Selling freelance investigative journalism proposals is a lot like selling other stories, but harder. There just aren’t enough media outlets willing to engage in watchdog reporting.
And pitching investigations which may have uncertain and controversial outcomes is especially challenging, requiring the establishment of mutual trust.
What’s more, the costs of doing time-consuming investigations can be high, while the compensation is inadequate. It’s hard to predict how much time and effort will be involved, making even a rough cost-benefit analysis only a wild guess.
Then, lastly, there’s personal risk. Freelancers can face special challenges working on controversial stories, with legal and safety risks that media outlets won’t assume.
Despite all this, the ranks of freelance investigative reporters remain strong. Driven by independence and the freedom to choose one’s story and outlet, freelancers find many rewards. Some establish long-lasting relationships with editors and outlets, others hold down side gigs to help pay expenses, and expand their reach and income as authors, teachers and consultants.
GIJN has looked into the special challenges of selling investigative journalism and here provides practical advice from seasoned veterans.
We focus on:
- Finding potential outlets
- Making effective pitches
- Protecting your idea
- Figuring out your budget
In addition to this broad look, GIJN has also compiled a list of tips and strategies specific to freelancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finding Potential Outlets
A special level of trust is needed before a media outlet gambles on an investigative journalist, a reality that heightens the need to make personal connections.
Building a relationship by first selling non-investigative stories may be a good way to build the right connection. Making “cold calls” on sensitive stories can be very difficult.
A common suggestion is to meet sympathetic editors by attending seminars and conferences.
Also advisable is conducting research on potential outlets, not only on places that typically run investigative articles, but also on those with an interest in your topic.
With prospects in hand, dig further:
- Read what have they published or broadcast before, on your subject and other subjects.
- Learn about their approach and style.
- Scrutinize their mission statements.
- Check out their top editors.
- Ask whether you or someone you know has a personal connection who could open a door.
Consider multiple markets for your material “to squeeze value from every newsgathering effort,” as GIJN’s Rowan Philp describes in an article about a 2019 GIJN panel on freelancing.
“Freelance investigative journalists need to get into the habit of seeking multiple sales opportunities for every reporting expedition, if they are to thrive or even survive,” wrote Rowan, himself a veteran freelancer.
The panelists at that session describe a variety of options, including print, visual, and audio formats for maximizing revenues.
Making the Pitch
Once you have specific publications in mind, you’ll need to prepare pitches.
Much standard freelance advice about selling the story still applies to investigative journalism. Pitches should be concise, pithy, and compelling.
“You need to convince an editor or whoever is evaluating that you are the right person, actually the only person who can do that story, because you have the background, the sources, the necessary experience, etc. or you had access to documents, a leak no one else has,” says Catalina Lobo-Guerrero, a Colombian freelance journalist and former GIJN editor with more than 10 years of experience.
Tips From Editors
- Do some pre-reporting. Make sure your pitch is well thought out.
- Fill in the details. Figure out the characters, the stakes and why it matters to the readers.
- Show off your writing skills. The pitch itself should tell a story, and should present the story angle.
- Have a little drama. Get to the heart of that drama in the pitch itself.
- Understand the news value. The more obvious a tie-in with current news, the better.
- Make it timely.
According to the Investigative Journalism Manual, a project of the Global Media Programmes of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung foundation, a pitch should include:
- A story outline.
- Why the story is right for this particular paper or readership.
- A brief account of approach and methodology.
- A timeline.
- A budget.
Sarah Blustain, executive editor of Type Investigations (formerly the Investigative Fund), developed a tipsheet on writing a story proposal that stresses “keep it short,” “be direct,” and “give editors what they need to take your pitch up the editorial ladder.” She says that she normally recommends “a four-paragraph pitch,” with four important items:
- What the story is.
- Why it matters — and why it matters now.
- What your findings are.
- Why you should be the one to write it.
Mother Jones, a US magazine that features investigative stores, reinforces these points in its Freelance Writer Guidelines:
“Tell us in no more than a few paragraphs what you plan to cover, why it’s important and interesting, and how you will report it. The query should convey your approach, tone, and style, and should answer the following: What are your specific qualifications for writing on this topic? What ins do you have with your sources? If other major stories have been done on this topic, how will yours be different — and better?”
“Please also include a line or two about your background and two or three of your most relevant clips (links are fine).”
This 2018 Nieman Storyboard article — The Pitch: At the Guardian’s Long Read, No Rigid Formula or Geographic Limits — isn’t exclusively about investigative journalism, and is frank about what it takes. “The editor’s advice: Study what’s been published before. Be authoritative, fresh, and “arresting.” Dare to send a (good) cold pitch.”
What Editors Are Looking For in Solutions Pitches, the second part of a three-part series on pitching for the Solutions Journalism Network in 2018, Julia Hotz elaborates on these eight points:
- A clear, detailed, time-sensitive answer to “Why should readers care?”
- A sense you’re a good storyteller, and that there’s a story to tell.
