How to Pitch an Investigative Story

Published May 15, 2018 | 5 min read

You muckraker, you. You’ve lined up a prime scoop, a juicy exclusive people will need to read. You’re ready to go all Woodward and Bernstein on the journalism world.

Well, before you start writing your Pulitzer acceptance speech, consider a few steps. First and foremost: who will publish your story? Finding the right home for it is every bit as important as the reporting you’ve done, though the task of weighing options and making an approach is almost like a second job.

Many a freelancer has condemned herself to an editor’s blacklist for not following established pitch protocols. They’re not difficult to learn. But without them, your blockbuster piece might never find an audience.

With that in mind, here’s a quick primer on how to pitch an investigative story.

Failing to do enough homework is a common mistake among freelancers — no matter where they hope to place their work. When you’re pitching, you need to steep yourself in the preferences of the publication. What issues are they covering? What types of pieces are they putting out? What elements do they include? How are their stories crafted and presented?

A pitch must reflect what the publication has already done.

At the Contently Foundation, for example, each of our investigations includes an opening anecdote that dramatizes the problem at hand, then mixes in data, documents, a big-picture perspective, interviews with experts and an attempt to assess the impact of what’s been revealed. We’ve covered a fair amount of crime but are open to just about any subject.

You need to understand and convey the importance of what you are proposing. So be sure to include in your pitch a description of why this problem or scandal you’ve been probing needs to be exposed. You’re asking the publication to take up your cause. If you don’t have a solid, objective sense of why readers will care about your story, no editor is going to either.

A story may be just right for a particular outlet. So right, in fact, that its editors have covered the topic in depth. This is a huge no-no. Asking for an assignment to report on something that’s already been covered extensively will undermine an editor’s trust instantly.

How do you safeguard yourself against this type of mistake? Check Google and LexisNexis aggressively. Pour over the archives of the publication you’re pitching. Ask your sources if your angle is out there. Has any reporter pursued this subject previously? You must be absolutely certain that your story hasn’t been told before.

You can’t just know your topic. You have to master it. So research your subject thoroughly. Most stories have some history of reporting behind them. So what do you bring to the table? Where are the holes in the reporting?

If, for example, your story involves judicial corruption (like the deep dive we did on this at the foundation), read everything you can get your hands on. What laws exist on the behavior of judges? Which judges have been caught committing crimes? What areas of the judiciary are most prone to bribery, undue influence or hidden conflicts? What do legal scholars say about the problem?

But of course you also must uncover a transgression of your own, a fresh example to highlight what’s going on and convey outrage over the impact on victims.

If you have passion for your subject, all the better. The best pitches come from personal experience or observation and tips from sources with high-level insights.

Whatever wrong you seek to reveal, you must offer expertise and exclusive information to the market, or editors will give you a hard pass.

Seek to identify primary evidence that bolsters your story. Documents are often the key to breaking ground in an investigative pitch.

Fortunately, we live in an age where access to records has never been easier or more fruitful for reporters. There’s hardly a subject worthy of investigative reporting that wouldn’t benefit from official information, data or data analysis, private studies, surveys, reports, complaints, etc.

If you’ve never made a Freedom of Information request or created a spreadsheet for sets of data, not to worry. There are any number of resources to help you with that, including our foundation.

Ideally, your pitch will offer at least some of these elements — exclusive interviews, telling anecdotes, expert insights, official documents and data to back up your angle.

It’s not necessarily to have completed all the reporting required for your piece before you approach a publication, but you will need to provide enough compelling components — along with a clear plan of how you will proceed — to spark interest.

Often, the best way to introduce your pitch is with your best anecdote, a dramatic tale to draw in the editor. This is also the lead to the actual story.

Sometimes it’s difficult to care about an issue — privacy invasion, human trafficking, to name just two of the stories we’ve covered at the Contently Foundation — but it’s easy to care about a human being who’s suffering. Doing that is more than half the job.

If you’ve also tracked down supporting data, records, expertise and an authoritative overview on the scope of the issue you’re tackling, you will put yourself in the best position to place your story.

If you have a general interest in a subject but not a fully developed pitch, ask for help. The Contently Foundation embraces its educational offerings — and that means we can help you craft a good story angle.

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