Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘pitching

Pitchable outlets #3: CNN.com

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This is a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to see more in the series.

Status: medium-high / 1st tier

Reach: CNN, short for the Cable News Network, was the first 24-hour cable news network and the first all-news TV channel in the US. It launched its online counterpart CNN.com in 1995. Since then the website has grown into one of the most widely read news publications worldwide. It has numerous bureau across the globe and international channels such as CNN Espanol and CNN Philippines.

For an idea of reach, one of my stories for CNN.com scored over two million page views.

Accessibility: CNN.com’s China section is well developed with broadcasting staff based in Beijing, and editors in Hong Kong. Its China coverage is excellent, even if their TV broadcasts still tend toward the bombastic, with deeply reported online articles and news features that are often informative as well as entertaining. They have a good stable of Chinese news assistants who help in producing short-form video, and in Will Ripley they have a video correspondent who makes use of innovative reporting techniques.

My contributions to CNN.com have been in news features covering cultural trends in China. I made contact with their China editor via Twitter — I found her Twitter account, Tweeted a message to the effect of, “Hey, do you take freelance pitches?”, and she replied in the affirmative. She then sent me her email address via private message on Twitter.

I’ve published two articles about China for CNN, and a travel story for CNN’s online travel section. The pitch for the travel story was forwarded on to their travel editor by my China editor.

I’ve also had a story killed by CNN (my first kill and for which I did not receive a kill fee). The story had been commissioned, but then subsequently killed by someone who had been standing in for the editor who originally commissioned it.

CNN has a roster of staffers who report breaking news and generate stories. For a freelancer, you will have to pitch original ideas; ideas that a freelancer would have the time and flexibility to cover. For instance, these could be stories from China’s rural areas or under reported regions and industries, which staffers may not have time to get to. Their email format is: firstname dot lastname @ CNN dot com.

Writing style: CNN.com has a quite distinctive writing style. They tend to use short paragraphs — one sentence or two sentence paragraphs are not at all uncommon. What this means in practice for the journalist is less writing, and more reporting. Both of the articles I’ve had published took months before they were finally published as numerous rounds of back-and-forth took place. My editor would often ask additional questions and for information to be added, all of which meant additional reporting.

Each paragraph in their articles contain important items of information. This does not mean their articles are not stories. CNN.com articles often contain narrative, but they will be truncated and will fulfill a purpose. Numerous angles will need to be covered and reporting will need to be deep and varied. The prose style is snappy and chatty but authoritative.

For a story about how Buddhism is once again colonizing the hearts of Chinese people, I used an interview with a young man who wanted to become a monk. The interview transcript ran to several pages, and was immensely useful, but his story was condensed into a much shorter version in the final piece. It nevertheless formed a vital part of the article, and demonstrates how a journalist needs to filter information in order to master the narrative.

Payment: CNN have paid me $300 for 1000 words, for articles. This is not bad, but, considering the amount of work involved, not great either. They will pay more for photos to go along with a story (ie a photo gallery) but only if you agree to relinquish copyright of your photos to CNN.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

Pitchable outlets #2: The Independent

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This a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to follow this series as it continues.

Status: medium-high / 1st tier

Reach: The Independent is a respected name in journalism. Launched in 1986 alongside a brilliant advertising campaign, the young Independent was a major fresh voice in British journalism. But with shrinking circulation over the years and financial difficulties, it is now a very lean operation drawing the majority of its print readership from London.

But it has some major names on its books; heavyweights such as Robert Fisk and John Pilger. And its website and social media presence is much improved. People still look to The Indy, as it’s colloquially known, and its innovative editorial stances, such as the bold cartoon splash for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, draw much praise. It remains a vital part of British journalism, although its international coverage is hampered by a small budget.

Accessibility: I have mainly pitched to the features desk and international desk, as a freelancer, at The Indy. I have been published in The Independent on Sunday (The Sindy) and the tabloid version of the paper The i.

There’s no real need to pitch separately to these three papers, as the staff for this national newspaper numbers around 140.  The email format for The Indy is the initial of the first name dot last name @ independent dot co dot uk — ie j.smith@independent.co.uk.

Ease: The main problem with getting published in The Indy are the small budgets they have. Freelancers will have a harder time as the newspaper fills its pages with the coverage it needs, and will not be so interested in topics that bigger publications such as The Guardian cover. That said, there are definite opportunities for freelancers to get an Indy byline if you have a unique story or angle.

Payment: The last time I was published in The Indy was this month — 4th July 2015 — in the newspaper and online. I received what they said was their standard rate, which is 15p a word. This is not a very good rate.

