The project’s mission is not only to develop immersive stories that humanize inequality, but also to support the freelancers producing this work — the same people who are often struggling themselves to get by in a contracting industry getting further walloped by the pandemic. “My job is to put band-aids on gushing wounds,” says David Wallis, managing director of EHRP. (His email signature includes this quippy tagline: ‘Saving an endangered species: Journalists.’)
The project’s ethos hearkens back to Works Progress Administration programs of the New Deal-era, which employed journalists to elevate underreported narratives across America. Today, EHRP is outright in its quest to change attitudes about poverty: “There’s this public perception that low-income people are to blame for their plight,” says Wallis, “when in fact there are systems in place — a plethora of reasons — why people are stuck in reverse in this country.”
Wallis’ organization has earned a slew of national awards for the essays, reported features, podcasts, documentary films and photo essays it funds. This year alone, EHRP-supported stories won prizes at the Society for Features Journalism’s 2020 Excellence in Features Award, a Mirror Award for best commentary and a Best of the West award for video storytelling.
The New York-based nonprofit funds stories across the U.S. and partners with a range of outlets for co-publication, including California Sunday Magazine, The Guardian and The New York Times. Across platforms and mediums, though, EHRP’s sweet spot is intimate human stories that advance a more nuanced view on financial precarity: the idea that an eviction, or job disruption, could happen to anybody. And unlike some in the industry, Wallis urges journalists to draw on their personal experiences.
I talked with Wallis, who has worked at the Forward and the New York Observer, freelanced and founded Featurewell.com, about how to make a story pitch sing. We also analyzed a pitch by writer Debbie Weingarten for her 2018 story about farmer suicide, which was co-published by EHRP and The Guardian. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Which ingredients in a pitch convince you that a story is a good fit for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?
A pitch should be three or four paragraphs, and explain why you are the person to do that story. You don’t have to be published in the New Yorker, but you should be able to tell me why you are an expert in this topic. It might be that you’ve done a tremendous amount of research. It might be, for instance, that you’ve been the victim of domestic abuse or there’s college debt you can’t shake. Everyone is an expert in something. Think about what you’re an expert in, and be able to share that story.
It’s important to have a really good look at our website to see if we’ve done it before. That’s a rule that too many people who are pitching forget: go to the publication’s archive and read it carefully. Read what we’ve done in the past; it’s a predictor of our future.
What are some common red flags in pitches?
- Don’t misspell my name. I think there’s no way this person’s going to get it right if they can’t get my name right.
- I’m careful about typos.
- When I was at the New York Observer, someone pitched me but had cut and pasted a pitch for New York Mag. I’m never going to give you an assignment if you can’t get the name of the publication right.
- And don’t send me a 3,500 word pitch.
Tell us about your “culture jamming” strategy of publishing stories about poverty in places that don’t typically cover it. Why is this important to you?
One of my proudest moments was a story that we co-published with The Guardian, by a writer named Bobbi Dempsey, on how her family’s pet underwent an excruciating death because the family couldn’t afford emergency medical treatment for a suffering dog. It ran in The Guardian and got a lot of attention. But more importantly, I managed to get it reprinted by The Bark, which is one of the premier dog publications in the country. I don’t think The Bark covers poverty very often. They cover chew toys far more often. This was a win, as we see it: to get people thinking — who weren’t necessarily thinking before — about unfairness.
How often are stories pitched versus assigned, and how soon can writers generally expect a reply?
It’s 50/50 between what we assign, and pitches that we accept. In terms of the pitches we receive, I’d say we accept one out of 15. We’re a very small operation — two editors and two part-time contractors. We’re doing a lot with a little, but I try to get back to people within a week.
Contributors can pitch you, but EHRP also partners with a variety of outlets. Can you share more about the process of finding a co-publisher?
We often work with partner publications, and for less experienced writers or emerging voices we will help place the story. We’ll do what it takes and step in to make stories happen. There have been times when we’ve helped reporters with cold weather gear, because they couldn’t afford a jacket. Another reporter needed a camera, a photojournalist, and we bought the camera.
