Congratulations, you’ve encountered that most elusive and endangered of creatures, the journalist. If you’re going to try to feed reporters a story, there are three things you need to include in your pitch: Why their audience will care, why it’s new, and why it’s now.
Why their audience will care
You’re pitching a reporter because you want to get your message to their audience. That’s why the most important objective isn’t to interest reporters in your story, but rather to convince them that the story would interest their audience.
That seems self-evident, but I spent almost two decades as a reporter, editor, and public relations professional in the private sector, watching people who ought to know better waste their time pitching the story to reporters without any reference to why a specific audience would find it emotionally or intellectually compelling. If you want reporters to care, you first have to explain why their audience will. Go so far as to share anecdotal examples of audience engagement, such as, “I know from talking to people about this that it really seems to get mothers with kids in public schools fired up,” or “We did a blog post on this, and it was the most shared thing we did this month.”
Why it’s new
As the old cliché goes, “They call it ‘news’ because it’s new. They don’t call it ‘olds.’” It’s not always necessary to promise an exclusive, but you do need to be able to explain to reporters how they’d be either the first to do a particular story or how they’d have an angle on it that no other media outlet had covered to date.
“New” is also what differentiates news from a story. Not all good stories are newsworthy. A lot of policy outreach uses one or two compelling personal stories to humanize and dramatize complex issues. But those stories, once they’re no longer new, quickly lose their value in driving news coverage, and the outreach stalls.
That being said, when assessing the potential for a pitch, it’s easy for a think tank communicator to fall into the “We already did that story” trap. Sometimes that’s true, but I frequently make an analogy to the era before DVRs and Netflix, when NBC would promote its summer television rerun schedule with, “If you didn’t see it when it first ran, it’s new to you.” If the story ran in Grand Rapids, it’s probably still new to the audiences in Detroit. If it ran in the automotive trade media, it’s likely still new to the talk radio listeners of Traverse City.
Why it’s now
All reporters, even if they don’t admit it, have a “someday” file. It might be a real file or it might be a mental list, but it’s where they store stories they might do “someday.”
Absent a good reason why it’s important to do your story at a specific point in time, it’ll likely end up in the “someday” file. That’s why your pitch needs to include a reason their audience will care about this story right now, rather than some other day. Perhaps there’s a vote coming up, or there’s a study coming out. Maybe it’s the one-year anniversary of that bad policy and an appropriate time to revisit it.
(I’ve traditionally stayed away from things like Mother’s Day or fake events like National Hot Dog Eating Day or Accordion Awareness Day, as most reporters hate the flood of ridiculous pitches they get tied to such events. But if you can find a way to make one work, go ahead.)
Why you should prepare
You never know when you’ll get a chance to pitch a story. Over the years, I’ve had unexpected encounters with reporters in situations ranging from a Chamber of Commerce mixer to a Little League field, from an airport cab stand to an engagement party. If you want your story told, you need to do the work ahead of time to quickly and clearly explain why an audience will care, why it’s new, and why it’s now.
John C. Mozena is vice president for marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.