Dig in the archives and tell unique storiesAnother reason that an editor might want to run a story is because its irresistibly unique. If you havent noticed, the Internet, for all its beauty and splendor is an echo chamber. The same stories get told dozens of times in only slightly different ways. Part of this is because humans themselves dont actually want that much variety in their lives (see this story on What Makes Things Cool). But part of that is the reality that finding unique stories is hard. It requires digging in archives, interviewing lots of people, and chasing leads that dont always pan out. This is an opportunity for anyone willing to put in hard work.
One day shortly after returning to Denver I ran across a story about Icelandic Airlines that explained the origin of their stopover program. That led me to ask the question of why America controlled a majority of the airplane manufacturing industry, and why so many prominent airlines were started here. All of the stories I read led to a book that wasnt available online. So I started calling around. I found a bookstore owner who lived in the mountains. He told me that he was going to be in Denver that night at an art festival. So I drove downtown and met him. That night I stayed up late reading stories about the pioneers of air travel.
The stories I found in that book led me to pitch two stories. One would take a month to find its home (in The Atlantic), and the other would take another four months to find its home (in FastCompany). In order to add color to each of those stories I had to find books in libraries and dig up old Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1960s. It was fun work, but it was a rabbit hole. I had to invest time, and have faith that I could piece all the strings together into a cohesive story and then place those stories in magazines.
Heres The Atlantic pitch and story that research ultimately resulted in:
On Saturday SpaceX will send a communications satellite by the name of Amos-6 into space. The launch will be the company's 33rd and it is just one of 40 that SpaceX has planned in the coming years.
30 years ago a private company shuttling more satellites into space than NASA would have seemed crazy to all but a few in the aerospace industry. By the 1990s space travel seemed a distant dream shelved by governments overwhelmed by swelling deficits. Today the dream of visiting far off planets is alive again though, thanks to private companies like SpaceX.
Shipping satellites into space for governments and large corporations is only phase one in a much larger plan for the company, however. Over the next two decades SpaceX hopes to transition to passenger space travel and send humans to Mars. And in doing so, it will borrow from a strategy developed 90 years ago by a man who we might consider the Elon Musk of the 20th century.
In the 1920s the young aviation industry looked much like the private space industry today. Costs were prohibitively high for everyone save the ultra-wealthy and governments with large budgets. But a group of entrepreneurs and politicians dreamed of a world where passenger travel was accessible to the masses, and very quickly afterwards they saw those dreams come to fruition. Few shaped this history more than an ambitious businessman from Seattle named William Boeing.
Like Elon Musk, Boeing faced a problem of economics, a chicken and egg dilemma of sorts. To make passenger travel profitable his company had to charge the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars adjusted for inflation. That severely limited the market. The best way to bring down costs was economies of scale, however. It was a tricky Catch-22 any capital-intensive industry faces at the start.
Boeing solved this problem by bidding on mail contracts from the US postal service. But the novel business strategy that set him apart from his peers was how he intended to transition to the potentially lucrative passenger air travel business. In 1927 Boeing launched the Model 40A, a plane capable of flying mail and two passengers. He charged each passenger $900, or roughly $8,000 today. This second income source enabled the company to charge less for mail, which enabled Boeing to win more contracts and thus further reduce their costs. A virtuous cycle ensued, and soon Boeing became the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world. By 1933 the cost of a ticket from New York to San Francisco was $160 and the new passenger air travel industry was born.
Its easy to be skeptical about SpaceXs passenger travel aspirations. The leap between near-Earth orbit and Mars is not trivial. But in studying the aviation industry of the late 20s and early 30s, a time when costs were reduced dramatically and the passenger airline industry was born, it is possible to imagine trips to Mars in the near future. In this article I intend to tell the story of aviations innovative, and sometimes corrupt, beginnings. My sources include Bob Van der Linden, a leading historian at the Smithsonian and author of Airlines and Air Mail, and other aviation experts.
Would you be interested in a piece on some of the parallels between the two companies in their first 10 years of operations and how the price of space travel might come down in the same way air travel did in the early 20th century?
If so I'd be happy to write a more thorough pitch with facts on the parallels between the two industries and a plan of attack for research/investigation. I can also research different lessons / implications if you'd like.
