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Six questions journalists should answer before pitching a story

Six questions journalists should answer before pitching a story

Tom Huang, editor at The Dallas Morning News | August 27, 2012

Story pitches can come in all formats.

(The narrative blog, Gangrey.com, has a good piece on pitches — particularly magazine story pitches — here.) Pitches can vary depending on the reporter’s track record, and how long the reporter and editor have worked together. In general, the more the editor and reporter have worked together, the more they can communicate in shorthand.

But regardless of the reporter’s experience or how mature the editor-reporter relationship is, I think it’s important for the reporter to be able to answer a handful of questions before pitching the story to his or her editor. These are questions for both reporters and editors to ask.

What piques your curiosity about the story?

I always ask this when a reporter approaches me with an idea. I want to know whether she is genuinely interested in the idea and whether her curiosity will drive her to seek the answers she needs to tell the story. I want to know what aspect of the story first caught her attention. If she ever gets lost in the weeds during the reporting, I can remind her about the initial moment of intrigue. Finally, I want to understand how the writer thinks. What topics are of natural interest to her? Where is she getting her ideas from? What is she reading?

What’s new about the story, and why do you want to tell it now?

I want the reporter to have done enough research to understand where the story lies in a timeline. What previous events have led to the current situation? Give me that context. Then let me know what’s new about the situation. Does the story reflect a new trend, a turning point, the start or the end of a conflict? Do we need to tell the story in advance of an upcoming decision, meeting or event?

Such “news pegs” can be limiting, and I’ve often argued that we should be able to publish stories just because they are good stories. But given how busy readers are and how many distractions they face, it helps if a story — even “just a good story” — has a compelling reason to be told today.

Why will the reader or viewer care about the story?

Yes, I’d like to know why a reporter is curious about a story idea. But I’d also like him to step outside of his reporter’s role and think as a reader or viewer. How can we frame the story in a way that’s relevant to the average person? This is where the reporter considers why the story would grab the attention of his parents or, say, his friends at a bar (or his parents at a bar).

Not that his parents or friends are average people, but they live outside the newsroom (which can sometimes become fixated on a story that’s not relevant to others). Ordinary people are most concerned about their finances, health and safety. And if they have kids, they’re probably concerned about all of that, plus education. Does the reporter’s story idea touch upon any of these issues?

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