Career Advice

The Open Notebook’s Siri Carpenter Reveals What She Looks for in a Pitch

By Spenser Davis May 5th, 2016

When it comes to freelance writing, some things are curiously taboo. Many of the most important aspects of freelancing, like pay rates and contract negotiation, are often shrouded in secrecy. Luckily there’s The Open Notebook, which was founded to shed light on these important topics.

Describing itself as a “non-profit organization that provides tools and resources to help science, environmental, and health journalists at all experience levels sharpen their skills,” The Open Notebook was built for science journalists in particular, but many of the site’s resources are just as applicable to all freelance writers. Their website hosts everything from in-depth features about specific aspects of journalism to interviews with well-known science writers like The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz and Wired contributing editor Brendan Koerner.

Sections like the Pitch Database, which publishes successful pitches submitted by real journalists, can be extremely useful for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Another section, called A Day in the Life, resembles the New York Times’s “By the Book” column—which interviews famous personalities on their reading and writing habits—but with a focus on journalists.

Siri Carpenter, a freelance science journalist and editor, co-founded The Open Notebook in 2010 with Jeanne Erdmann, a health and science journalist and former researcher. Carpenter, who, aside from being a co-founder, is editor-in-chief of The Open Notebook, spoke with The Freelancer about starting the site, what she looks for in a pitch, and her advice for freelance journalists.

What inspired you to start The Open Notebook?

At first we had the idea of creating a series of interviews with science writers to get the story behind successful stories that they had written—to understand how they thought of and executed those stories from the initial idea all the way to completion.

[The] idea was that through those interviews, we and other science writers could pick up clues about some of the best practices that lead to outstanding science journalism. That was our initial idea, and for the first year or so of The Open Notebook, that’s what we did.

What were some of the things that you would have wanted for yourself as a science writer that you hoped to provide readers with?

One of the things we were really interested in was [seeing] where people got their ideas for stories. Were stories coming from reading scientific journal articles, or attending conference talks, or from experiences in real life? Or was it that people were reading newspaper and magazine and online articles that were triggering additional questions?

Another thing that we were interested in, and remain interested in in all of our interviews, is finding out what kind of challenges and obstacles people ran into in their reporting and writing process and the specific nuts and bolts things that they did to overcome those challenges.

Since you started The Open Notebook, the site has expanded beyond just the interviews and now includes features like the Pitch Database. How were you able to grow the site into such an extensive and detailed resource?

Our first big break was in 2011, when we got a $20,000 grant from the National Association of Science Writers through their Idea Grant program. Until then we didn’t have any money at all. We were paying for the site’s hosting out of our own pockets and doing the work for free. It was a labor of love.

With the grant, we were able to start bringing other contributors onto the site and pay them. From the beginning, we have been 100 percent committed to paying all our contributors for their work at The Open Notebook. That really started with the NASW grant. They extended that grant and gave us a couple supplemental grants after that, which allowed us to get to a point where we were in a better position to seek other sources of funding.

Later we got funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our fellowship program and we [also] got funding from the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT.

Was the audience already there before you had the grants, or do you credit the funding with helping your presence grow?

I’d say the audience has grown steadily since the beginning, but about three years ago we started posting on a regular weekly schedule. We grew to a point where, in the past two years, we have about 15,000 to 20,000 unique [visitors] a month.

So we are definitely a niche publication, but given that the NASW has fewer than 3,000 members, having those 15,000-plus monthly unique visitors from all but about eight countries in the entire world makes us pretty happy.

For those new to The Open Notebook, are there any specific areas or stories that would make for a good introduction to the site?

The Pitch Database is one of our most popular destinations on the site, so that’s a great place to start. We have a story called “How Not to Pitch,” which is one of our most popular stories ever and another good place to start.

We also have this series that we’ve been doing called Brief Guides, and we’ve published five of them so far. These are pieces that are written by very experienced science journalists that are brief, as advertised. The goal of the series, which we’ll be continuing to develop over time, is to provide a view from a very experienced eye about what is essential to a good story in a specific form.

We’ve also done a lot of stories on narrative journalism. Thinking about longform, narrative stories can be very inspiring for young journalists—but it can also be daunting. We want to balance stories about really successful, great, long pieces with some practical advice about doing the kinds of stories that are more accessible to those just starting out.

We’ve had a couple of pieces about news writing, and that’s an area that is perhaps more accessible to younger writers that are getting shorter assignments. There’s a piece in our “Ask TON” column called “Mastering News Turnaround” that is really helpful, and another called “Beyond the Press-Release Rat Race: Fresh Ways to Cover Science News” that talks about avoiding what we sometimes call “churnalism,” which is just churning out stories based on press releases. There’s another called “Is Anyone Out There? Sourcing News Stories” that I’d also recommend. All of those pieces are really good for journalists doing news coverage, which is a good way to get started in the field.

What do you look for in a freelance pitch? It feels a little bit meta to pitch the place that shows you how to pitch, so are the standards pretty high?

The main areas where we look for pitches are the Q&A interviews with writers section, and for those we look for pitches that make an argument for why a particular article is really great and deserves to be highlighted, why it’s likely to have an interesting backstory to it, and why science journalists are likely to want to hear the story behind the story.

The other area where we take freelance pitches is in our reported features section. Those are topical, reported stories where we look for people to articulate an idea about specific challenges or areas of the science journalism craft that deserve a story. We have shorter and longer reported features with their own length targets that we try to stick to. We take pitches in both of those areas, but I’ll say that about 80 to 85 percent of our stories are generated on The Open Notebook site and we assign them to someone, as opposed to cold pitches.

What’s your regular rate for freelance stories at The Open Notebook?

We pay standard rates for each type of story, we don’t change our rate based on a freelancers experience level. Nor do we do any negotiating on rates, mostly because for a publication of our size and type it doesn’t seem fair or practical and it would be really hard to budget.

For our longer features, we pay $800 and aim for about 1500 words. For our shorter features, we pay $450 and aim for about 750 words. For the Q&A interviews that aim for about 1500 words, we pay $650.

Do you have any advice for those looking to get into science journalism?

For those starting out, I’d say it’s wise to welcome short assignments that give you an opportunity to learn basic skills, learn the ins and outs of a particular publication, develop relationships with editors, and turn around a lot of things to prove yourself and prove that you’re able to do conscientious work, meet deadlines, turn in clean copy, [and so on].

Sometimes I think beginning writers are eager to get big, juicy feature assignments. I know that I was, because those are really fun and exciting. But I think that you should welcome the opportunity to do a lot of shorter assignments because they are a great training ground.

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