Part two: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Kate Burt is a freelance writer and editor for publications including the Independent (“where I’ve also been a commissioning editor – so I know the other side!”), and the Guardian. She also blogs at yourhomeislovely.com

Publication: Melody Maker (RIP)

Fee: About £30 as I recall!

What were you doing at the time?

I was a staff writer on a teen magazine, my first proper journalism job. Then I met the editor of Melody Maker [a now defunct music publication] on the bus to work, which I took every day, and he kept on at me to write some freelance reviews for the mag as we’d always chat about music on the bus. It became a regular thing and started me on the road to full-time freelancing.

How did you get the commission?

My first commission following a pitch – rather than bus chat – was for the Guardian Guide. I had pitched dozens of ideas to them for months and been rejected over and over but it was my dream to write for them at the time. I learnt that I needed to give them something no one else would – so I offered an interview with the then obscure Derren Brown whose first late-night C4 TV show was called Mind Control or something.

I got the PR to provisionally agree that I could interview Derren if the Guardian said yes so I could put that in the pitch, which is important (what if they say no after you’ve pitched?). I outlined an idea that I would try out six of his mind control tricks on various strangers and write about how it worked. No staff writer had the time for that, it was quite quirky and funny and introduced a new talent that fitted the Guide’s entertainment remit. Getting the word “new” into a pitch, I learned, is key, as is being game to get out there and understanding what is a good fit for the publication.

Make your idea unique to you

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Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Brent Crane is an American journalist who moved to Asia in 2014. He has since traveled around China and Myanmar, scoring bylines in the Daily Telegraph, Vice, Aljazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com

I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

My chosen topic was the unprecedented dangers of freelance reporting from the Syrian civil war and how this related to the sea change that was taking place in the world of journalism in general. I’d been turned on to the idea from a book that I found in the AI office, a memoir by freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy called “Under the Wire”.

It took me forever to narrow the subject down from “the problems faced by freelance war reporters” to “the problem faced by freelance war reporters in Syria and why this matters for journalism as a whole”; but I had a lot of help from the editors at AI.

Pitching is something you can only get better at with practice, but that experience did teach me to never stop asking myself “Yeah but why should anyone care?” when formulating a story idea. A topic being interesting is not enough. It must be newsy in some way if an editor is going to bite.

My 1500-word feature went through numerous edits. It was a major learning experience for me.

To research it I spoke with eight highly accomplished freelancers, most of whom had reported from Syria. Being able to pick their brains about how they operated as freelancers was invaluable to me as an aspiring journalist. And also they made for great first-time interviewees, having all been in my shoes at some point. Talking with them humanized the field.

Before that, a freelance journalist in my mind was a kind of mysterious character and freelancing was more of a theoretical career choice than a realistic one. Actually meeting some lone wolf writers I had a kind of lightbulb moment: If these people can do it, so can I. That was a huge confidence booster for me and a major push for me to take the leap.

And for the first time in my life I’d actually made an actual sum of money writing. Holding that check for $200 in my hands I thought anything was possible.

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6 journalism resolutions for the new year & how to achieve them

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1. Write More

It sounds so simple but it’s not. All writers know that they should be writing more. The successful imposition of the “write more” intention then requires rules and routines (tricks, really) that, crucially, forms a habit. Here are a few that I’ll be following:

  • 50 words a day

This rule is designed on the understanding that motivation is a fickle and finite resource. We only have so much of it and so the barriers to entry for any task should be as low as possible. The clearest analogy I’ve heard is for flossing your teeth. Instead of a broad goal that you should be flossing more you should have this aim: floss one tooth. Just a single tooth.

Now this is much easier you think. I can do one tooth. But of course you start flossing one tooth and then you end up doing another and another until you end up doing every one; fulfilling your goal without guilt or anxiety because you’ve already achieved your aim of flossing one tooth.

The same goes for writing. You may set yourself the well-meaning goal of 500 words a day, but this may be too daunting especially if you’re in the process of habit forming. 50 words a day is much more manageable; there’s even an argument for a more drastic 10 words a day, anything to get your bum on a seat and writing. Once you’ve written those 50 words, the rest will follow.

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Smog’s lesson in reselling freelance stories

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That time I spent every week going to London to practice pitching

One reason you shouldn’t study a journalism degree is to learn how to freelance. J-school is woeful at teaching the mechanics, processes and techniques of successful freelance journalism. A much better way of learning is to buy a couple of books on it, practice what they teach and start doing it. Freelancing workshops can be pricey but worthwhile.

In the second year of my journalism degree I spent a couple days every week, for 12 weeks, attending another journalism course in London (which is three hours away from my university).

