What indies want to know

Editor’s Note: For over eleven years, Paul Ingles, Former NPR Liaison to Independent Producers, traded emails and had phone conversations with indie producers, guiding them through the pitching process at NPR, acting as their guardian angel of sorts. He retired from the position in December of 2017 to pursue personal projects, leaving behind big shoes to fill. In the following AIRblog article, Paul offers some lasting advice for producers near and far who are looking to pitch stories to NPR.

By Paul Ingles

I figure it may have been 700. 700 different independent producers and reporters with whom I either talked on the phone or traded emails in my eleven-plus years as NPR’s Liaison to Independent Producers. In 2006, I took the baton from Margo Melnicove who served as indie liaison for a couple of years at the post’s inception. At the end of 2017, I voluntarily ended my contract with NPR in order to have more time for my own media projects. The indie liaison position was a unique opportunity, for which I am extremely grateful, to sample the psyche of our independent community while helping producers and reporters work more effectively in the public media universe. In parting, I wanted to offer this summary of just a few tips that indies most needed, and most wanted to know, about that universe.

Thanks to AIR, this was generally an easy answer to offer but, surprisingly, even some AIR members didn’t seem to know about AIR’s Pitch Page. Each entry has some submission guidelines and direct contacts of the people to pitch to.

I often told indies that the key to survival as a freelancer is to study the entire pitch page closely. Be familiar with all the shows so that, as you observe the world for story ideas, you can say “Now that’s a story that Latino USA says it wants,” or “that’s a story America Abroad says it wants.” It’s true that most freelancers can’t make a living pitching only to the NPR News Desk and one or two other shows. Your best bet is to establish relationships with as many editors, as many shows, as you can so they’ll know you when you pitch in the future and, with some luck and skill, so you can keep working on a series of stories and make a living!

Who to pitch at NPR is pretty straight forward. There are four regional editors that split the 50 states. There are also Arts, Science, International desks…and a few others. Most of those editors are listed on the Pitch Page. If your proposed story largely originates from one region, or is targeted toward a themed desk, that’s the editor to pitch. In general, you don’t pitch directly to one of the shows (like Morning Edition, ATC, Weekend Edition or Weekend ATC). Individual show producers are present for most of the daily news meetings when all of the different editors are either in the room or on the phone. When a show says it has holes to fill in their program, that’s when the editor who kind of likes your pitch pipes up and says, “I’ve got this story from Wally Ballou that might work.” The editor then gives the three-line pitch summary (which hopefully you’ve expertly crafted—more below on that). If the show producer says, “That sounds good. We’d like that for next week”, that’s when the editor will call you back and tell you it’s an assignment—get going.

In my tenure in the Liaison position, the system of pitching to the regional and specialty desk editors was more often the norm. Occasionally a particular NPR show producer would say, “Oh, they can copy me on those pitches too…” but that trend would come and go. So I wouldn’t count on by-passing the desk editors completely to pitch your story right to an NPR show.

The reason some indies want to skip a desk editor is because they’ve become convinced that a specific desk editor doesn’t like their pitches, and therefore doesn’t respond in a timely way, or doesn’t respond at all. It is not often the case that an editor has a thing against you. Most are working through dozens of pitches a day, while trying to schedule edits with stories they have accepted, while doing some fact checking and reporting on their own, while sometimes mixing pieces for broadcast themselves. It’s a hard job that involves never-ending deadline pressure. For reporters, having a little empathy for the editors is helpful in many ways. Now, a little empathy going out from the editors for the reporters is important too! And I’ve tried to pass that message up the ladder more than once over my time as indie liaison.

There are a few ways to help get what you want—that is, a reasonably quick answer to a pitch.  One of my most frequently dispensed pieces of advice to indies is:  When you send in your written pitch, lead the page with a reasonable request of a “hear by” date—maybe 10 days from the date you send the pitch in. As in, “Please let me know yes or no on this story by January 18th so I may pitch it elsewhere If you pass.” If you slip that line in the pitch email greeting, I truly believe it’s easier for an editor to make a mental note about your needs and respond by that date. Without a date request, the pitch might just go to the bottom of the stack and may or may not re-emerge. This is not done purposefully but just because the editor’s plate is already overflowing and, in order for the editor to survive that day, some stuff necessarily falls on the floor, and may not to be picked up.

In any case, it’s almost never personal. When editors say, “no thanks, but please keep pitching,” they generally mean it. Keep pitching and keep in mind the smaller shows as fallback possibilities, to improve your chances that you can still make a sale of your idea and continue to work on your craft.

Inexperienced reporters don’t know how to write a strong pitch. Some experienced ones don’t either. I won’t take up my column inches here to detail the best practices, but I have included below some links that I’ve sent out hundreds of times to provide that detail. Study them and understand them and work at improving your pitches.

Here’s what I send out to producers: NPR’s guidelines say “If your idea is great but your pitch is lousy, a busy editor might not think you have a story. Good pitches are succinct, have a clear focus, and stat what’s at stake and who the stakeholders are.” They suggest no more than five to six sentences in a pitch…like this:

Seattle’s homeless camp is moving to city property. Such encampments have grown up in places like Nashville, Sacramento and Tampa in recent years. And many have met a similar demise: local officials shut them down. But the Seattle camp is going to be run by the city itself. The project has led to some battles with the camp’s new neighbors and to a conflict with the city’s own mission to end homelessness.

Personally, I think it’s pretty hard to be that concise. Good to shoot for, but I would say write absolutely no more than three short paragraphs of three to four sentences each.

Graph one should be written like the host lead in.

Graph two should suggest the main character/location/issue/conflict.

Graph three should give brief overview of other stakeholders/characters/scenes that will be explored.

Be sure to get some of the “juice” of the story in there too. Partial quotes. Sense of character and place.

Finish with a short bio background of your experience (one to two sentences) and a clickable link to a good story you’ve done. And don’t forget your “hear-by” request on top of it all as you say hello to the editor.

Take a look at these pitch tip articles too.

For stories assigned by NPR, you are paid based on your reporting “tier”—base, regular, or top.   If you are filing for the first time, or are in your first handful of reporting assignments, expect to get the “base” rates. If you become more regular as a filer—maybe a few times a year—expect to get the “regular” rates. Very few reporters are paid the “top” rate. This seems to be reserved for freelancers who have been filing for NPR for a long time and file several times a month.

Before you agree to do a story, pay closest attention to the various “levels” of stories described in the guidelines. Essentially these are like levels of difficulty in high diving. Ask for the level that best represents your expected effort—number of sources, time, research—on a story. It’s important to reach an agreement with the editor on that before you start work on it. Also get confirmation on reimbursements for mileage, food or lodging (if necessary) if your reporting involves that manner of time and commitment. If you think you’ll need tape syncs, talk about that in advance. In short, talk about all money matters before you accept the assignment from an editor. Also, it’s best to inquire about a “kill” rate in case the story is stopped by the editor along the way for any reason.

It’s hard to say what reporters and producers should be charging for any kind of public media or freelance work, but since NPR’s posted “day rate” for a reporter/producer is $300, I’d say no reporter should accept less than about $40 an hour for any work in the reporting field. And the more skilled you become, the more that should edge up, in my opinion.

There’s much more I could say but I’m already passed my 1,200 word limit for this post. Hopefully a new resource for indie support will be published soon. Again, I was honored to serve for so many years and felt really good about my effort. It was a joy to connect with so many good folks doing such good work out there. May you all find a home for your best ideas.  Take your shot and remember that “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.”

Paul Ingles