- Evidence — qualitative or quantitative — of the response’s impact.
- An acknowledgment of the response’s limitations, and an eye to its replicability.
- An idea of how the article begins, and how the rest would follow.
- A brief explanation of how you’ll report the story, and why you’re qualified to report it.
- A headline that sells the story’s value and shows its timeliness.
- An understanding of what the news outlet covers (and does not cover).
How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else) by Tim Herrera, includes “six common mistakes,” beginning with “You don’t know what your story is.”
Why Your Pitch Was Turned Down — From The Editors Themselves, advice from editors of leading newspapers interviewed by Ben Sledge for The Writing Cooperative.
One good list of many publication pitching guidelines is posted by the Society of Professional Journalists in the US.
Investigative Outlets Demand a Lot
The websites of investigative publications often provide guidance about what they are looking for. Although some of the advice is very publication-specific, there are some common messages.
Reveal, the US investigative radio show from The Center for Investigative Reporting, asks for a lot of information, and poses some tough questions.
The intake form begins normally enough, giving journalists 500 words to “tell us what your story is about and what question your story is trying to answer.”
There are other such questions, including:
- Who’s affected?
- What makes it a national story?
- What makes it “a compelling story for radio”?
Then the Reveal editors dive deeper, with nine queries including:
- List up to five pieces of unique information you’ve uncovered or are working to uncover.
- Tell us about the main characters and the scenes you expect to record with them.
- Who else has covered this issue (provide links), and how will your story be different?
Dealing With Uncertainty
There may be uncertainty in how the story will pan out, but that doesn’t need to be a disadvantage.
Lobo-Guerrero says: “Perhaps one way to pitch an investigative story is to state: This is what I hope to get, if I prove my hypothesis, but if I don’t get this, this would be a story anyway because … Sort of like plan a, b, c, or what some editors call the maximum or minimum story.”
This 2015 guide from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has useful sections on assessing feasibility, defining a hypothesis, and establishing the maximum/minimum story. It’s written in English.
What to Leave Out?
There is a dilemma when you have a great idea to sell. How can you reveal your story idea while protecting it, too? The pitch needs to be specific, but not so detailed that the idea will be appropriated.
Type Investigations’ Blustain suggests: “You don’t want to put in too much and give away your findings to an outlet that could assign the piece to another reporter.” She especially cautions against giving away your sources.
You may decide to trust a prospective outlet. Or, some experts counsel, ask for a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). The language can be simple.
One such possibility:
“Publisher X agrees not to publish the findings contained in the pitch by Author X without Author X’s written consent.”
That language was devised by Samantha Sunne, a freelance reporter in New Orleans, Louisiana, who publishes a newsletter called Tools for Reporters.
“An NDA might be overkill, depending on the project,” she commented in a 2018 post. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for every story, because I tried it again with an editor I had never worked with before, and he simply turned me down.” Now, Sunne told GIJN, she works with people she knows and feels no need for such an assurance.
Investigative freelancers counsel that the worst things to disclose to outlets are sources and documents. But if that’s necessary, an NDA note could be crafted to protect what is being disclosed.
Sunne suggested that the smoothest way to obtain assurance of confidentiality is to ask for it in an email.
For many freelancers, the issue comes down to trust. Those who have a working relationship with an outlet say they don’t worry about it. And some outlets appear sensitive to authorial protectiveness.
Type Investigations, for example, takes this approach to confidentiality:
“We take the obligation to guard your story ideas very seriously; we will not circulate them beyond our editorial team. We also realize that the contents of your proposal may contain sensitive information. If you are concerned about submitting details by email, please let us know and we will work out a secure method of communication.”
Calculating Your Costs
Creating a budget is critical for making freelancing profitable.
Anticipating costs will help you decide what to charge and when to back away in the face of a low offer.
“After a few years of trying to map investigative stories against a freelance reality, I came up with a framework I refer to as ‘tiers,’” wrote US freelancer Sunne.
For each tier, she describes how much effort she will put into exploring ideas: “The reasoning for this is pretty clear: I don’t want to delve all the way in — interviews, public records, even travel costs — if I’m going to end up with nothing. If I don’t get a signed contract, or at least interest from an editor, I will drop the story.”
Other freelancers agree: Be prepared to decline projects that go below your break-even point.
Another reason to plot potential expenditures is to negotiate over predictable costs, such as travel, or unpredictable ones, such government fees for obtaining documents.
Several templates to help with budgeting have been prepared by the Rory Peck Trust.
Investigative journalist Emmanuel Freudenthal shared his six tips on how to make a living as a freelancer at the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference. For calculating and tracking expenses, he suggests using apps like SmartReceipts and Waveapps, or Excel.
Toby McIntosh is GIJN’s Resource Center senior advisor. He was with Bloomberg BNA in Washington for 39 years. He is the former editor of FreedomInfo.org (2010-2017), where he wrote about FOI policies worldwide. His blog is eyeonglobaltransparency.net.