What you know and who you know: getting editors to bite #ahcj13

Constance Alexander

About Constance Alexander

Constance Alexander is an independent journalist in Murray, Ky. She is attending Health Journalism 2013 on an AHCJ-Rural Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by the Leona M. & Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Freelancers, start networking now, because “who you know really does make a difference,” said David Corcoran, editor of Science Times of The New York Times.

He and two other editors — Tyghe Trimble of Men’s Journal and Scott Hensley of NPR — shared their insider’s tips for independent journalists Friday morning at Health Journalism 2013.

Corcoran presented five actual story pitches and asked the audience to guess which one that made it to print. The winner hit all the high points. In her proposal for a story about lions invading suburban spaces in Kenya, Stephanie Dloniak mentioned her mentor, whom Corcoran knew personally. The Kenyan dateline made it stand out. Dloniak, also had valid credentials as a wildlife biologist, and her pitch provided an organizational framework for the story — including how her young kids were on “lion lockdown” because of the situation.

Pitching magazine articles requires the same attention to detail, and Trimble, senior editor at Men’s Journal, reviewed the essential do’s and don’ts. He stressed the importance of knowing a magazine and all its parts before sending a query. Since submission rules vary from one publication to another, and from editor to editor, freelancers need to do their homework for every pitch. Understanding the audience of a publication is also important, and Trimble recommended taking a look at a magazine’s media kit, which outlines demographics for potential advertisers.

“Don’t pitch a topic,” he warned, suggesting a clear angle for any proposed story, including reference to credible sources who have agreed to be interviewed. Including background sources in a proposal is a good idea, and making it easy to check out the links is a plus for busy editors.

“If I’m interested in a pitch, I’ll read background,” Trimble said. “It gives me a better sense of the story and a better sense of the writer.”

Hensley, digital correspondent for NPR and editor of its Shots blog, said that much of the material for the blog is staff-written, but freelancers in unique locations or with specific expertise have an advantage. Knowing online style is crucial for writers because editors ask themselves the question, “How much work do I have to do to make your post ready for us?” So be prepared to come up with headlines, teasers and art suggestions to make an online editor happy. Hensley’s presentation can be found here.

In print or online, in newspapers or magazines, the guidelines for freelancers boil down to commonsense tips: Know the publication, present a proposal that is free of grammatical errors and run-on sentences, and demonstrate high standards. Moreover, don’t send completed stories, don’t send the same pitch to multiple markets and follow up when an editor fails to respond to a time-sensitive proposal.

Networking at events like the AHCJ conference is useful for every freelancer. “Get to know editors in a position to publish or give you regular feedback about your work,” Corcoran said.