PITCH PERFECT: How to pitch news story ideas in a news meeting
There’s a scene in the 1996 movie “Up Close & Personal” that shows a typical newsroom editorial meeting.
I won’t get into all the flaws in this movie, perhaps another article, but the meeting starts with Tally, a new reporter in a “Number 4 Market” (Philly) and she’s pitching a story. She’s facing off against an experience (and rather bitter) Marcia McGrath.
Tally: Off this ambulance drivers’ strike, we’d get into the crisis in an emergency. Emergency rooms are so crowded, hospitals are turning ambulances away. They don’t have the beds.
Marcia: What hospitals, Tally?
Tally stutters: County General, for one.
Marcia really lays into her: Queen of Angels? Saint Matthews? How many hospitals? You said hospitals, plural. Which hospitals? When? How many people turned away? Why?
Tally defends: I have a call into the Paramedics Association.
Marcia, please with herself, says: When you have the statistics, you should reintroduce. Shall we move on?
It’s as uncomfortable as anyone has ever been during an editorial pitch, and we’ve all been there.
The thing is – Marcia wasn’t wrong.
In 1996, this movie was one of the only parts of broadcast news it got right. The meetings were a beast. New people were generally put up for verbal sacrifice unless the story was well thought out and pitched perfectly. You had a seat in the meeting, but you earned the right to sit there and have a voice at the table.
The problem is many editorial meetings now are a washed-down version of that meeting. Pandemic forced us into virtual meetings, but very similar flow.
I’ll be the first to say, I don’t think we’ve found the perfect editorial meeting, and Lord knows I’ve tried. We are talking at 8, 9 or 10 am about what is going to be relevant at 5 pm. We’ve also got a large time gap with everything that is going to change.
Raise your hand if you consistently end the day with the story you started with at the editorial meeting. I see few hands. If you do, I have to wonder if you’re working all the sources to get news.
First, there are the distractions, the “what I did this weekend” chat that is great for comradery but messes with the time crunch others in the meeting are under. Now the digital person gives info about what’s going well and what isn’t. Important, but more time. The News Director (myself included) might use the meetings as learning moments or announcements that need to be made or discussions for important non-editorial meeting topics, but damn I’ve got everyone here so I need to address this.
Wait. Everyone is there. That means work in the newsroom has come to a halt. Should we eliminate some people from this meeting? Then you’re silencing voices and risking a “who’s important and who isn’t”.
Some meetings start 30 minutes into the reporter shifts, so they can work their sources and pitch better story ideas. Some meetings start right at the start of the shift, leaving reporters and producers to find stories on their own time.
There are those star employees who have found the perfect blend of turning today’s story while harvesting the next day or next Thursday’s story. We need to learn from them.
We’re in the process of evaluating our editorial meeting flow. I did a survey with the staff to get input on how they can best be present and pitching during the story meetings.
THE PERFECT PITCH
I’m going to give you my version of the perfect pitch, but this is going to change depending on who your newsroom leader is. I think you’ll find some of these themes resonate in many newsrooms.
If your idea starts with:
“I’m not sure if this is for today but..” (no confidence)
“I heard that there is a concern about…” (I’m just saying something to say something)
“I was reading the top story of the paper and I think we can do that…” (I have a shovel but didn’t dig)
“This probably isn’t anything but.. “ (I have to pitch something and I thought of this obscure topic first)
DO NOT PITCH IT.
Work that story before you pitch. This isn’t just for reporters or anchors. Producers, digital team, managers, editors, the random salesperson just sitting in the meeting to see how it goes.. I’m talking to you too.
Now, I’m not saying if you have an idea don’t pitch it. I’m saying be a journalist and flush that out before you do. Make 2-3 calls on that story, send 5 emails to potential sources, read the study you are pitching and find the local relevance.
