Rebecca Renner, a freelance science journalist based in Florida, initially didn’t see opportunities when coronavirus began to dominate the news cycle, because she doesn’t cover infectious disease. But then she thought of a novel angle: how the experience of the pandemic was affecting dreams. She reached out to a National Geographic editor with whom she had previously connected over Twitter and sold that story, and then several more—about pandemic dreams in children, the neuroscience behind why people can’t seem to stay home, and beating loneliness during the pandemic. Renner now has several more National Geographic stories in the works, and the new bylines have gotten her more attention from editors at other publications.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has dominated the news cycle since March, has brought to the fore the importance of health and science journalism. Suddenly terms like antibody, aerosols, and asymptomatic transmission have become part of the everyday vernacular, and there is a huge demand for these stories. Journalists from every beat have jumped in, but health and science journalists have the advantage. Even if, like Renner, they don’t specialize in infectious diseases, they know how to explore issues raised by the pandemic from a scientific perspective. At the same time, however, the pandemic has delivered yet another financial blow to journalistic outlets that were already struggling, which makes freelancing, difficult enough during normal times, even more competitive.
“I’m rejecting a lot more pitches these days,” says David Grimm, the online news editor at Science. “If it’s not a real barn-burner, I’m loath to assign it.” By “barn burner,” Grimm means a story that no one else has but that everyone wants to read. But while the bar is higher, it is still possible to find and sell unique and relevant stories during this time, as Renner and other freelancers have shown. Many outlets, including Science News, Slate, Wired, Ensia, and bioGraphic, are still commissioning.
There are essentially only two kinds of story right now: coronavirus stories and non-coronavirus stories. COVID-19 news continues to evolve as scientists learn how the virus behaves and seek to combat it, and as the pandemic highlights inequities and disrupts every aspect of life, including work, parenting, education, civic and political activity, health care, travel, and entertainment. At the same time, however, issues such as climate change, demands for racial justice, and the upcoming election also require people’s attention.
In this anxious time, audiences are also eager for journalism that inspires awe, including coverage of animal behavior, nature, and space. Freelancer Dyna Rochmyaningsih recently wrote for Science News about a rediscovered horn-nosed lizard that hadn’t been seen for 100 years, and freelance space writer Jonathan O’Callaghan wrote about a theory to explain the origin of meteorites for The New York Times. And of course, everyone remembers how the murder hornets took over mindshare for a few weeks in May. “That kind of escapist stuff is really great right now,” says Kevin Lerner, who teaches journalism at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Whether you are developing COVID-19 stories or non-COVID-19 stories (or both), it’s important to think strategically about what editors are looking for in this unprecedented news environment.
Finding New Angles on Coronavirus
COVID-19 stories are so ubiquitous that a successful pitch on this topic needs an unusual angle. That might mean looking at the things that aren’t happening because of the pandemic, such as freelancer Diana Kwon’s Nature story about how conference cancellations are impacting scientific societies. Or it might mean delving into how people’s behaviors have changed, like this Ensia story by freelancer Dimitri Selibas about how places that rely on tourism are dealing with the marked decrease in travel due to the virus.
“If you’re pitching to us and you’re interested in covering something in the COVID space, I would really recommend using your peripheral vision,” says Mary Hoff, Ensia’s editor-in-chief.
The pandemic touches virtually every aspect of life, so even stories that are ostensibly about something unrelated may have a coronavirus tie-in. “Every vulnerability is made worse by this situation,” says Lou Del Bello, a freelancer based in Delhi, India. One example of this is a story that freelancer Beth Gardiner recently wrote for National Geographic about how in China, Brazil, and the United States the pandemic has led to environmental rollbacks, enabling coal, logging, mining, and fracking companies to operate with impunity.
One way to find novel COVID-19 stories is to mine your beat. Consider, for example, this environmental story that examines the connection between the illegal wildlife trade and coronavirus; this neuroscience story about why Zoom meetings are so mentally exhausting; and this health story about how COVID-19 is directing resources away from mosquito control programs that help reduce malaria and dengue. “I think every beat has something that has changed because everybody’s life has changed so much,” Lerner says.
