You Don’t Have to Be a Culture Zombie to Pitch On-Trend

By Emily Gaudette July 18th, 2019

Those of us who write for a living know that stories need to be relevant to get picked up. Pitching, after all, is an exchange of value: Writers want to get paid to do the work we’re good at (and work we like), and outlets want a story that will bring in readers. When the two needs align, magic happens.

Trouble is, that sweet spot is getting harder to find as media companies tighten their belts and turn to lowest common denominator SEO content for clicks. You’ve seen these “stories” before, but you probably haven’t pitched them. Stuff like: “When Is Stranger Things Season 4 Premiering” and “Is Luke Rey’s Father?”

To piece together a living, you too may find yourself catering to the click-hungry mob, pitching “takes” on events like Apple’s annual product bonanza, fiery political tweets, or a widely viewed series finale. In time you don’t feel like a journalist anymore. You start to feel like a public relations copywriter. A click-bait conspirator. A zombie treading in a cesspool of internet capitalism.

What’s a writer to do? We spoke with five beat reporters in tech, science, and entertainment about avoiding pitch burnout, keeping story ideas fresh, and always pushing for a unique angle on the news of the day. Here are their tips.

Work in an angle based on your other interests

Jordan Zakarin, features editor at SYFY WIRE, is constantly ideating new verticals under the website’s “geek media” umbrella. In addition to covering the same movies, TV shows, video games, and comics as every other geeky outlet, SYFY WIRE publishes on a number of offbeat topics: geek road trips, entertainers, behind-the-scenes special effects, and more. Finding unique angles is the only way to keep the site engaging and fresh over time.

“My favorite stories ask and answer questions that I’m either curious about, or strictly amuse me,” Zakarin said. “So for example, with this season of Stranger Things coming up, I asked a freelancer who focuses on science to look into what kind of other crazy secret experiments the Soviets did in the ’80s.”

If you’re a freelancer who covers the healthcare industry, working your ancillary interests into your pitches can lead you to new story ideas. How are doctors depicted in pop culture, for instance, and which fictional healthcare providers are the most true-to-life? If you’re an animal lover, consider branching out into stories on veterinary medicine. There are endless ways to connect subjects.

Offer up deep-dive context on the news

When reporter Eric Francisco watched Arya Stark’s training scenes on Game of Thrones, he realized that some of her movements looked familiar. On his own time, Francisco was a huge fan of old kung fu and action films, which meant he saw Maisie Williams’ stage combat for what it was: a version of Filipino Martial Arts.

“I called up HBO and asked to be put in touch with the show’s stunt coordinator,” Francisco said. “I learned exclusively that yes, Maisie Williams trained in Filipino Martial Arts for that scene.”

The story was a hit because it landed at the intersection of niche curiosity (who else is pitching about kung fu these days?) and pop culture storm (Game of Thrones).

If you’ve done your homework to develop your beat, you’ll find that your expertise could intersect with any number of trendy subjects to dive into. Freelance science reporter Neel Patel takes this approach to craft ideas, connecting heady scientific topics—physics, biology, tech—with pop culture trends.

“A lot of my stories are basically putting things into a context that’s relevant for readers or taking on a science angle to something,” he said.

The approach has landed Patel in New York Magazine (about extraterrestrials in popular imagination), on (about black holes in Guardians of the Galaxy and multiverse theory in Rick and Morty), and elsewhere.

Focus on your audience and what they need

Ryan Britt is an editor at Fatherly, an online publication for dads. He has covered culture and entertainment for many years—he even wrote a book about Star Wars—and he hasn’t run out of steam coming up with story ideas.

“If the subject is something I love deeply, then no, it’s not exhausting,” Britt said. “But it also depends on what’s trending. A trending opinion can feel exhausting, even if you agree with it.”

Although Britt is technically covering the same subjects he has for years—superheroes, music, science fiction—he changed his beat to create content for fathers like him. This way, instead of writing the same old explainers about Marvel movies, he can write targeted articles about introducing your kids to your favorite franchises, discussing entertainment news as a family, and even showing your toddler how to listen to vinyl.

Take your time pitching to find the longer view

Candice Fredrick, aka ReelTalker, is a freelance reporter who waits a beat longer than the average writer to pitch a story. She makes a point of avoiding the knee-jerk reactions that would inspire her to create content that becomes obsolete within a few days. “I don’t really chase the super trendy (here today, gone tomorrow) stories,” Frederick said, “as much as I try to capture the more evergreen or persistent news stories and ongoing trends.”

In the travel industry, a story pitch about Virgin Airlines’ distinctive blue lighting would have fallen flat. It’s just one airline, you can imagine an editor saying. Who cares? That’s probably why Vox reporter Eliza Brooke waited until three more airlines—Delta, JetBlue, and United—changed their lighting before writing her story: “Why do airplanes look like nightclubs now?” The reality is that Brooks was probably following the pattern for a long time before she decided it was pitch-worthy, and that’s the kind of patience you need in order to cover a beat.

So remember: If you feel like you’re about to burnout on timely pitches and trending topics, you have a few great tools available to you. You can focus in on a specific audience, use one of your geeky passions as a hook, or change the cadence of how often you pitch editors. Now, get out there and write about the news!

Emily Gaudette is the associate editor at Contently. She has worked as a freelance reporter and editor since 2012.

If you want to get started pitching fresh ideas, create a Contently portfolio.

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