Here’s how to turn those around:
“I’m digging into the concern about the lack of Baptist churches in this area. I have three contacts who are willing to talk with me but can’t do it today. It would be a great story for a Sunday anyway, and I know Sundays are slow.”
“There is a concern about working too many hours.. a new study just came out and I’ve dug into the numbers and it seems in the Midwest this burnout is 75% more likely to happen than in the South. I have reached out to hard-working groups like Nurses, Teachers, Factory Workers Union, and PR people.”
“So the paper beat us to a story, but it’s a good story and I can build on it in a more relevant way. This is too good of a topic and it’s better told through video. Here’s how I can do that.. ”
“In my circle of friends, we are all really worried about how and when we need to get a booster shot. I watched an interview with Dr. Fauci and then read up on the state COVID website to find information. This isn’t easy information to get in a definitive way. Let’s dig into that by talking to the top 3 doctors in the area.”
AVOID THE DREADED “WE”
“We should look into..”
“We might want to see if..”
“We should start with looking at all the court cases..”
“We need to have better sources..”
The obscure “We” really means absolutely nobody will do that.
Most of the room agrees but assumes “we” means the person who pitched it. We’re also waiting for management to say “Yes, we need to do that.” Then it becomes the managers’ problem, in the minds of many people. “We” is that magical person who has nothing else to do and just sits around waiting to “We” the day away. No such person exists.
Turn a “We” into a “You”.
“You are right, we should look into why people didn’t get vaccinated. Can you spearhead that initiative? Find 3 people who can help you on the team and get back to me by Friday.”
“We should see if nurses are now taking a lot of vacation. Whom can you call to get that answer?”
“Starting the day with court cases is a good idea, I’m going to assign that to the assignment editor.”
“We do need better sources, but let’s assignment beats and have each one of you get three sources in the respective areas you can share with the team. I’ll send that list out today. Report back by tomorrow.”
PIO’s AND MEDIA CONTACTS WITH COMPANIES & ORGANIZATIONS AREN’T TRUE SOURCES
They are good in the sense that they give us information. They also have a first and foremost priority to their particular organization. So, they are pitching you their agenda, hoping you fit it into yours. You cannot take their information at face value.
You need to control your agenda. You need to control what the people need to know. You need to be able to call proverbial “bullshit” on their data or information.
Don’t believe everything one of these people say just because they are easily accessible and willing to get you a soundbite. This is most definitely a GOOD thing, but it’s not the end of the race. It’s a milestone in that race.
So what is a “true” source?
It’s someone who gives you tips that might be unpleasant. It’s someone who can guide you to the depths of a story you might not otherwise get. It might be the private security officer outside of the mall, telling you about a new safety protocol because he got the memo. It might be the stereotypical “Karen” who is fighting every battle she can find, whether it’s over the price of soup or a new policy at her kids’ school. A member of the SWAT team who drinks at your local watering hole and gives you tips. A disgruntled former employee of Company X ready to spill the beans. The list goes on forever.
A source isn’t a formal person with a title and a corner office waiting for a call. Sources are hidden in crowds of people, not even thinking of themselves as sources. They are just people who care deeply about their community, career, family, and finances.
How do you find them? It doesn’t start with “I need sources, whaddya got?”
It starts with talking to people everywhere you go. The waitress at the restaurant. The gas station attendant. The pharmacy worker. The person in line with you at the pharmacy. The person giving you that COVID vaccine. The nosey next-door neighbor.
How do you find them as a journalist?
Go have lunch near the courthouse. Attorneys, clients, prosecutors, court clerks, etc., are all there eating lunch and talking about work. Find out the bars that are “police” bars, where they hang out after a long shift. You don’t even need to drink. Harvest your station’s social media sites, find the people who comment often (not the crazy comments, the real good ones, even if they are argumentative.) Attend a school board meeting focused on the people in the audience, not just the ones speaking.
