assignments you want.

Preparing a good pitch not only helps us get assignments and clips, but also makes us more productive. When you know you can get a good story, you work more efficiently. Yes, it takes more time to do a good pitch, but it’s worth it.

We’re going to start assembling a file of good pitches and queries for you to peruse, and we have books that offer prescriptions for good queries. Get in touch if you have a story you want to talk about pitching. Something you’re working on? Something from first semester? Something that can be expanded? Something you’d like to do in the future? We’ll help.

For now, here’s Tim’s pitch checklist. If you can answer the questions below before you pitch a story verbally or send out a written query, you’re going to increase your chances of getting the assignment, the clip and the paycheck.

Tim Harper’s Pitch Checklist

Main questions:
– Is this a story?
– Or is it just an idea/topic?
– How can I make it into a story?
– Is my premise true?
– Am I sure I can get the story?
– Do I have the critical source or facts or statistics? Or am I going to be embarrassed if I can’t do the story because some key sources don’t call me back?

More questions:
– Can I sum up the story in one sentence?
– The focus of this story is… The heart of the story is…
– Do I have a prospective nut graf or cosmic section? Maybe it will get better, but it would be helpful to be able to write out a possible nut graf/cosmic section.
– Would the prospective lede and/or nut graf of the story make a good pitch? (Most editors say yes.)
– Can I back up or support or expand on the elements of the story identified in the nut graf?
– How much work have I done on the story already? What research/interviews have I done? What statistics/facts do I have?
– Who or what are my sources? Who will be the people in this story? Are they only talking heads? Or will they be real people doing real things, people with a stake in what happens or doesn’t happen?
– Will those people talk to me? In the time and the depth I need for the story?
– How will I report this story? Sit-down interviews? Phoners? Statistics/reports? Historic background? Live-in? Fly on the wall? Attend an event or go along on a task?
– How am I going to structure this story? Anecdotes? Are there opportunities for narrative?

And maybe the most important questions:
– Where is this story going to run? Where will I pitch it?
– Why is it suitable for this market? What stories has this market run that make me think the editors will like my story? Has this market run stories so similar to my mine that the editors won’t be interested?
– Where else has this story been published? How are the previous stories different and/or not as good as mine? Is mine fresher, with new information, a different angle, more personalized, a narrative?

Shout Outs

We’re all awash in story after story about seized-up credit markets, subprime mortgages, securitizations and enough acronyms (TARP, TARF) to drown in. The result is a lot of repetitive, headache-inducing information without much understanding or context. That’s where CUNY reporters, with boots squarely on the ground in New York City, help tell the human stories unfolding in this recession.

Karina Ioffee and Damiano Beltrami provided excellent examples of street-level stories that provided sure indicators of what’s happening in our economy. Karina reported in the Daily News on strong citywide sales of private safes for the past six months. Damiano, in The Hunts Point Express, followed the plight of John Hyun who may have to close his small market in the Bronx after 10 years of operation. We liked Damiano’s nut graf that summarized the challenge facing people like Hyun:

The economic crisis that has affected New York and the nation in recent months has hit small business like Hyun’s hard. With rising rent, electric and heating bills, owners have faced an up-hill battle. The Big Brother Market is a portrait in miniature of these large-scale troubles, one of many Bronx businesses battered by forces beyond its control.

Damiano was well ahead of the competition, which is the way we like it at CUNY.

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2 Responses to How to make the best possible pitch.

  1. Marygrace says:

    What’s a cosmic section?

  2. Tim Harper says:

    The cosmic section of a story is sometimes the same as the nut graf, and sometimes it’s a little more. It’s the graf or two or three of a story, high up, that tells you what the story is about, and covers the main elements of the story. It may tell you why the story is important. Every story should have a nut graf and/or cosmic section.

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