The next day Amos-6 exploded on the launch pad and my story suddenly became very relevant. Hours after the explosion I followed up with the editor. He responded immediately and I landed the story.
When I drove down to meet that bookstore owner in August I could have never predicted that a rocket would explode a month later and lead to my story being published in The Atlantic. I could have never predicted that all that research into Popular Mechanics archives would result in a story about an entrepreneur that dug a plane out of a glacier, or that the story would get picked up by FastCompany. But hard work yields opportunity and opportunity is the foundation of luck. My pursuit of original stories was the key to landing both pieces.
Explain how youll report the storyIn looking at successful pitches I noticed something odd. In every pitch it seemed that the last paragraph explained how the reporter would go about gathering the source material. This was something that Id never read on any blog or heard a reporter talk about. But out of 100 pitches it seemed that 80% had a paragraph about how the reporter planned to get material for the story.
In the follow up that I sent to The Atlantic after Amos-6 exploded I edited the intro and also included my methodology:
In this article I plan to tell the story of how Americas passenger airline industry was born essentially overnight. In doing so, I will parallel Boeings rise to prominence in the 20s and 30s to that of SpaceXs. My sources include Bob Van der Linden, a leading historian at the Smithsonian and author of Airlines and Air Mail, and other aviation experts.
In a story about Icelands tourism industry I wrote:
In this story I intend to tell the story of Icelands exponential tourism growth in recent years. I have sources at The Ministry of Tourism, Statistics Iceland, Icelandair Group, and The University of Icelands tourism department. Ive done extensive research on the tourism industry in Iceland in preparation for a longer article about the founder of Icelandic Airlines.
These paragraphs give an editor confidence that the journalist is serious about the story and willing to report the facts. Very few magazines want opinion-pieces, so the methodology shows that a pitch isnt some fluff piece without facts, data, or reliable sources to back it.
Think like an editorPut yourself in an editors shoes for a second. You get 30-50 email pitches everyday, and you have a boss breathing down your neck asking when the next viral story is coming. Prior to my first couple pitches I didnt take an editors interests into consideration. I was thinking about the pitch from my perspective instead of thinking about it from theirs. Thats a key mistake that people make in every facet of life from sales to job interviews. It really hit home for me when I received the following email from an editor:
Hi Michael, thanks for reaching out.
I like/appreciate the irony of Iceland being unable to enjoy the fruits of its Euro 2016 success, but the country's enormous tourism growth has been written about a fair amount over the last year or two, so we'd need to find something new to say about it or its impact. This could mean a fallout story about how tourism growth is reshaping other parts of the economy, or a look at the people who have to adapt the country for the new tourism demand... most important, we'd just want to get beyond the straight growth story.
Another time I pitched a story about how corrupt the early airline industry was and got this response:
Thanks so much for your pitch and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. This sounds like a great story but in the absence of interesting 'so-what' style lessons or implications, I'm going to pass. Let me know if you think I am missing something.
After a couple more of these I learned that editors want to break new stories, and those stories need to be relevant to a larger conversation in society. A story on airline corruption would be relevant if there was a scandal that got people talking about corruption. But in the absence of any current event my story was 100 years past its prime.
The key is always asking So what? And who cares? Your editor certainly will.
Pitch consistentlyOnce I learned the structure of the magazine pitch and got feedback from a few editors I felt a new confidence. After sending my first pitch, and receiving a rejection I asked for feedback. The editor a writer that I really respect told me that he really liked the pitch, but it wasnt relevant to his audience. With that and other words of encouragement I started sending pitches everyday.
By holing up in my parents house, I was able to create an entirely new schedule for myself. Each morning Id wake up around 7am, drink coffee and eat breakfast with my Dad, and then start reading. After about an hour of reading Id feel eager to start jotting ideas down. Then Id take those ideas and start doing research to see if anyone had written about them. From there, I was able to get a story outline. Then in the afternoon, after making lunch, Id research the story and get enough material to send a pitch. By about 4pm Id have an outline that Id run by my Dad, who is an avid reader. Then Id take his feedback and write up a pitch. By 5pm each day I would send a pitch and then log it in my pitch tracker.