Another gold mine for story ideas? (Sorry, fellas, not sure if you are willing to do this regularly) Your local nail salon. They are a trapped audience for 30 minutes, with family and friends talking about what matters most to them. They are vulnerable yet open. Talk to them. I’ve tried not telling people who I am and just asking questions, and I’ve tried “I work at Channel 8, here’s my card, you have really good insight into this community, and can you reach out if you have an idea? Also, can I get your email?” Same goes for your favorite salon.
Make sure your sources will go on the record, and if not you NEED to talk to your News Director about the company policy on “Confidential Sources”.
“I AM JUST A PRODUCER, JENNIFER. I DON’T HAVE SOURCES AND MY FREE TIME IS MINE.”
You are never “just” anything. You are always a journalist. As a producer, you have a front-row to everything that is going on at any given time.
Start with the front desk worker, if you have one. Talk to the salesperson who is heating up their lunch while you wait to heat up yours. Sales team members have a direct link to many businesses, whether the pitch worked or not, and they get fed story ideas all day long. They just might not realize it’s a news story.
Throughout the day, I have Google Analytics, CNN Newsource and Live Channels, ABC NewsOne and Live Channels, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Slack (God bless you, ABC, for this), Teams, CrowdTangle, LinkedIn, various news websites, and personal email open. I’m sure there are about 10 more tabs I’m not even thinking about right now.
Think of all that information. You are front and center to story ideas. I’m a big fan of local news vs. locally relevant news. A supermarket shooting in Colorado? Locally relevant because the next trip to the grocery store will have that shooting on everyone’s mind in your local market.
Follow Facebook Groups in your area. I’m in groups for moms (I don’t have kids), local cities and counties (where I don’t live), photography groups in the area (looking for User-Generated Content and finding “sources”), and Pet Groups (which are my favorite because I’m a crazy dog lady.)
Schedule time in your day to dig through these. Maybe 15 minutes every two hours. I check them all in between tasks, keeping Slack as my main window on monitor #3 so I can always see what’s poppin’.
You can easily see the best video of the day, the incredible soundbites, the “why are there so many people in front of the Capital right now and I see on the live channel they are breaching the doorways.”
You are really the frontline of the world as a producer. You see the story drop about the “Working 55+ hours a week can kill you” and you think “I very much feel this pain. I work so much.” If it resonates with you, it might resonate with others. Look at that article, find the study, and search for local relevance. When the story is posted to your station’s Facebook, read the comments. Sources everywhere.
KNOW WHOM YOU ARE PITCHING THE STORY TO AND PITCH ACCORDINGLY
Yeah, you are pitching to your boss, and the managers, and the producers. But you are REALLY pitching to your target viewer. That’s what the managers are looking for – stories that are relevant to the target viewer.
Every station has one, heck I’ve printed out life-sized replicas of our target viewer and creeped out the newsroom by having her stand at the board with me as I asked for ideas.
If your station isn’t totally transparent with who this person is, ask your managers. “Who’s watching the news? What does he/she make a year? Does he/she have kids? Do they own a home?”
If memory serves right, my current market has an 80% homeowner rate. Higher than any market I’ve lived in, that’s for sure. So, a rental increase might not make as much of an impact on the target viewer because they don’t rent and haven’t for years. Focus instead on home prices. Talk to local realtors. What are they seeing?
You keep pitching stories about bars and nightlife? That’s because YOU enjoy that, most likely. The sad truth is, especially in smaller newsrooms, you are telling stories about a lifestyle you haven’t gotten to yet. The Target Viewer isn’t whopping it up at the bar on a Tuesday night, and really doesn’t care that bars are now giving away free drinks to those who pay using the new city parking system. Tailor the pitch to what the target viewer does.
