After years of excruciatingly long and painfully tedious story idea meetings, it is time to decode what management and producers want to hear during content pitches. Reporters, you deserve a fair chance to get the story you want to do on the air. You just have to know how to pitch. Sadly, in my experience over the years, many reporters have no idea what to do. You get hums and haws. You ask a follow up question, mostly because the story is starting to intrigue you and the reporter blurts out in an annoyed tone, “I don’t know I need to make a call, can I do it or not?”
Pitching to a room full of grumpy journalists is not fun. I know. Producers seem to love to poo-poo anything you bring up. Often it seems apparent that the producers and managers already know what stories they want (from the newspaper or competition) and could care less what you bring into the meeting. Here’s a little secret: Often if there are better story ideas, managers and producers will throw those preset plans out the window and jump on fresh stuff. They do walk in with a blueprint to keep from free falling all day. You are talking to a group of control freak, hyper planners. It’s what makes them good at their jobs. They have the backups ready. But managers often hope if you are assigned certain types of stories often enough, you will eventually start pitching those types of stories yourself. In other words, they can’t figure out how to explain what they want, so they assign the kind of stories they want and hope you figure it out.
So here’s how to show you get it and really rock a story pitch. First, immediately describe the first image and type of sound bite you think you can get out of the story. Producers think visually. They need to see the images in their heads and feel how it will play out on the TV screen. They need this as much or more than reporters. It’s how they “feel” their newscasts when determining what goes where. Next, explain in 1 or 2 sentences how the story impacts the key demographic for the shows. Yes, you need to know this stuff! It saves you from wanting to bang your head into the wall every day. That is the information producers and managers use to decide content. You cannot come in with effective pitches without the same perspective. Just remember that’s a key reason why managers and producers often seem to have predetermined what reporters are covering. They are using their audience knowledge.
Now knock the socks off the powers that be, and throw in a tease line (it doesn’t have to be beautiful, just an outline) so the producer can see how to showcase the story. By doing this you show you understand the story yourself, and you have found the “WIFM” (if you don’t know what that means read What’s the viewer benefit really?) Now you explained the story’s potential impact, then you teased it for them. That’s like wooing them with a tonic, simply irresistible!
After showcasing impact, the next biggest thing managers and producers want to know in your pitch is if you’ve done any legwork on the story already. Remember, they are thinking in 30 minute to 1 hour increments, not a 2 minute package time. They are making calculated guesses on whether you are BS’ing about a story to look good in front of your peers or if you can really pull it all off. Often they will risk one or two “iffy” turns with great potential. The slam dunk turn with audience appeal is a producer’s dream. You will really impress if you can state “This is a sure turn.” and then pull it off.
Also, know that they tell you they want exclusives from all of you each and every day, but they know that’s not realistic. If you get information on a solid follow up, do not be afraid to pitch it. Those stories are important to show that the station is really involved in the community, not just exploiting random events. A solid pitch on a follow up can have a lot of appeal.
Finally, if all of these tricks don’t work, ask to buy a producer a drink one night and find out why your story ideas are getting blown off. Sometimes managers and producers have cast you in a type of role for the newscasts that you don’t know about. Yes, they really should tell you. But, realistically, that just doesn’t always happen. So be proactive and ask what more you can offer to really nail a story pitch in the editorial meeting. Your sanity will thank you!