Pitching a story to a newsroom? Work backward
By Will Frampton
Owner and Director at McLeod Media
Having spent 15 years working in TV news, there were some things I will admit I never quite figured out.
How to remain calm, always, for live shots.
How to knock on the doors of mothers and fathers who’d just lost a child and ask for an interview.
And the one that always kept me up nights, ruined so many Sunday afternoons with stress, and made the mornings before our editorial meetings sometimes downright miserable: pitching story ideas for the day’s broadcasts.
Imagine: you have to make your deadline at 4 or 5 p.m. each day, and also plan ahead for the next day(s) with original content, and get the video and interviews lined up such that you can turn the story between 9 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. (writing and editing from 2:15 or so until 3:40).
Then do it all again the next day, for months and years. No sympathy from anyone because the 5 p.m. show comes around every day whether we like it or not, and those stories aren’t going to get themselves on the air.
So, the terror started each day with that morning meeting, where the executive producer or news director would turn to me and say, “Mr. Frampton, good morning …” (the cue to pitch my ideas in front of the room).
Over time, I got better at it. My parents, wife, and friends will tell you the stress of this daily ritual nearly put me out of the business over several years. Toward the end of my time in TV, story ideas started to come a little more naturally. Maybe it just took some growing up and understanding society from the perspective of a married adult with kids.
But even at its best, it was never easy to develop story ideas. Not for me, anyway. And I know a lot of industry friends who agree with me on this.
If it was hard for us, imagine how hard it is to pitch an idea as an outsider
The odds are stacked against you. Any reporter in any market is added to a mailing list of PR agencies nearby. We get these emails almost like telemarketer calls, often coming, quite obviously, from someone with no understanding or knowledge of how the newsroom works – and what we are up against in those morning meetings.
Also, reporters and producers know that a pitch from a PR agency comes with an ulterior motive: that agency is trying to get free advertising and airtime for their clients. “Earned media,” I think they call it.
I must have immediately trashed at least 95% of these emails over the years.
But, a few did pan out. And panned out, in many cases, because the PR pitch person on the other end of the phone had taken time to get to know me, my industry, and the pressures of the day. And also to understand the magic ingredients to get the story pitch past the gatekeeper, the executive producer (EP).
They realized they would have to work backward to get publicity for their client. That is, understanding the perspective of the producer responsible for putting together the show that day, the producer responsible for writing the “tease,” and the reporter who had to answer to all of them in pitching the story.
There’s another blog post to be done here later; I’ll tap into some interviews with friends and colleagues from years in the newsroom. But for starters, here are some points to consider if you are trying to get content into a newscast or a publication.
How can my story pitch be a legitimate news story?
It cannot reek of an advertisement for a product or an initiative because people will see right through that. So if you have a thing or an initiative you are pushing, find a way to connect it to the news of the day.
An example from years ago: You’re pitching a story for an agricultural initiative. It’s election season, so this initiative – say they’re in the poultry industry – advocates for farmers who want to keep operating costs in check.
An item on the ballot would require farmers to give their chickens more room to roam within cages, which will cost farmers a ton.
How would you pitch this to a reporter? First, consider that any credible newsroom will need both sides of the issue on a political story. So, start by having a farmer available to go on camera that day, with access to a chicken house for video – and then offer a list of colleagues you know are on the other side of the issue. Someone at PETA, for example.
You offer the reporter not just your side of the story, on behalf of your farmers. Still, you also make it much easier for them to reach credible experts on the other side. The report should never make it on the air without both sides. In essence, you’d accelerate the chances of your client getting coverage if you help clear the reporter’s path to a stress-free deadline.
With the example above, you’d be working backward from the deadline, putting yourself in the reporter’s shoes, exponentially increasing your chances of getting visibility.
This statement might get me in trouble with my friends in the PR world, but here goes: Any PR agency that promises guaranteed media coverage for a client is kidding themselves and their client (in my opinion).
I make that statement because, even with the best story pitch and the most developed relationship with a reporter, none of us know what the day will bring. You can set up a story and have all the interviews in place — then, a gas main leaks at a local school, sending kids to the hospital. Then, most of the newsroom is dispatched for breaking news coverage.
That story you had lined up? Forget it until maybe the next day or next week if it’s still relevant.
This sort of thing always happens. It drives clients crazy to see their compelling product or initiative take a back seat to more urgent news items.
But this is life. And if you have relationships developed with reporters and newsrooms, and if you work backward from their deadlines, putting yourself in their shoes and the pressures they face. Eventually, you’ll start racking up that “earned media.”
As a reporter who has been desperate for so long to find great story ideas, let me tell you: We always welcome someone with a good story idea to help make our day a little easier. That idea just needs to meet us where we are.