When I was in Las Vegas, I had been a life-long renter, and this housing crisis was THE story. It wasn’t going away. I looked at my anchor John one day, and keep in mind I was Executive Producer, not some newbie just out of college, and said “I don’t understand the housing crisis. Why can’t people just pay their mortgage? Pay the bill and be done with it.” He, as a recent homebuyer, took the time to explain to me “Two mortgages… one for the house and one for the down payment.. teaser interest rate.. they couldn’t afford it in the first place.. but since the bank said they could they went for it.. now that interest rate is gone.. double the mortgage.. jobs being lost.. can’t afford.. so upside down on the house they can’t sell at a profit.. no choice but to walk away or lose their savings to payments.. even I’m in a house I won’t even get even on for decades.” It suddenly made sense. Several years later I bought a home, on the downside of the bubble, and got a fantastic deal. Only hiccup? My neighbors had loans that were twice mine, and they resented that I was living in a home just like theirs for half the price. A fresh-baked “Hello I’m the new neighbor” pie wasn’t going to fix that.
I heard from my parents, who were losing half their retirement fund to the financial mess, and heard their concerns. Retirement was a long way away for me, so why did I care? I didn’t have to care – my viewers did and I needed to hear that perspective.
If you don’t have kids, talk to people who do. I’m guaranteeing your target viewer has kids. You don’t have to adopt or get pregnant to know how they feel. Just get their perspective.
Know who he/she is and pitch the story like you are standing in front of them and pitching. If a topic is tough to understand, as someone around you who does. We’re new people, we love to show off our knowledge.
THIS IS MY FIRST JOB AND I JUST MOVED TO THIS AREA, I AM LOST
Moving to a new area is hard, especially if it’s different from where you went to school or grew up. You can’t talk to a Southern attorney the way you talk to a Philadelphia one. Small town cops traditionally have looser lips than big city ones.
Now, warning – I’m going to ask you to use some of your free time here. However, I think it’s in a good way. If you like to lunch every Saturday, then choose 5 key neighborhoods or cities in your market and go lunch there during your first two months in a new market. Drive around. Streets riddled with potholes? A playground with aging equipment? A big banner boating about a carnival next weekend? Stories everywhere.
Drive a different way to work every morning. Learn the city, the streets, the businesses along the way. It’s frustrating when a reporter who has been at the station for 3 months doesn’t know anything but their ride to and from work. You are now an expert in this city, like it or not, so explore it.
Get your coffee at a different place a few mornings each week, not just your neighborhood Starbucks.
Ask the assignment manager how the court works there, how accessible court documents are, if cameras can be in court, what the Open Records laws are, how to FOIA in this market, etc.
Set up bookmark links of all these websites you are given.
Ask to attend a sales meeting, to get your face in front of team members you might not otherwise see. Tell them you are new and looking for ideas. See if one of them wants to get coffee (I bet your boss would pay for that.)
FIND OUT THE BEST WAY TO PITCH IN YOUR NEWSROOM
How? Just ask. Don’t just assume how everyone is doing it during the meeting is the “right” way. Talk to your News Director, Assistant News Director, Assignment Manager, etc. Talk to each and every member of management in the newsroom about how they prefer stories to be pitched.
You might need to submit in writing ahead of time. You might just need to practice your verbal pitch. The manager could help you flush out an “I was wondering..” dreadful pitch that can be turned into “Thanks to Bob for helping me with this, but I found out our unemployment rate is vastly different than the national average.”
Not all pitches happen in a meeting, some happen accidentally during a discussion with another colleague. Let that mini-pitch turn into your BIG pitch.
PITCH HACK: Learning from the assignment desk how they prefer information makes you A. Appreciate the job they do B. Shows you want to learn and can be independent C. Makes them more likely to help you out in a pinch. Don’t just say “You should make a call on this..” 20 people have already said the same thing to them today and they are just one, generally underappreciated, person who can’t do it all. Take ownership of your ideas but get help when needed. “Who can I call to find out..” goes a lot farther.