Freelance writer Kelly Glass advises finding your niche “at the corner of what you’re passionate about and what’s not being covered enough.” For Glass, who is a contributing editor to Parents, this has been the intersection of parenting, health, and race. As structural racism and health disparities have entered the national conversation in recent months, Glass has jumped on the increased interest from editors for stories on these topics. She recently wrote for The New York Times about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on Black children, and for the Washington Post about Black maternal mental health in the context of coronavirus. Glass advises that white writers should leave these stories to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) journalists, in order to not take opportunities away from them and because they tend to have more expertise covering racism.
Sometimes it’s possible to give an unrelated story a coronavirus spin…. Such an approach can work well, when done thoughtfully, but editors caution against trying to jam a coronavirus angle into places where it doesn’t fit.
Some journalists have had success by bringing a coronavirus angle to recurring rubrics that publications need to fill. For example, Del Bello wrote an essay for BBC Future’s “Climate Emotions” section in which she connected pandemic-related isolation to the loneliness she sometime feels worrying about climate change when the rest of the world carries on as normal. And with everyone trying to envision how the pandemic is going to develop and how it might change life going forward, consider pitching future-focused publications like Slate’s Future Tense and Wired.
Another approach that is likely to gain an editor’s attention in this time of dire headlines is to seek out solutions-oriented stories that show how communities are combating the virus or addressing the pandemic’s impacts—for example, this one in Slate about how hugging machines are offering people physical contact during social distancing, or this one in Civil Eats about how restaurants are becoming grocery stores during the pandemic. “I’ll beat this drum any day,” Hoff says. “I really believe that it’s an important perspective to share—looking at problems but also looking at what people are doing about them.”
Sometimes it’s possible to give an unrelated story a coronavirus spin. For example, Jason Goldman, a Los Angeles–based freelancer, recently published a piece in Audubon about the need for wetland restoration projects that mitigate risk of disease outbreaks among the birds. The story wasn’t about coronavirus, but the headline, “Whooping Cranes Need to Socially Distance, Too, According to New Report,” tapped into the topic on everyone’s minds—social distancing for disease control. A recent article in Popular Mechanics written by a staff writer explained the movement of Saturn’s moon Titan away from the planet, titling the piece “Titan Is Social Distancing Away from Saturn.”
Such an approach can work well, when done thoughtfully, but editors caution against trying to jam a coronavirus angle into places where it doesn’t fit. “One thing I would really advise against is shoehorning COVID into non-COVID stories,” says Jaime Green, associate editor at Slate’s Future Tense. “That doesn’t feel necessary. There’s still a world out there.”
Finding Non-Coronavirus Stories That Resonate
With COVID-19 dominating news coverage, it can feel difficult to find space for other stories. “People have a finite pool of worry,” says Lauren Feldman, who teaches journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “Concern is consumed with COVID, so it’s hard to find space for other concerns like climate change, water pollution, et cetera.”
But the good news is that with staff reporters often so focused on the coronavirus that they don’t have time to report other stories, freelancers have a potential advantage. “We’re really stretched thin, so we’re leaning on freelancers more than we used to,” says Cori Vanchieri, features editor at Science News, adding that she’s relying on freelancers to keep abreast of non-COVID stories.
“People have a finite pool of worry. Concern is consumed with COVID, so it’s hard to find space for other concerns like climate change, water pollution, et cetera.”
Stories that distract from the health and economic stresses of the pandemic and the isolation of social distancing are one way to go, editors say. For example, stories about archaeology, ancient societies, and physics continue to do well at Science News, Vanchieri says. She recently assigned a story about snake-bite remedies and another on saving mussels. “That put us in the rivers of the Appalachians,” she says. “A breath of fresh mountain air!”
