Editorial publications’ rhythms can seem inscrutable from the outside. How far in advance should you pitch? What role do timely angles play in breaking into titles? And how do you find those news hooks and trend ideas anyway?
Flora Tsapovsky — who teaches Timely Angles for Freelancers — reveals all the scoop in this Q&A!
Q: Why are timely angles important?
Editors love a reason for readers to pay attention! Especially if the idea positions their publication as a thought leader and scoops the competition.
A timely hook — also called a “news peg” — can drastically increase your chances of breaking into new-to-you outlets.
Q: How far ahead should I be thinking?
“Lead time” is how far in advance you need to pitch an idea to fit into an editorial calendar. For some titles, this could be a few days or even hours, if you’re covering breaking news or reacting to it (writer Melissa Blake excels at this). For other publications, you need timely hooks that are one- to six-months out… or even a year-and-a-half in extreme cases.
Q: How do I find out publications’ timelines?
Many outlets share this info in their contributor or writer’s guidelines, or in their media kits. But as a rough rule-of-thumb:
- Newspapers and newsy websites: days to weeks
- More magaziney-style publications online: weeks to three months
- Print magazines: three to six months, depending on the section. Though we’ve heard of lead times stretching to three years for big features in major titles!
Q: What about the timeline for breaking news – or reactions to it?
Editors might ask for same-day delivery of a piece involved in a hot news cycle — and many full-time freelancers can offer this sort of responsiveness. If you don’t, set your story-gathering radar further out and pitch outlets with more relaxed publishing schedules.
Q: Where should I be pitching?
Over 10,000 English-language publications exist, so the solution varies from writer to writer. And there’s no one-stop-shop for collecting this intel, unfortunately. The Writer’s Market can help, as can listservs, newsletters, writer groups and social media submission calls. Write Like a Honey Badger has highlighted over 20 good resources here. But nothing beats building tacit knowledge about titles on your specific “beats” (specialties)!
Q: What makes a trend?
A trend is basically a new thing that’s happening. They’re the waves the media rides. One day everyone’s talking about nap dresses. The next, attention has shifted to loose friendships. Recognizing a trend when it’s galloping across publications is great. Recognizing it being born before anyone else finds out and proving it actually exists is a million times better.
As a rule of thumb, a trend consists of at least three examples of something new or novel occurring. You found three companies that specialize in a condiment unfamiliar to mainstream home cooks? Three of your friends are headed to a little-known destination? You saw the same new app recommended in three different TikTok videos? Sound the alarm, you found a trend! And bonus points for placing that trend in a wider context. Here’s some food for thought writers: “As a writer, [Anne Helen] Petersen likes to look at things horizontally, examining the broad context of what’s happening in society and how and why structures function the way they do, and vertically, looking at the history that brought us to the present moment.”
Q: Where should I start looking?
Great places to start include social media and listening closely to folks in your world. Ask what they’re thinking about? Excited by? Worried over?
Now ask yourself those same questions!
Small media titles can be useful too: local outlets, trade publications and titles targeting more obscure niche interests. Google Alerts can help you read widely across a particular topic. News aggregators like AllTop and Feedly also come in handy here.
Public libraries often offer free digital access to periodicals — even remotely — which can help you read widely without breaking the bank on subscriptions.
Q: How do you cut through the noise on social media?
This powerful tool can be a goldmine for trending topics and insights. And remember, you can create “burner” accounts to isolate research for specific stories, and not completely throw off the algorithms for your personal or professional profiles.
Follow thought leaders, but not the obvious ones! Seek out smart, local politicians, food waste pioneers, CEOs of cool start-ups, emerging designers, etc. Follow lots of emerging professionals and people who are mentors. Keep an eye on accelerators and venture capitalists who invest in interesting initiatives. Connect with innovators at the origins of ideas and movements!
Pay attention to threads that produce controversial lively conversations, especially on Reddit.
Join Facebook groups that strongly represent certain demographics and listen in on discussions. Moderators are generally very open to journalists participating respectfully, looking for ideas and sources, even if you don’t fit the group parameters.
On Instagram, follow graphic designers and photographers. Often, they’re the ones who get access to new projects before they’re announced or become brick and mortar.
Q: How can PRs and marketing folks help?
If you have bylines out there, PR and marketing people will find you. And if not, you can start connecting via social media and services like kiti, Cision, TravMedia and MuckRack. Or just reach out directly and ask to be added to media lists!
Whenever I get an email that’s even slightly relevant to the topics I cover and has a real grain of interest — not a generic release — I respond politely: “Thank you, I’ll get back to you,” and slap a “Suggestions” label on it (tips for doing this on Gmail and also creating mailboxes in MacMail).
Once a week, I go over to my Suggestions tab and examine it for potential trends. For example, three different PR people emailed me about female-owned spice rub brands. That’s food for thought! An article I wrote for Elle recently, about furniture rental companies, was born in such a way. It stemmed from two unremarkable emails that became intriguing when suddenly juxtaposed in my inbox.
Finally a bit of advice from Amanda Castleman, the school’s founder and lead instructor for Pitch Like a Honey Badger. “Explain your beat and ask thoughtful PRs and marketing folks for unique story angles that fit your desired lead times. Or even just say hello and ‘what’s the weirdest or most interesting thing to come across your transom lately, which might not warrant a whole press release?’ That’s how I wound up covering extreme croquet and Newfoundland’s Puffin Patrol.
“Also, stay alert for ways to engage in real life — once it’s safer again — with PRs and marketing folks via deskside appointments, local events and conferences. Relationships yield ideas! And make sure to return the favor by always sending them stories they helped with. They need these metrics to share with their employers or clients.”
Flora next teaches Timely Angles for Freelancers, a month-long course, several times a year. The next session starts September 29th, 2021.