I’ve worked in newsrooms where having a story idea is the price of admission to the meeting. No ideas? You can’t sit with us. I’ve tried “If you don’t have anything good, don’t waste our time” meetings. That just silences people and gives them a reason to NOT have an idea. The overachievers overperform and others just sink back into chairs. I’ve tried all story ideas submitted ahead of time and only managers meet to make decisions. Each idea works well in some ways and is crippling in others.
Managers, make sure you are consistently clear with “This is how we pitch an idea in our newsroom.” IF someone is missing the mark on the regular, pull them aside. Talk through the issue. Build confidence from “I just don’t feel like my ideas are that good.”
PITCH EFFECTS, NOT EVENTS
Raise your hand if you’ve ever pitched an event. You have. We all have.
What’s the difference? The event is the Carnival Royal you saw while having lunch in Springfield last weekend, the effect is (after some digging) you find out that carnival keeps the small town running through the end of the year and the revenue is literally “make or break” for the city budget.
The event is a School Board meeting, the effect is the school day could extend by 30 minutes, and parents are pissed off.
The event is a news conference with the Governor touting a new multi-million dollar carbon footprint initiative, the effect is he didn’t talk about the tax increase that he signed last week and hasn’t spoken of it since. You ask one question “How much of the new tax initiative is going to pay for that, taxpayer thought that was all for better roads. Is there a connection?” and the story might turn. Find the people impacted by the carbon footprint. How many jobs is it creating? What businesses will go under because they can’t afford to acclimate?
You have to find the effects of the story you are pitching, not just a timetable event.
PITCH OUTSIDE OF THE BROADCAST
Yeah, I know all stories go to the website. Are you thinking of ALL the places your station reaches? Do you know which streaming platforms your station is on? Do you have an OTT Channel (Roku, AppleTV, Amazon)? Where is your presence on social media?
You can pitch for other platforms as well, and the social producers or digital team will celebrate you, not to mention the managers who see you think beyond TV.
“I saw the Carnival is going to 50 food vendors and they’ve got pictures of each special dish being made. I could help make this into an Instagram Video or a Facebook photo collage.”
“It’s National Dog Rescue day, let’s have people send in photos of their pets and we can use those on all our social platforms. We could also do an extended digital-only story with the Humane Society about how they are overcrowded. I talked to the office manager and they can do this anytime today. I can help set that up.”
“There’s a missing boy with autism and it’s such a big story, we all know that. Could we do a half-hour special on OTT about how special needs children react in these situations to help other parents who are struggling with this in their own home? I think we get a few long interviews, mix it in with the search video, and this could be a three-day turn with a long life span on our streaming channels.”
“We aren’t on TikTok, and I know it seems like a bunch of kids doing silly dances, but I found 50 journalists on there and telling stories in unique ways to a different audience than we target on broadcast. Jess and I would like to start a station TikTok.”
BE LOCALLY EDUCATED IN YOUR PITCH
Every market has those city names that are just pronounced weirdly. We have a Beatrice, which is pronounced “BEE-AT-riss” not “Be-uh-TRICE”. We have a Norfolk that is “NorFORK”. Yes, like the utensil. When I first got to Vegas I was like “Um. How do you pronounce “Hualapai”?
I once wrote a story about an accident on I-10 in Tucson. I wrote the accident was in the southbound lanes.
My anchor Randy, may he rest in peace, was so helpful even through his frustration with the new producer. “While I can see you think it’s southbound, because of the way the Interstate winds through Tucson, but it’s actually eastbound. Even-numbered roads are always East/West and odd-numbered roads are always North/South.” It’s a fact I haven’t forgotten to this day and has helped me catch errors in other people’s scripts. “How it is eastbound when the road is Highway 95?”
How do you refer to your interstates? Is it “Eye-10”, “The 10”, or just “10”.
Where does city/county control change? What are the oddities of your market? Las Vegas has Metro Police, which covers city and county, and that police department has a Sheriff. North Las Vegas has its own police. Henderson is another police force. There is no County Sheriff. There’s just Metro.
