Marcus Strom and Peter Munro have been the target of hundreds of pitches over their respective media careers, including as former Fairfax journalists who regularly covered science stories. Now working in communications at a museum and a university, the pair are well placed to share insights into how to effectively pitch stories to journalists in a changing media landscape.
Until recently Marcus was the science editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, one of many senior jobs he held at Australia’s oldest newspaper, including deputy foreign editor and morning news director. Marcus has a science degree from the University of Sydney and accidentally became a journalist while living in London. He is now working as a science journalist and a science media adviser at the University of Sydney.
Marcus says that there are four types of science stories:
- Blow my mind – think stars colliding, the discovery of ancient fossils and all kinds of extraordinary natural phenomena.
- How will science affect me? – e.g. when will those miniature robots start to do my housework?
- Policy – why is the government not adopting innovation?
- They did what? – all kinds of scandals e.g. why did the government chose to not release that report or what commercial pressures lead to a scientist fudging results?
Marcus says a journalist is always on the hunt for a hook – in his experience, a counterintuitive way to draw a reader into a topic that can be quite complex.
Top tips from Marcus
- Make it personal. Developing a relationship with a journalist means you build trust. Once trust is established, don’t burn it by delivering dud stories. Pitches are better received and understood if it is someone with whom you have a good working relationship. Spammed media releases are easily ignored.
- Don’t be overpersonal. I know you don’t really care how my Tuesday is going or whether I had a fantastic weekend.
- Exclusive is better, but not essential.
- Provide explainers. Many journalists are not specialists in science, so explainers in the form of infographics or video (or just and old-fashioned standalone bit of writing) can not only help the audience but the journalist understand the story.
- Don’t overcapitalise. Have an understanding of how big the story is. A minor bit of obscure research does not need every single bell and whistle.
- Sometimes less is more. Yes, I know your scientist is excited about their paper, but maybe it isn’t worth a front page story in the New York Times? Maybe pitch to Chemical Engineering Monthly’s newsbriefs.
- Make sure your scientist is available. Can they be interviewed at short notice once you have put a media release out? Nothing is more frustrating than being unable to talk to the ‘talent’ for a story.
Peter has worked across many aspects of newspapers during his career as a journalist, working for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Australia, and The Times and The Sunday Times in the UK. He has written stories across news, features, arts, online, sport and magazines and recently took up the role of Manager Communcations at the Australian Museum.
Peter says that as journalists face a steady flow of media releases each day – particularly as the numbers of journalists diminish and the numbers of publicity and communications staff soars – it is more important than ever to get to the point.
If you can’t tell a journalist what the story is in less than a page, they won’t read it. The first few paragraphs are crucial. Imagine you are telling a story out loud to a world-weary friend with a short attention span – that’s how the media release should read.
Top tips from Peter
- Don’t over promise. I was always frustrated by pitches that over promise and under deliver. I often encountered this issue with pitches from universities and academic institutions. Media releases were typically written by someone in communications who had over-egged the story (often to the annoyance of their own academic or “expert”). I often wondered whether they had actually spoken to each other about the story at all. It’s only after following up a pitch that you find the story doesn’t stack up, which is annoying.
- Make it real. Too many pitches sit up in the clouds, where lofty ideas and concepts float about and harps play. Data, statistics and grand notions are great but rarely move readers, listeners or viewers. Real stories need real people. I always looked for pitches that highlighted the people behind the news, because their personal story is key to telling the bigger story. By including these people and their stories in your pitch, you will also save a journalist from having to source people for a case study – a job that many journalists loathe.
- Looks are (almost) everything. Images are everything, now more than ever. A good photo or video might get you into the newspaper or on TV. A great photo or video will take your story to page 1 or to the top of the news bulletin. Every pitch should come with a clear idea of the photos or videos that will help carry the story. Better still, take your own high-res photos and video and then provide these to the media outlet. This is one way to overcome the limited resources of media outlets. Also, in many cases, the only way an editor (or audience) can understand or appreciate a story is by literally showing it to them.
- Do your homework. I worked as a journalist in Sydney, Melbourne and London – spending my final five years as a journalist working for The Sydney Morning Herald. But I would regularly receive media releases about events in Melbourne, despite having left there years earlier. The same was true each time I changed roles at the paper – and it is common for journalists to change roles within a media outlet. Media releases would cover areas or jobs that I hadn’t covered for a long time. I often wondered whether the person pitching had actually read the newspaper recently.
- Make direct contact. It is better to pitch to people rather than to anonymous news desks. But you need to know about the person you are pitching to – not least their correct job title and city of residence. Equally, research the section or program you are pitching to. If it’s a newspaper, get to know where your story might fit best. This might also save you from pitching the same story they ran yesterday. And find out when their deadlines are – never pitch to someone when they are on deadline.
- Don’t give in. Most journalists are good people but they’re also very busy. If a journalist does not respond to your release, call or email them. Send the release a second time. Call or email them again. I always valued persistence and determination, despite the merits of a story. It’s a fine line, of course, between pitching a story and stalking. But give it your best shot. Even if a journalist knocks back your story, you might at least get a chance to find out the reasons why for next time.
- Give in. Some stories just don’t cut it. Be selective and targeted in your pitching. Think before you pitch. Don’t send 100 releases in the hope that one of them will stick. Spend time crafting a smaller number of targeted, considered pitches – complete with images and case studies. But realise that some stories will never make it. Perhaps the idea didn’t hold up or the publication had run something similar yesterday or, simply, the journalist is having a bad day. There are many reasons why a pitch doesn’t become a story. Don’t take it personally. And be prepared to let go and try again next time.
Thanks to Marcus Strom and Peter Munro for sharing these useful insights with the Inspiring Australia network.