[NASW] Meet the editors

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 26, 2008

[Pitch Slam:  Meet the editors.  Ivan Oransky (Scientific American), David Corcoran (NY TImes), Adam Rogers (Wired), Bob Sipchin (Sierra)].

Every year at NASW, they have this wonderful event where  we get to meet the editors from major science publications and try pitching a story to them and seeing whether they like them.  It’s really interesting to see what kinds of stories the diferent publications are looking for and what angle they require.  The same story can be interesting to one publication for one reason, but interesting to another publication for a different angle.

For those of you not in the know, a “pitch” is a 200-300 word blurb on the article you’d like to write — a well-written catchy synopsis with some journalistic research backing it up.  Some common themes that came up about writing a good pitch were:

  • Make the news angle clear (what’s new?)
  • Make sure to research whether that publication has done a similar story before
  • Pitching a question, “What will the tourist reaction to the death of pine trees in Colorado be?” is not very effective because the answer might not be surprising (“they won’t come”), or the answer might be “nothing much.”  If, on the other hand the answer is something surprising, like “A rising industry in disaster tourism,” then that is an interseting story.
  • Back up the claims in your pitch with some research, and be ready to answer questions from editor

Scientific American, for example, features articles primarily written by scientists so there are not many places for freelance writing  But in the front of the magazine and on the web there are some sections where writers can break in; they really like top 10 lists, for example.  In general any ideas that come straight from the science news wire services (like Eurekalert) aren’t going to fly; their staff writers are covering those stories.

That was also true of the New York Times, which is a very difficult venue to break into.  They primarily use writers that they’ve been working with for a long time, except for the “Cases” section in the science section where someone writes about their personal experience with the health care system.

Wired of course has a very different market — they want articles on what is cool and hot, technogeek kinds of stories.  Many science stories can be Wired stories, but you have to find the Wired angle in them.

Sierra Magazine, of course, requires the environmental angle in a story, such as green living, light technology, and sustainable living.

To give you some ideas of the kinds of pitches that we heard, and editors’ reactions:

What we can learn from polar bears.  There are some very interesting aspects to polar bears health that could have implications for human health.  For example, though they are inactive during hibernation, they don’t develop osteoporosis.  They also develop insulin resistance during hibernation, but don’t develop diabetes.  These are good reasons to promote bear conservation.  Great story, right?  Well, said the Sierra Magazine, we’re kind of sick of hearing about polar bears!  Maybe this could be done instead as an infoporn graphic page, with a sillhouette of a polar bear and diagramming what we can learn from different parts of polar bears.  Readers are jaded about polar bears, so you have to find a new angle.

Another story was about the hospital of the future. Much research suggests that having noise privacy, views of trees, and other simple modifications in hospitals, can promote healing.  How will this research affect hospital design?  Scientific American didn’t like this story, they’ve done a lot of green and sustainable building articles in the magazine.  What is surprising in this story?  It seems obvious that a view of a tree is a good thing, but who will pay for this, what is the incentive for a hospital to implement these changes?  Is there a hospital that is doing this? The Sierra Magazine liked that pitch better, because sustainable design is a hot thing now. If that story about the benefit for the patient could be combined with the benefits for the planet, then that would be an interesting story.   Wired wasn’t too enthusiastic, since they’ve done similar stories.  A new story would have to have a specific focus or angle.  Plus, much of this research is based on small studies, and they would want to know the research had been well-developed.

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