Answer: That they did one.
After we stopped laughing, we got down to specifics. I asked the same of several other editors. If the subject seems remedial to the point of being insulting — of course you do a clips search — note this: Every one of those editors mentioned the story pitches and proposals that lack that very basic step. All interpret it as disrespect for the publication receiving the pitch, and for the work itself. That won’t earn you the assignment.
So what will?
As with most questions about journalistic craft, the answer lands somewhere in the murky land of It Depends. It depends on whether you’re a rookie (more effort into backgrounding your pitch), or a proven veteran (perhaps a bit less). Whether your previous work shows you are steeped in the subject, or you are trodding new ground. Whether the idea comes as an assignment from an editor who has already done that foundational work or is coming fresh from you.What’s not negotiable: Doing enough of a search to prove to an editor that your story idea subject or story angle is fresh, that it fits the publication, and that you are the one to do it. The expansiveness of that proof might change whether you’re pitching a story in your own newsroom, a freelance piece to a magazine, or a book idea to an agent. But the core remains the same.
1. Search what’s already been done by the publication you’re pitching.
The parameters can change by publication. A general interest but locally based newspaper is different than a national general-interest magazine is different than a magazine that focuses on a particular topic. In the golden good old days, newspaper reporters would walk back to the library which housed a “morgue” filled with clips of past stories. Freelancers would most likely subscribe to their magazine of choice, so have a sense of what had already been done.
These days, for good and ill, you have Google. So type in the publication you’re pitching to in the search bar and hunt around. Check similar publications that might be considered competitors. Get creative with those search words. For more robust searches, consider Lexis-Nexis if you have access through an association or a university library system. And as much as Wikipedia has become an everyday go-to, do not rely on it as your primary proof. (I checked my own name last week as a test; someone has ponied together a page for me and got several factoids wrong. I had my 13-year-old nephew fix it for me, but it’s still far from complete.)
Pro tip: Don’t stop on the first page of Google. Editors I spoke with suggested going back at least three pages on the search, and ideally five.
2. Two years back is a minimum; five is better.
Oh, those pesky editors. They remember pretty much every story they’ve ever edited or published. The idea may be new to you, but feel old hat to them. Don’t insult them with proposals about work they’ve already done in the past eight months, or even three years.
Don’t fold too quickly. Just because a publication has posted a piece about X subject or Y personality doesn’t mean they’ve done the story you want to do. But you need to note it (honor due), and then make clear that what you propose poses a different angle or question. Maybe a publication has written about what happened, but not about how or why. Maybe they’ve explored the impact of an event, but not the people or passion behind it.
Pro tip: Profiles are especially rich for exploration. Many publications will have quoted someone hundreds of times, but never really profiled that person.
3. Note timeliness, proximity and sources.
Not much point in pitching a terrific idea that is happening nowhere near your targeted publication’s reach. Editors like some sense of the unique. So if you read about an issue or trend on the other side of the country, make a couple of quick calls to similar areas near you to see if you have a local example or perfect local source. And speaking of sources, be prepared to tell the editor who you can talk to (the type of person or profession can often suffice, without specific names) and what records you can access.
Pro tip: Pay special attention to future dates, including any anniversaries that might be tethered to your idea. You can use them as a hook — if you can get your story done before they are on last month’s calendar page.
4. Keep your focus clear and tight.
Too many great ideas suffer from drift. The writer tries to show all the tentacles of an issue but obscures the central point. Maybe you figure that you’ll throw a lot of possibilities at an editor, hoping s/he will bite on something. Rich stories do, indeed, require context and connections. But the best pursue a primary question or reveal, with the rest serving as supporting material.
Pro tip: When you research an idea, it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of your central focus. Do yourself a favor and run your pitch past a friend or colleague, then ask them to state back, in one sentence, what they think the story will be about.
5. Sell yourself.
That means you need to know yourself and convince an editor — in brief — that you can deliver the story you pitch. If it requires database skills, make it clear that you have them. If it involves sensitive sourcing and interviews, demonstrate that you know how to do that delicate dance. One way to shore up your credentials is to note you already have access to certain sources, and/or expertise in a subject area from previous work.
If all that seems like a lot, remember to scale your background search work to the situation and the story. An editor who knows you likely doesn’t need a lot, or anything, that proves you can deliver. The editor doesn’t need you to list everything her/his publication has done on a subject in the past, so nod to it while you pitch your fresh angle.
Pro tip: If you’re pitching an editor who doesn’t know you well, you no doubt will provide links to a few clips to show your work. Be selective. Editors don’t have time to wade through six or 10 of your favorite pieces. And crucial: include a one-sentence summary of each clip; don’t expect them to open things cold and sort out what they are reading, and why.
And a quick postscript: Sometimes an idea that is pitched as “original” is, but isn’t. Good ideas in all fields tend to pop up because the timing is right and smart minds sometimes do think alike. So if your pitch is rejected, but the publication does a very similar story a couple of months later, don’t assume the idea was stolen. As the writer/editor at the top of this post noted, “Sometimes stories are just in the zeitgeist.”