But audiences aren’t only looking for warm and fuzzy stories. Freelancers are also selling science and health stories on serious issues such as transgender people turning to DIY hormones and treatments because they lack access to medical care, racism within scientific institutions, and parents seeking treatments for their children’s rare genetic illnesses.
Dan Pye, investigations editor at Mongabay, agrees that non-coronavirus stories still draw people in. “So far, we’ve not seen a drop-off in readership of non-COVID stories,” he wrote in an email. “If anything, the opposite is true.” In June, only five of Mongabay’s 20 most-read stories focused on COVID-19. The others covered a wide range of issues, such as bringing bison back to South Dakota, outdoor cats, and “mermaids” in Sri Lanka.
“The pitches that are really standing out at the moment are the stories that are easily forgotten during times of crisis such as these, but arguably no less important,” he says, adding that a well-researched pitch is key. “When you can tell someone’s put in the legwork before getting in touch, knows their subject, and can argue why it’s an important issue to cover despite the pandemic, that’s really appreciated.”
A strategic way to pitch is to find out what specific editors and publications are looking for and meet those needs. For example, Mongabay maintains a list of special reporting projects for which it invites pitches. These topics range from Sumatran rhinos to fisheries in Indonesia. (Note: Mongabay does not normally commission stories unrelated to the special reporting projects.) Wired UK’s science editor often puts out calls for pitches from new writers on Twitter, and Discover is looking for a wide range of science stories, anything from physics to archeology to anthropology.
Editors suggest looking in more obscure places to find the stories that are getting lost because so much attention is being directed toward COVID-19. Forget the press releases, Grimm says. Instead, look through the tables of contents of secondary journals to find hidden gems. One non-COVID freelance story Grimm said did especially well was by writer Edd Gent on self-evolving artificial intelligence.
Del Bello agrees this is a time to forge your own path. “Sometimes you are tempted by the idea that you should be following the news of the day,” she says. “But I find that to be a waste of time because there will be a lot of staffers and stringers that will always take precedent.” Pye suggests reconnecting with sources to find out what’s going on outside of the daily COVID news cycle.
You may need to tweak your normal working methods. For example, Sarah Wild, a freelancer in Johannesburg, South Africa, previously arranged what she calls “research tours” with universities as a way to find story ideas. “I used to tell them that they can have a week of my time, and that they should show me what they have,” she wrote in a Twitter message. Now that tours are no longer an option, she recently posted a call on Twitter for interesting research papers that might be overlooked by staff reporters at larger publications, and is now going through them to see where she can find a story.
Steven Bedard of bioGraphic points out that now might be a time to check in with an issue you’ve covered in the past and pitch a follow-up story. He also recommends going into that notebook every freelancer has—that one with lists of unformed ideas that they want to develop further, if only they had the time. “This is the time to develop those,” he says.
While these are unprecedented times, the basic rules of crafting a good pitch still apply, editors say—especially now when it’s so important to stand out.
With travel curtailed to reduce virus spread, editors suggest looking for stories that are unfolding close to home. If you live outside a major metro area, you may be in a position to report in places that staffers at media outlets aren’t able to get to right now. “I think it’s easy for freelancers to neglect the story in front of their face because it’s every day to them,” Hoff says. NPR’s Goats and Soda recently ran this short compilation of local coronavirus solutions stories reported by freelancers in the communities. “I’m hoping that editors will use freelancers to write about things that they have access to,” Renner says.
On the other hand, don’t forget that especially in this day of Zoom and social media, it’s possible to report remotely, as Mauricio Angelo did for this story about mining Indigenous reserves in Brazil.
And finally, while these are unprecedented times, the basic rules of crafting a good pitch still apply, editors say—especially now when it’s so important to stand out. “You’ve got to be brief and you’ve got to hit the point really early,” Vanchieri says. “You’ve really got to get down to why this is the story to write now.”
Stephanie Parker writes about science and the environment from her home base in Switzerland. Her words and photos have been featured in Undark, Vox, Ensia, Science News, Civil Eats, and other publications. You can find her on Twitter @sparkersays.