For the most part, when an experienced reporter comes to us, they have already communicated with a third-party publication and let them know that they want to get EHRP’s support. In fact, editors at Harper’s and the New York Review of Books have brought us ambitious projects where they have the freelancer and have a story idea, but just need funding to do travel.
Is it possible for a reporter to get paid both by a publication and by your organization?
That’s the goal. We generally pay about a buck a word; less for op-eds because there usually is less reporting. And then you’re supposed to get paid by the publication, too. We want everyone to have skin in the game.
EHRP is offering a relief fund for journalists suffering financial hardship from the COVID pandemic, as well as assignments that focus on the pandemic and economic pressure. What’s the difference between these two?
One is a limited fund and we don’t require work in return. It’s for people who are facing serious consequences because of COVID. It could be a journalist who’s become sick and couldn’t work, or saw their freelance budget really dry up; it’s not for a well-heeled journalist who has taken a little bit of a hit and is relaxing in their chateau. It’s for people who are three months behind on their rent.
The other fund supports stories that we do about COVID, and we’re busy as all hell. We’re assigning every day.
Can contributors work with the EHRP more than once?
Yes. But demand has gone way up so we are spreading around grants now. For the most part, if someone has gotten a grant from us, or two grants, we’re not giving them a second or third right now. That could change.
What kinds of stories do you think are missing from the national dialogue, and what would you like to see more of?
Stories that personalize the pandemic. 184,000 U.S. deaths (as of this posting) is just an overwhelming figure; apparently Americans are inured, somewhat, to the fact that people are dying at such a rapid pace. I’d love to see stories that humanize these really frightening numbers — numbers that should provoke outrage, but haven’t done so enough.
We did this piece with Steve Brodner, an illustrator from New York, that I thought was very effective: it was a Washington Post series of illustrated obituaries of essential workers, or people who died from COVID, who were unsung heroes. It included everyone from a 24-year-old aide for a Republican congressperson to a 96-year-old who had been wounded on Omaha Beach.
Also, I’m always looking for pieces that mock the rich and look at absurdity. If there’s a piece that investigates really wealthy people who take advantage of the system, that’s another part of the story that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
Annotation of a pitch: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Wallis’ responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at top of your mobile screen.
The December sky above Onaga, Kansas is wide and marble-blue. From the quiet of his empty house, John Blaske, 67, is staring out the window at his fallow cornfields. Why was this opening effective for you, and which details caught your attention? She sets a scene well, paints with details and quickly introduces us to a surprising character: a 67-year-old Kansan contemplating sand talking about suicide, which remains an under-reported topic. “In the last 25 to 30 years, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about suicide. Not a day goes by,” he tells me. He is choking back tears. Do you always suggest opening with a character? Always? Nope. But I appreciate it when reporters find characters, evidence of a willingness to do hard work.
Two hundred miles away from Onaga, in Harlan, Iowa, Michael Rosmann, a clinical psychologist and one of the nation’s leading farmer behavioral health experts, has dedicated his career to advocating for farmers. Day after day, Rosmann answers the phone to farmers in crisis, many who are experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Months ago, Rosmann began picking up the phone for Blaske, who has experienced several nervous breakdowns due to farm debt. This writer did a lot of pre-reporting before crafting this pitch. Do you like to know which experts readers will be meeting in a story, and why? And how many sources are enough for a pitch? Editors often joke that three equals a trend in journalism. But there’s something to it. The reporter does not have to talk with sources before pitching, but can simply quote a few sources from press coverage and mention that they plan to approach these three experts.
Climate change, weather catastrophe, government policy, the ebbs and flows of market supply/demand, and farm product pricing below the cost of production are all factors in this epidemic. Ultimately, these factors lead to debt, foreclosure, and economic crisis for farmers across the global farmscape. Here, the writer zooms out to introduce us to a variety of macro factors contributing to this problem. What made this transition effective? Debbie pointed out several stubborn issues that my organization cares about. Also, she introduced a strong news peg: the 2018 Farm Bill. Some editors deem news pegs as passé, but I’m still a fan of answering the question, “why now?” In the United States, many agriculture scholars believe we are speeding toward a replication of the 1980s Farm Crisis, one that famously upended our farm economy and evicted farmers from their land. How high up in a pitch do you like to see the “why this matters now” peg? High up.