Las Vegas also has a city council, but it has nothing to do with “The Strip” you think of when talking about Las Vegas. “The Strip” is under the control of the Clark County Commission. The City Council oversees the downtown gambling corridor.
Is your sheriff elected or appointed? It’s the difference between a Sheriff’s Office or Sheriff’s Department, in most cases, but some places have elected Sheriff though it’s Sheriff’s Department.
LOOK TO OWN A STORY
This is somewhat of a work hack but needed its own segment.
When a BIG story is happening, like COVID, become the station expert on that. Learn about novel viruses. Learn that coronavirus is the actual virus and COVID is the sickness it creates. Reach out to top doctors at the start of something to get in good with them. Do research, read everything you can. Find out about how emergency management works in your state and county. Listen to the Governor’s news conference while working out to get full details of the government’s plan, not just a few of the “good bites”.
Be where the story is going, not where it is. There’s a virus. How do we test for this? What’s being done? Who’s working on this? Can I get on their media alert list? What about a vaccine? How does that work? What’s the difference between FDA approval and FDA authorization (there is a BIG difference)? Ok, we’ve got vaccines, who gets them first? Where are those people? How will they find out? Ok, now everyone is getting vaccinated, when will masks go away? What have flu numbers been like with all the restrictions and mask-wearing? Ok, everything is opening, but why aren’t there workers available? Where did they go? Why are prices going up? How does distribution work? What’s going on in our local stores?
Warning = this means you are going to spend time reading JAMA articles, digging into datasets that are mind-numbing, watching a lot of cable news while you are making dinner, finding a way to translate that Chinese article into English, etc. It’s not always fun, but you’ll get better at it as time goes by. Ask someone in the newsroom to help translate. Talk to you boss “The way I see this, we aren’t getting as many vaccines as other states per population numbers. Can you double-check this to see if I am right?”
But once you’ve become the expert on a story, you’re saving yourself from finding a million other stories to pitch. You become the “Go ask Bob about vaccines. He’s been keeping up with that.”
Source see your dedication to this and reach out more, feeding more stories on the topic. Everyone in the newsroom can’t be the experts. They are going to pitch an idea from a news release sent by the local hospital, and you can say “They are really failing to mention that while they have the vaccines, they don’t have staff to do it. They are actually holding vaccination classes so more people can actually give you the shot.” Or say “No, doing a story on the cost of the vaccine is moot. It’s free. Period. But if you see a place charging, let me know. That’s a good story.”
DO NOT GET FRUSTRATED IF YOUR STORY IS NOT SELECTED
I hear this a lot “I spent time on a story, and you put me on something else.” Don’t let that dissuade you. We have a finite amount of time and never enough people to do all the story ideas. Most meetings aren’t “if you pitch an idea, you get to do it.” There are target viewers to think about. There might already be a lighter story the station is doing that day and “we need a lead.”
I’d say my own personal pitch success rate, even being the boss, is at best 20%. There are a lot of stories being thrown out, and we can’t always have our way. Louder for the people in the back, “YOU CAN’T ALWAYS HAVE YOUR WAY.”
Make sure your station has an Evergreen list somewhere. Put your story together there. There comes a time when we need to dig into those “good” stories that don’t have to be done on any particular time frame.
Do more research and re-pitch. Maybe it’s better for a weekend reporter. Maybe it should be a morning show live shot. Pitch for all points of contact, and maybe that morning reporter who’s banging their head against the wall for an idea will return the favor someday.
THIS ARTICLE HAS GONE ON LONGER THAN THE LONGEST EDITORIAL MEETING, WRAP IT UP
I’m now 8 pages into Microsoft word as I just wrote freestyle, trying to keep up with my thoughts.
If nothing else, this shows there is never a lack of stories out there. There is only your approach to this part of the job. It’s not for “other people” to do or hoping that Bob has enough story ideas to go around.
No, GO FORTH AND PITCH!