The Science (Not Art) of the Magazine Pitch
Journalism Professor Jennifer Kahn shares secrets of successfully pitching national magazines
By Kathryn Roethel
Most journalists dream of being published in a major national magazine, but the idea of pitching a story to one of these iconic behemoths can be pretty overwhelming.
To Jennifer Kahn, freelance feature writer and journalism professor at U.C. Berkeley, crafting the perfect pitch is more science than art. Wired, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times Magazine and - the holy grail of feature magazines - The New Yorker have all accepted her pitches.
According to Kahn, a successful magazine article should draw the reader in and unravel the story little by little.
"A magazine article is like a strip tease," she quipped. "Where as a newspaper article is like being flashed on the subway."
Kahn shared some of her time-tested approaches to magazine pitching at Stanford's Future of Freelancing Conference. Here she is in her own words:
DO LOTS OF RESEARCH BEFORE YOU PITCH
I do hours of research and probably 10 one-hour phone calls before I pitch a magazine story. And I probably only pitch one in five or one in ten of the stories I start researching. I know who my main character is going to be and roughly what the structure is before I pitch, and I probably have 25 percent of the reporting done before I pitch.
FIND EMAIL ADDRESS FORMATS ON THE AD PAGES
Memberships to organizations like Media Bistro can help you find information on the right editor to pitch at a certain publication and what his or her email address is.
If you don't have access to Media Bistro, check out the appropriate publication's website and look at the "Contact Us" or the "Advertising" sections. You can usually at least get the proper email format there.
SEND THE EDITOR A PRE-PITCH EMAIL
Send the editor a short email to introduce yourself, and tell him you have an idea that might be a match for his magazine. Summarize the idea in two sentences and ask the editor to email you back if he'd like a full pitch.
Doing this lets you have another point of contact with editors, and when they get your pitch, they'll remember that they asked for it. Otherwise, it they might dread the pitch that just shows up in the inbox unsolicited, and it might take them longer to read it and respond. People are so busy that they probably won't open the pitch and read all the way through it on the first email anyway.
YOU CAN PITCH IN ONE PAGE (FIVE PARAGRAPHS)
A good magazine pitch should be a page to a page-and-a-half. Wired requires that pitches only be one page. The first paragraph should show the magazine you can write in a compelling style. Summarize your story or use an excerpt that gives a sense of what the piece is about. (See the Scent Marketing pitch for a good example.)
The next paragraph should be the nut graf - the "why we care about this story." The third paragraph should be another reason why we care - why this story affects people in the real world.
In the fourth paragraph, give your specific plan for reporting this story. Use specific names of people you'll interview and specific places you'll go. If you already have travel plans to report the story, say that here too.
The final paragraph should be the kicker. Remind the editor what question you'll be answering and why the answer is important to the magazine's audience.
At the end of this five-paragraph pitch, you may want to include a few sentences of biography and a few prominent publications you've contributed to before. Offer to provide references or clips, available upon request.
Paste the pitch into the body of the email, rather than attaching it as a separate document.
AVOID THE #1 NOVICE MISTAKE: NOT KNOWING THE CHARACTERS
Never pitch a story until you know who the characters are going to be and understand the arc of their story: You may not know exactly how the story ends, but you need to know the heart of the story. That's the only way you can guarantee the piece will be interesting. Otherwise, it's what I call "junk in the trunk." As in, "Hey magazine editor, I found a trunk full of junk. How about paying me to go on an expensive trip to rummage through the trunk and hopefully I'll come back with a gold medallion."
There will be cases where you don't know exactly what the ending is going to be - like when you want to write about someone who's going to be in a competition or someone who is sick - but you should at least know what you're trying to accomplish with the story. You have to prove to the editor that, whether the person succeeds or fails, it's going to be an interesting narrative either way.
AVOID THE #2 NOVICE MISTAKE: LONG, NARRATIVE INTROS
Don't start your pitch with a long scene from the story. It's true that you want to show the editor that you can write in a compelling magazine style right off the bat, but do it in one paragraph - not seven.
WAIT 1-2 WEEKS, THEN SEND A FOLLOW-UP EMAIL
When I pitched a piece to The New Yorker for the first time, I got an email back saying, "hello what is the pitch." Just like that. No capital letters or anything. I sent the pitch, waited two weeks and didn't get anything back. I sent a reminder e-mail, and the editor responded saying he was really busy and would look at it in two weeks... It went on like this, back and forth for a full six weeks, until I heard whether it was going to get assigned. It did.
Don't wait months between follow-up e-mails. Wait one to two weeks. And don't resend the whole pitch each time, just remind the editor "We talked a few weeks ago about my story about...(summarize the story in one sentence.) Just wanted to check and see if you had a chance to look at it yet."
Resist the temptation to put pressure on the editor by saying that another magazine is interested. Every editor smells that for the bullshit that it is. If you want to take it elsewhere, write and tell them that's what you're doing.
EMAIL SUBJECT LINES DON'T MATTER THAT MUCH
If you're lucky enough to have a referral to the editor you're pitching, name drop that person in the subject line. Otherwise, just write "Story on XXX," or just simply "Story Idea." The truth of the matter is, I don't think these busy editors pay that much attention to the subject line.
TIMELINESS IS NOT A FACTOR
Remember that, for magazines in general, there's always a three-month lead-time in the stories they'll accept from freelancers.
IF YOU'VE BEEN REJECTED, RE-PITCH SOMEWHERE ELSE
Some of the most successful people I know are ruthless about turning around rejected pitches. The piece I did for The New Yorker was first rejected by Wired. Usually, you don't need to totally rewrite for a pitch for a different publication. Just add a tailored graph.
EXAMPLES OF SUCCESSFUL (AND UNSUCCESSFUL) PITCHES
Kahn provided conference participants with a packet of real pitches that editors at major national magazines accepted or rejected. The pitches Marketing for your Nose, Fearless Skiers, Jeremy Tyler, Memory Woman, and the second pitch for Deep Sea Cowboys all got assigned. (It's interesting to note that there was a seven-year lapse between the first Deep Sea Cowboys pitch, which was rejected, and the second one, which was accepted.)