On this course, at the start of every class, we were asked to pitch ideas for magazine stories. To begin with our ideas were plagiaristic, rudimentary and not much different than the headlines we’d noted on the various news websites we checked.

Over the duration of the program however, as the weeks wore on, and we became used to the habit of pitching and coming up with ideas for stories our skills noticeably improved. The slant of our headlines steadily grew more sophisticated, our angles more acute, our ideas more original.

Who knows what quantifiable difference it made to our progression but I do believe that that weekly exercise irrevocably strengthened mine and my cohort’s ability to think up story ideas and to think in such a way that allowed us to be creative in a strict form – that of the story pitch.

In the classroom in London. For more on my time on this course, you can read this: http://wannabehacks.co.uk/2011/07/13/lu-hai-liang-catch-22-review-the-social-enterprise-journalism-placement/

That time my journalism tutor said something profound about freelancing

Back at university, we were given a couple of lessons in freelancing, which were superficial and lackluster, but one thing a tutor said stuck with me.

“The trick”, he would say, on more than one occasion, “is not to sell 17 ideas to one publication. The trick is to sell one idea 17 times”.

It has taken me some time to fully understand what that meant, and just how you do that.

Along the way I listened to an editor talk about a friend who was brilliant at selling off different parts of an interview to different publications: “He’d interview Nick Cohen and he’d ask him some questions about being Jewish and sell that to The Jewish Chronicle; he’d ask him about the war [Iraq] and sell that to a political magazine”, and so on…

The point

What is missing in these lessons is how to repackage and resell an existing idea. It is what one freelance I heard refer to as ‘re-nosing’.

The fact is you cannot re-pitch the exact same idea again – you have to adapt it, change it up, modify, refocus the angle, sell in in a different format…there are lots of ways you can mine existing ideas or articles you’ve written to make more business.

In my experience, what I’ve done on Beijing’s air pollution problem – described sometimes as ‘smog’ – is a clear example. It all started as an article about how Asia can be a job opportunity for graduates. One of the sources for that story became a profile feature for a business magazine. I adapted the angle so that it became a news feature when the smog got bad again…and so on. Below are the headlines and stand-firsts of the different stories which hopefully demonstrates what I mean more clearly:

Does Asia hold the answer to your graduate career hunt? [link]

Doing business in China: Lu-Hai Liang speaks to the founder of a successful Beijing-based startup about what it’s like running a company there [link]

The expats offering a breath of fresh air in polluted Beijing [link]

Related –

Why is China such fertile ground for young, ambitious Brits? Young British people are choosing to emigrate to China, armed with strategies for chasing success. Why? [link]

The other Jamie on a food mission: Meet the chef teaching people in the East to love Western food [link]

Flying the flag for the best of British in China: A young English woman who forged a successful career in China after moving there as a teenage is now promoting British brands to wealthy shoppers in Beijing [link]

4 ways to instantly improve your pitching – freelance journalism

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  • Think Visual

If you can write a pitch where the editor can ‘see’ the story, see the characters and the setting, then you’re immediately inside the editor’s mind, a good place to be. Just a couple of good sentences that can bring a character or some aspect of the pitch to life. Be vivid and show details that can make an editor stop and think. These words from Guy Davenport were influential to me not just for journalism but for writing in general:

Harry Levin, at Harvard, taught me a lot, especially about iconography, how to read images in a text—that literature is as pictorial as painting or sculpture. [Source: Paris Review]

  •  Think visual, visual, visual

Sorry to hammer home this point but it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve pitches. I like to play with font colours, use bold where necessary, inject relevant photos inside the email, and hyperlink anything that might need clarification. You can use these formatting tools to emphasize points or themes. Just don’t go crazy, your central idea should always be the focus but a bit of extra effort will help your email stand out.

  • Is it a complete story?

Don’t pitch topics or subjects, pitch stories. Pitch ideas that are wrapped in a story. What’s the difference between a story and an idea? To quote Richard Morgan, a complete story is one with “interesting characters in an interesting situation that changes over time in an interesting environment”. The story can also demonstrate a principle or universal theme adding depth and meaning, forming a ‘take-away’ feeling or message for the reader.

  • Have an outline

You should have an outline of what the story will look like, who you’ll interview, the basic structure of the piece, and the estimated final word count. It pays to imagine for the editor what the content of the article will be and how it’ll develop paragraph by paragraph.

Show you have the expertise by quickly sketching which named people you’ll interview and who they are. It’s also good sometimes to offer options in your treatment of the story: a more intimate interviewee-based feature, or an omniscient analysis with multiple characters? Editors like surety so demonstrate you have a clear understanding of what the story will be and how it will progress.