Pitching to Editors: Dragons’ Den 2014

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning, but the atmosphere in the grand rooms of the Royal Society bears an icy tension. Three early-career science journalists are here to pitch their ideas to three 'dragons' who edit three very different publications: Helen Pearson (features editor for Nature); Ehsan Masood (Editor of Research Fortnight); and Hannah Devlin (science editor, of The Times). Timandra Harkness, broadcaster, writer and comedian, takes on the presenter role of Evan Davis as she introduces the first candidate to the Den.

Mathew Thomas begins his confident pitch with the fact that by 2020 one in three people worldwide will have imperfect vision. These changes seem too fast to be caused by genetics alone, so could they down to environmental factors such as staying indoors and 'close work' - focusing eyes on nearby objects? Mathew says the scientific community is uncertain whether nature or nurture are to blame and he details how he wants to explore this debate.

The Dragons agree this is a great story, but they are still uncertain whether to commission it. Hannah feels that the lack of a clear conclusion would put off Times readers, whilst Helen explains that a Nature feature would need to focus primarily on cutting-edge research.  Unfortunately, none of the Dragons want to commission Mathew’s piece, and he leaves the Den.

Next to enter the Den is Alex Dedman. Alex gives an extremely passionate pitch on her frustration that crisp packets nowadays seem to be all ‘grab bags’ – they are considerably bigger than in the past, but the manufacturers now claim each bag contains two smaller portions, not just one. She reveals that food manufacturers have committed to a Government policy to reducing portion sizes, but with tricks such as this one, these commitments may seem worthless. Alex wants to explore how this affects obesity in the UK.

Ehsan describes the proposed article as ‘a good opinion piece’, but it’s just not right for his publication. Hannah agrees it has potential, but it might be more suited to a publication that does a lot of ‘news features’ than to The Times. Helen’s view is more clear-cut: research is key for her. Obesity is a topic Nature looks at regularly, but there’s no new research here. Despite Alex’s obvious enthusiasm, none of the editors wish to commission the piece.  

Our final pitcher is Kate Szell. Kate introduces prosopagnosia – a condition in which people struggle to distinguish faces. It’s been ten years since the first research was published in this field, so she feels now is a good time to examine the condition in the wider media. Many people in the caring professions are unaware of the condition, even though it affects large numbers of people with developmental conditions and will have a major impact on their behavior and needs. Kate eloquently explains the repercussions of this and the effect this may have on funding and science policy in the future.

The Dragons pause to consider. This is certainly an intriguing and thought-provoking topic. Hannah has concerns that it may be too obscure for a daily newspaper, whilst Helen returns to the issue of the lack of new research. It won’t get commission by either of these Dragons, but what about Ehsan? Many of his readers have interests in science funding, and this may certainly appeal to them. He advises Kate to develop this angle of the story more before coming back to him – if she can do this he will definitely consider running it. 

After three pitches only one Dragon has considered commissioning a piece. The recurring theme for journalists seems to be to know who you’re pitching to: get a feel for what an editor is looking for and make sure you provide it.