Dragons' Den 2012

This session covered how to pitch to editors as a freelancer, and invited aspiring science journalists to submit pitches ahead of the conference. The best three then had to present them Dragon’s Den style on the day to a panel of editors: Helen Pearson, chief features editor at Nature; Ehsan Masood, editor of Research Fortnight; and James Randerson, environment and science news editor at The Guardian.

First up was Alice Lighton, an MA student in science journalism at City University. Her pitch was for an article about drug resistant TB and trials for a new vaccine in South Africa. After she gave a short overview of her idea, the Dragons began their questioning – giving the audience an insight into what goes through their minds when they are considering a pitch.

Helen Pearson asked why this story should be covered now. James Randerson said the topic was one The Guardian would be interested in but thought the pitch was lacking a news hook – something he said was a problem with a lot of pitches.

When the Dragons were pressed to come to a decision, they all declared themselves ‘out’. “You’re circling a really fascinating topic,” said Pearson. “But you haven’t given me the type of news peg or focus that I need to be sure that this will be fresh and interesting.”

Next up was Greg Jones, also an MA student in science journalism at City University. His pitch looked at threats to scientists, citing several examples, and he said his feature would explore the question of whether these attacks put young people off doing science.

Randerson said that Jones’s pitch really stood out. “You completely broke all of the rules, in what should have been a bad way, but it kind of worked,” he said. But, Randerson pointed out, Jones had not specified what kind of article he was pitching. Masood had questions about the nature of the article – would it be a trend analysis or a series of profiles of affected scientists? Pearson asked what evidence Jones had that anyone was being put off going into science.  Again, all three dragons failed to bite.

Last up in the den was Ben Bleasdale, a PhD student at Imperial College London. His pitch was for an article about the graduate students of Diederik Stapel, a social scientist in the Netherlands who was suspended by his university for fabricating and manipulating data. The Dragons’ main concerns were whether or not Bleasdale could get the graduate students to speak to him. But they liked his idea. “We love research misconduct at Nature,” said Pearson, provoking laughter among the audience. “In terms of news, anyway,” she added.

Randerson said that editors are generally reluctant to take difficult, meaty stories from people they have never worked with before. “It is a risk for an editor to spend time nurturing a story with someone who is inexperienced,” said Randerson. “My general advice is persistence and charm,” he added.

Bleasdale was successful. Both Masood and Pearson provisionally commissioned his pitch. In a break from the traditional Dragon’s Den format, he did not have to decide between the two publications on the day.

The editors then took audience questions and discussed pitching more generally.

“An e-mail from someone I’ve never seen before might not hit my radar,” said Randerson, so follow it up with a phone call a few hours later. The most important question he asks is what the news peg is.

Masood says the most important thing is the content of the pitch. “Think of your pitch as a news story,” he said. “But don’t jazz things up,” he added, especially for a specialist publication like Research Fortnight. It is also useful to think about where in the outlet your piece would fit.

Pearson said she prefers e-mail pitches, because that way she can see if a freelancer can write. If you do not know the answer to a question you should always say so, but tell her how you will find out. And make sure you’ve done your homework – has this story run anywhere else, or in the publication your pitching to, before?

For more on how to pitch and how not to pitch see a recent guide in theopennotebook.com

Kelly Oakes