Finding a home for your national pitches
In Fall of 2015, I had decided to try to get published in a national news outlet. At the time, I had a number of articles published in various Chicago-area outlets, but I wanted to do something bigger.
I had seen several classmates get stories or photographs published in outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other big-name media outlets. I didn’t have personal connections at any of those places, but I thought, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
One morning in early October, I received a press release about the Tour for Diversity in Medicine, which was composed of several Black doctors who were touring across the country to mentor other physicians of color. The goal of this effort was to address the correlation between the lack of minority doctors and increased health problems within communities of color.
Sounds like a good story, right? I thought so. But after shopping it to three outlets, one local, one national and one B-to-B publication, I wound up with three No’s. Feeling defeated, I passed on the story, because I had other work that needed to be done.
A week or two later, I googled the piece, just to see if it had ended up running somewhere nationally. It was published in The Atlantic. I had never been so disappointed and so happy at the same time. On one hand, I had a great idea and was persistent in my pitching. On the other, I didn’t think of all the places where a story like this would fit, and thus stop one publication short of a potential national byline. Crap!
I still remember complaining about the ordeal to my grandfather over the phone one evening and telling him that I made up my mind to be published in a national outlet by the end of the year. And a month later, I did.
On a Sunday morning in early November, I scrolled through my LinkedIn page and stumbled upon a flier for The Billion Dollar Empowerment Tour, which was traveling to different cities across the country to talk with Blacks about buying from Black-owned businesses and investing life insurance and other financial safety nets for future generations. This time, I pitched it to several publications, and only heard back from one—The New York Times.
That was basically a long-winded way of assuring you that just because your story doesn’t get accepted right away doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. In fact, it means one of two things. You need to either tweak your pitch to entice editors or get it in the hands of the right, open-minded editor willing to take a chance on a newcomer.
The pitch will vary based upon the story idea itself and the outlet you’re pitching to, so for this post, I’ll tell you how I’ve found the editors who are willing to commission freelancers.
Think of the publication where it might fit best: If you’re looking to go national, think of the publications you read regularly and whether it could fit into one of their sections. Business stories? Think The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Business Day section, etc. Women’s rights issue? Perhaps Cosmopolitan, Glamour or Elle.
Find and follow their submission guidelines, but also be sure to follow up: Most outlets have clearly defined submission guidelines somewhere on their site. If they have a blanket email address for their submissions, I recommend sending it there and cc’ing the editor who oversees that section. Though some publications will ask you not to do that, I find that at following up with the editor directly via phone or email can ensure that your email doesn’t disappear into the abyss. If the publication asks that you send in a query letter, be sure to have someone review it before you send it to catch any spelling or factual errors and be prepared to wait before you hear back. As a former editor myself, I can tell you that we had a general email for pitches and press releases, but the people who followed up with me via phone got my attention much faster. Not sure how to find the right editor? See Step 3.
Look for that editor’s/desk contact information online: Check the publication’s masthead for a name and email address. If you can’t find it there, try Twitter. Many editors have their email addresses in their bios if they’re open to pitches. Gorkana Alerts often has listings of editors’ email addresses when they change positions. You could also dig through Mediabistro to see if their address is listed there. No address? At the very least, have a name of the person you want to talk to. Once you’ve sent in the email to the general pitch email address, follow up (within their timing guidelines, of course) via phone at a later date. Look up the publication’s main line and see if you can be transferred to the editor of that section. If he or she isn’t there, leave a voicemail. It sounds a little insane, but it worked for me when I called up the Times, and later on when I followed up via email with Vice Magazine.
No answer after following up? Move on: When I was an editor at a small-staff, Chicago-based publication, I’d receive anywhere between 75 to 100 emails a day. With that experience in mind, I knew that being persistent, but not annoying, would help me get in touch with editors. Still, if I don’t hear back in a reasonable amount of time—that could vary depending on the urgency of the story—I move on to another publication. It’s important to only pitch one outlet at a time in order to avoid violating any contractual agreements with the publisher. Also, look and see if you can tweak your pitch for each publication. It’ll increase your chances of getting noticed.
Sometimes I have conversations with other young writers who find the prospect of pitching national outlets to be intimidating or basically impossible. But it is possible!
You have to have a great story idea, the right pitch, know the right editor, and have a great deal of courage. The worst thing that could happen is the outlet says no to your pitch. And even if they do, you’re free to alter your pitch and submit it elsewhere. You can’t let fear or lack of confidence get in the way of your potential success. And as the saying goes, you’ll never know until you try.
I’ll be posting more on this subject as I go. If I’ve missed something, please leave a comment or send me a note!