In the countdown to the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, farmers and behavioral health advocates will begin asking their legislators to put farmer behavioral healthcare back on the docket. How far out from this bill did the writer pitch? And generally, what kind of lead time do you suggest for a longer feature like this? As I recall, we were about 6-9 months from the Farm Bill. Every publication has a different lead time. When I freelanced, I tried to study the magazine’s editorial calendar before pitching. Special sections, for instance, are still planned many months in advance. But for farmers like John Blaske, the crisis is happening now. He says, “Farmers are thinking they’re worth more dead than alive. And if any one person thinks they are the only one in this boat, they are badly mistaken. It’s like Noah’s Ark. It’s running over.” Do you like seeing direct quotes in pitch? Yes, but it’s not critical. There is an immediate need for a national conversation about agrarian wellbeing, behavioral healthcare that reaches farmers, and for agricultural policy reform. How effective was this pitch at creating urgency? Very. If I can say after one page, ‘Who knew?,’ I’ll assign a story. I had assumed that farmers were doing fine. I remember the Farm Aid concert, but I hadn’t thought much about their plight until I read this pitch. EHRP’s mission is to make people aware about economic unfairness and family farmers–not the subsidized mega-corporations–have gotten a raw deal. And given the time constraints on editors who are likely working with fewer support staff than pre-Covid, save your best line for first.
The farmer suicide crisis lives on our supermarket shelves, and I want to start the narrative there—with the box of Corn Flakes, traced back through the distribution chain to the refinery, the mill, the Kansas silos, and the 300 acres of land sold out from under John Blaske, causing his series of nervous breakdowns. How detailed should a reporting plan be? Stories evolve so we are not going to hold a reporter to a pitch. That said, I like it when a reporter can detail how they will report the story, including an expense budget and a travel plan — in the days when we didn’t rely on Zoom. If looking through the lens of a more global story, I could also follow the bag of rice that reflects the 18,000 Indian farmers who died from suicide in a single year; and the loaf of bread, which tells of French farmers in 2016 being placed on suicide watch after the worst wheat crop in 30 years.
In covering this story, I am interested in asking the following questions: Why are American farmers committing suicide at such profound rates? How is the farmer suicide epidemic a symptom of a larger issue present in our globalized food system? How is cheap food literally killing our farmers? What community or government initiatives are working to prevent farmer suicide? This writer introduced quite a few broader questions that could shape her reporting. Do you prefer to hear about all of a writer’s curiosities in a pitch and hone the angle once it’s accepted, or do you look for a tight scope? I wish I could offer a definitive answer. I like a curious—but not a confused—mind. And ultimately, how can we—as a society of consumers, academics, policymakers, and advocates—save John Blaske, and those like him?
Debbie Weingarten Debbie clearly had extensive subject matter expertise in the topic she was pitching. What advice do you have for newer writers with less related experience, who want to prove that the story is within their wheelhouse? This convinced me to pull the trigger: “I was a vegetable farmer experiencing depression and anxiety. Farmer suicide as a behavioral health crisis is simultaneously invisible, yet astonishing in its magnitude.” Not everyone is a former farmer and I probably would have balked if Debbie had been a former pharmacist. But we are all experts at something and can write about our past. I was the victim of a bad car crash, so I once wrote about that. My mother was a Holocaust refugee and that enables me to have a distinct POV about immigration right now. Mine your life. is a freelance agriculture and environmental writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been featured in Rodale’s Organic Life, Modern Farmer, Civil Eats, Aeon, Longreads, Vela, Guernica, The Development Set, The Establishment, Terrain.org, Mutha Magazine, and others. She is a regular features contributor for Edible Baja Arizona and a writing partner for The Female Farmer Project. Her essays are included in the 2016 and 2017 Best of Food Writing anthologies and listed by Sun Dress Press as one of the 30 Most Transformative Essays of 2016. She has won several Arizona Press Club awards for her environmental, social issues, human interest, and profile writing.
You can read our annotation of the resulting story, “Why Farmers are Killing Themselves in Record Numbers,” at this link.
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.