What You Need to Know to Get a Byline in The New York Times

By Jordan Teicher March 27th, 2015

If you’re looking for advice about getting pitches accepted, there’s no better person to ask than the editor of the publication you want to write for. Sure, there are pitch templates. And other writers may be able to offer some counsel, but even they won’t know all the nuances of what a particular pub wants from potential writers.

Unfortunately, editors usually don’t have time to explain best practices for pitching on a case-by-case basis, which is why we’ve made it one of our core missions on The Freelancer to get as much insight as possible from editors who work at places like The Atlantic, Gothamist, and Racked. Our past Q&As have been incredibly popular with our readers, but until now, they’ve only come after a particular website made an open call for pitches.

It’s hard for me to imagine The New York Times ever making an open call for pitches. Considering what the response would be from the journalism community, let’s hope not for the sake of the editors’ inboxes. But since writers all over the world want to get to the top of the editorial ladder by scoring an NYT byline, we asked Dan Saltzstein, a travel editor for The New York Times, some important questions about what freelancers can do to impress the Gray Lady with their pitches.

In your mind, what’s the ideal length for a pitch?

You want to give the editor enough information to get the idea of your pitch, but not so much that you overwhelm. A couple of paragraphs, at most, should be enough. Anything more is too much to expect a busy editor to read. Also: If you can’t get your pitch down to a few sentences, it sends the message that you haven’t thought through your story well enough. You’ll eventually have to write a nut graf that encapsulates your idea, so think of a pitch as a slightly vaguer version of that. Or think of it this way: I have to “sell” pitches to the section editor, so make that easy for me by conveying it simply and concisely.

Similarly, don’t send more than two to three pitches in one email. I’ve gotten as many as a dozen pitches in one email. There are probably a few good ones mixed in, but I’ll probably never know it since I don’t have time to get through all those pitches. Whittle them down to your favorite few.

What information should a pitch contain? What info shouldn’t be included?

The three things you want to get across: Why, why now, and why you? Not all of those might be applicable, but think through: Why is your pitch interesting, why is it of interest right now, and why are you the person to write it? That second criteria may or may not apply in the literal sense—e.g., there may or may not be a specific time peg to your article—but either way, make an argument for why I should be interested. That’s really what a pitch is. Just saying you think it’s a good idea isn’t enough. Ditto the last part. You may have some personal connection to the place you are writing about, for example. Or perhaps you just have a passion for the subject.

And PLEASE don’t just say, “Hey, I’m going to place X—interested?” That drives me nuts.

What are some common errors you’ve come across when evaluating pitches?

DO YOUR HOMEWORK. What is your format? Are you pitching a newsy article? A feature? An essay?

Tailor your pitch to the place you are pitching. Learn what columns they run. That is, where would your pitch be a good fit? Use the same sort of language in the pitch that would be appropriate for the final piece. You may not know the exact fit when you pitch, which is fine, but have a sense of the landscape you are pitching to.

Similarly, check to see if the place you are pitching has already written about your subject. If so, when? If it was six months ago, you probably need to rethink your pitch. If it was four years ago, you’re probably okay. But find out. The web makes this part relatively easy.

Make your pitch readable and well written. Don’t send sentence fragments and look out for typos and the like.

Also: Don’t send a completed article. It’s a waste of your time and the editor’s. (Even if you have a completed piece, send a shortened pitch. And be prepared to rewrite. Chances are what you wrote will have to be rewritten anyway.)

If writers don’t hear from you, how long should they wait before following up?

I tell people to try twice, with a week or two in between. It’s very possible I missed your first email. But after two or three tries, it’s probably time to give up.

How would you prefer writers get in touch with you? Do you care if someone tries to make contact over Twitter or LinkedIn?

EMAIL ONLY. Never Twitter, never LinkedIn. (Do editors actually take pitches over LinkedIn? I check it about once every three months.) And, sadly, not by phone. I just don’t have time to answer phone calls unless I expect them.

Related: Be responsive. If an editor has specific questions about your pitch, or likes just part of it, get back to him or her with your thoughts. And don’t cling to your idea. If an editor sees a story in part of your pitch, at least explore it. It may not have been your first idea, but it might be your best bet.

How heavily do you weigh factors outside of the pitch when evaluating a writer or story idea (e.g., do you factor in Twitter followers, previous clips, etc.)?

Twitter followers, no. Twitter doesn’t really drive much traffic, so why should I care? (That might be different for other outlets, I guess.) But it is worth it to send some clips—links, ideally—just to give me a sense of where you’ve appeared before. If you haven’t written elsewhere, it’s not impossible that I’m going to assign you a story, but, frankly, it’s pretty unlikely.

Are there certain topics or types of stories you’re more likely to accept from freelancers who you’ve never worked with before?

Ideas that they either have a personal connection to, or a specific knowledge of. Play that up in your pitch.

What’s an example of a recent story from a freelancer that turned out well?

We almost entirely rely on freelancers (occasionally Times staffers will pitch us), so I could point to plenty of stuff. A couple of pieces that come to mind were spawned by the fact that our Frugal Traveler columnist, Seth Kugel, was on a hiatus for a while, so we used some fill-ins for a few months. The last was Remy Scalza, who did a couple of great pieces for us on doing Whistler the cheap way, and also a frugal take on the Hudson Valley.

What percentage of work in the Travel section comes from freelancers?

Most of it. We have one reporter, Stephanie Rosenbloom, who writes the Getaway column and does a cover story every couple of months, and Seth, who writes the Frugal column weekly but is not on staff. Sometimes staffers from other sections will pitch us, but I’d say it’s 85–90 percent freelance.

How much do you pay? I know rates may differ depending on certain factors, but is there a baseline number you offer the average freelancer?

It depends on the column. For longer pieces, it ends up being a little less than a dollar a word, somewhat less than that for covers. That’s less than what magazines generally pay, but more than what most web outlets do. And we help with expenses.

Related: We have a pretty draconian ethics policy that forbids us from using writers who’ve taken freebies or discounted rates from any part of the travel industry (airlines, hotels, etc.) in the last three years. Unfortunately, that disqualifies a lot of writers. It’s frustrating, I know, but that’s our policy.

Do you have any final advice for freelancers who want to get a New York Times byline?

The most important piece of advice, in my opinion: Don’t take rejection—or even a lack of response—personally. I know this is easier said than done, but keep in mind a few things. Editors get a lot of pitches. There are loads of reasons why your pitch might not work that have nothing to do with the pitch itself: They already have a similar story scheduled, there was a similar story in another publication or blog, they are looking for something specific and your pitch isn’t it, they aren’t taking on new writers, etc. Or it may simply be that there’s no fit for your pitch where you are pitching it. A lot is out of your control, so try to develop a thick skin.

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