By Richard Morgan
Columbia Journalism School C’05
Now is not a bad time to be a business journalism freelancer. Since the onset of the financial crisis, the economy has dominated the zeitgeist. For freelancers, that means that nearly every story has a pitch-able business angle – and that nearly every outlet is in the market for a good business piece.
You know who pays really well and likes stories about interesting businesses in the South? Garden & Gun. Just check out their recent profile of the company that makes Tabasco sauce on an island in Louisiana. Some of the most intriguing coverage of Goldman Sachs and Bank of America has come from Rolling Stone, ostensibly a music magazine. And Details recently ran a package about a new economic boomlet in the Rust Belt.
Of course, for all the demand for business articles, there are no tricks or shortcuts. To be successful, you must work to develop good relationships at the newspapers, magazines and websites that will publish your stories. As in business itself, the key is persistent hard work – reliably pushing and developing good ideas in a timely and respectful manner. That’s it. Really.
Here are a few tips for a business freelancer just getting underway.
Find the Real Story
The greatest mistake a business journalist can make when formulating an idea is to presume every story is about power – power players in power suits having power lunches and sneaking in some PowerPoint presentations.
Business magazines are not about power. They are not even about the economy. They are mostly about the same things the general interest stories are about: heroes, villains, dreams and quests.
Just as health journalism should not feel like a transcript of some medical school lecture, business journalism should avoid sounding like a case study from business school. That means your angle should focus on people – their conflicts and motivations. It also means cutting out jargon like, “CPI,” “EBITDA” and “EPS.”
Of course, as with any culture, it helps to speak the language. Know your way around a 10K, 14A and, more broadly, the SEC’s EDGAR system. The last thing you want to hear from an editor is, “I bounced this off a staff writer here, and they [decimated your pitch].”
Pitch the Double Bottom Line
Folks in business – especially start-ups, where there is a great deal of salesmanship – often use the phrase “the double bottom line.” It means that a proposal must meet two measures of success: it saves time and is fun, or it cuts cost while it builds trust.
When pitching business publications, the double bottom line for any piece is that it be a good story – with interesting characters in an interesting situation that changes over time in an interesting environment – and that it demonstrate some principle of business or the economy – with actual metrics, not just concepts.
So when writing your pitch, be sure to include the most compelling character or scene, as well as the key data point. That’s the best way to convince business editors a story is up to snuff – and the best way to get them to commit to it.
Keep the Camera in Mind
A freelancer’s pitch may include an original, insightful business idea with compelling characters but fall flat because it’s visually dull.
Don’t be afraid to craft an angle to suit a publication’s aesthetic sensibility. Magazines and websites are visual media, so stories with opportunities for good art will often get better play. A story that features a photo of an aerospace executive leaning against a new jet can be much easier sell at some magazines than one with a photo of yet another banker behind his desk.
Highlight the visual details that can help. Does the business sell cool-looking products? Does it operate in a beautiful or striking place? Is the CEO is particularly attractive, or is their workspace or product particularly photogenic? Maybe the company works closely with Congress or with the NFL or MTV, and so there are opportunities for interesting clients in fanciful settings. These superficial qualities can make or break a pitch.
Pitch a Complete Story
The most important thing a business freelancer can do is to sell a complete story, not just an idea. If you cannot picture your pitch as a movie, then it is not a story.
The best way to show you’ve got a complete story is to demonstrate ownership. Explain how your take on the topic is unique; show that no one else has connected the dots like you have. Offer a few counterexamples of stories that came close but didn’t quite hit the mark.
Great pitches have related news coming down the pike all the time. Stay attuned to yours. That way, if you haven’t heard back from an editor, you can forward him the freshest related headline and say, “Here’s the latest development on that story I pitched you last week.” It will give the story momentum and a sense of urgency.
Get to Know Who’s Who
Learn the business media ecosystem and the politics that shape it. If a publication has revamped itself recently or has just hired a new editor or producer, then it is primed for new voices. So keep tabs on who’s coming and going by subscribing to industry newsletters like mediabistro’s “Revolving Door.”
When you’re developing your name and personal brand, it’s important to build a little jealousy among editors – albeit respectfully. If BusinessWeek turns down your idea, try it in Fast Company. If PlanetMoney says no, test the waters at Business Insider. Get noticed by running in your editors’ rival publications when he or she passes on your idea.
Learn to Keep It Brief
The writerly complaint that sounds the most suspicious to an editor is “I need more space to really tell this story.” Look, every story – no matter how long – can be distilled. Even The New Yorker publishes a one-sentence summary of each article beneath its headline.
One of the best exercises a writer can do is to produce the same story at different lengths: 300 words, 800 words, 1,200 words and 3,000 words. A 3,000-word story is not merely a longer 800-word story. There are fundamental shifts in structure, tone and scope.
Good writers are not just wordsmiths, interviewers and thinkers. They’re acrobats. They have a certain agility of form and can recognize when an idea would work better as a quick Q&A or an infographic.
Mind Your Manners
The freelancer-editor relationship is one of courtship, so the basics of behavior are obvious. Don’t smother. Don’t pester. Take disinterest and rejection gracefully. Don’t lie or gossip. And don’t take anything too personally. Live to pitch another day.
Also, respect your editor’s schedule. When pitching magazines, find out when they go to production and avoid the most hectic days. Instead, pitch during the lulls, the days when the publication is most open to new ideas.
Richard Morgan is a writer in New York. He has written freelance articles for The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Details, Wired, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Discover, Slate, New York, ESPN The Magazine, Out, Fortune and Forbes.