So you’ve discovered a great story idea about a rare sea otter sighting off the Oregon coast—with a timely environmental news peg, meaty quotes, and adorable photos to boot. You could pitch it to The Seattle Times to snag a distinguished byline, bioGraphic to ensure a gorgeous visual treatment, or High Country News to dive deeper into the history of sea otter hunting and what their return means for the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe an even better fit is with an outlet that isn’t yet on your radar. With all of these potential options, how do you pick a publication to pitch?
Finding the right outlet for your story can feel daunting, especially if you’re new to science writing and don’t have existing professional relationships to lean on. There is a staggering range of options out there, from prestigious heavyweights to buzzy newer outlets to niche trade publications. And opportunities seem to abound in a sea of pitch callouts on Twitter and newsletter lists.
Picking the right publication to pitch boosts your chances of landing an assignment. And, if you’re successful, placing your story well will ultimately help it shine and reach its target audience. To help narrow your search, focus on the traits of your story idea and see how they match up with those of potential publications. Then, carefully study the publication you choose and tailor your pitch accordingly.
Find a Good Match
There are many publications online and in print that might be a good fit for your science story—some of which you may never have heard of. But before you can figure out which one to pitch, you first need to identify your story’s key elements. Ask yourself: Who is the ideal audience for this story? How long should this story be? Is it better suited for a news story or a long-form feature? What field of science does it concern? Is it pegged to a news cycle or is it more evergreen? “It comes down to what you think is interesting, and what you want readers to get from the story,” says New York Times reporting fellow Hannah Seo.
Then, as you brainstorm publication options, see how your story aligns with an outlet’s features. Consider its audience (who reads the publication) and its essence (the nature of the stories it typically publishes). For example, Popular Science targets well-educated professionals who don’t necessarily have a science background and publishes stories loaded with anecdotes, analogies, and humor. Generalist science outlets like this one might be a good fit if your story provides unique, quirky insight into the research process, Seo says. Stories with broad appeal to a general audience could also land in the science section of a larger publication like The Guardian or BuzzFeed News.
As you peruse potential publications, avoid prioritizing prestige over fit.
If your story centers on science itself more heavily, perhaps highlighting an advancement in a field of research, an overtly science-focused publication like New Scientist, Mongabay, or The Scientist might be best. “If I think the interesting part of a scientific paper is its technicality, or its innovative research methods, or how much it advances a specific field of study, I’d pitch it to Scientific American,” Seo explains. Publications like these may allow you to dig deeper into the mechanics of the research. If the angle of your story is especially niche, trade publications, such as the space industry–focused publication SpaceNews or the news section of the international journal BioTechniques, might give you even more space to dive into nitty-gritty details, says Sonia Weiser, a New York–based freelance writer and creator of Opportunities of the Week, a career resource for freelancers. (These outlets also tend to pay better than general publications.)
Some stories might find an obvious home due to their specific subject matter. For example, if you’re pitching a story about conservation threats to barn owls, Audubon, a magazine covering all things birds, would be a logical first choice. A story about trends in autism diagnoses would fit right in at Spectrum, a site covering autism research. These strong parallels might improve your pitch’s chance of acceptance, but you also shouldn’t feel boxed into specialized outlets—other publications might allow you to emphasize broader aspects of a story. For example, pitching your barn owl story to a publication like Grist, which covers climate solutions, might give you the chance to dig deeper into an environmental angle.
If your story explores how science interacts with other aspects of life, like politics, culture, or media, consider aiming for outlets with similar approaches. For example, science stories that intersect with politics may find a home somewhere like Politico, Al Jazeera, or Vox. Others that weave together science and complex social issues might be a good fit for outlets such as Undark or SciDev.net. Some media outlets focus on science stories affecting specific geographic locations. Hakai Magazine, for example, publishes stories about coastal ecosystems, whereas High Country News covers the western United States. If your story is most relevant to a particular continent or country outside the U.S., consider pitching specialized international outlets, such as Nature Africa or Fifty Two, which covers the Indian subcontinent. That said, international reporting requires an extra level of ethical care—make sure to feature local voices, for example.
Beyond your story’s subject matter, make sure to match the scope of its impact with the reach of an outlet’s audience. Consider whether your story would appeal to a national audience, or a smaller, more specialized crowd, says Rome-based freelance science and investigative journalist Jonathan Moens. “Who is being affected? Is it just one or two people, or a whole city? Is it about a specific community or marginalized group that hasn’t been covered yet?” Your answer will help you decide whether to pitch a larger general-interest publication, a local news outlet, or a trade publication.
As you peruse potential publications, avoid prioritizing prestige over fit. While landing a byline in a famous publication is a tantalizing prospect, it’s more important to find an outlet that matches the framing and feel of your story, Moens says. “They’ll prefer that you’re pitching things that are aligned with them.” And if you do so, he says, “they’re going to keep wanting you.”
Do a Deep Dive
After homing in on a few promising publications for your story, it’s time to do some more homework. Before anything else, make sure that your story idea isn’t so good that the publication you’re aiming for has already published it. If that’s the case, Weiser says, an editor won’t be interested. Not to mention, pitching a redundant story reveals that you haven’t done your research. Check for overlap by searching keywords from your story on a publication’s website and by skimming through its archives.
Combing through a publication’s archives also helps you get a feel for the kinds of stories its editors might want. “Figure out their ethos,” Moens says. Pay close attention to any patterns you notice in an outlet’s stories—in their subject matter, approach, or writing style. “There are secret codes to different publications that you start to learn as you work more and more,” says Sarah Laskow, a senior editor at The Atlantic. For example, Slate often publishes stories with a surprising angle or against-the-grain take on popular news. Cracking these codes requires some trial and error, but you can start by keeping track of what types of stories editors say yes to.
Some publications post pitch or submission guides on their websites. In addition to advice about story themes and subjects a publication is looking for, these guides sometimes include examples of what they are not looking for.
In some cases, you can pick up a particular vibe from a publication’s stories—quirkiness or technicality, for example. Having the right vibe may matter more to editors than the subject of a story itself, says freelance writer and editor Anna Funk. This may be particularly true for general-interest outlets that publish science stories. For instance, editors at Vox might gravitate toward a science story with political or cultural flair, not just a single-study news story.
Some publications post pitch or submission guides on their websites. These resources can be invaluable for pitching new-to-you outlets or if you’re new to pitching altogether. In addition to advice about story themes and subjects a publication is looking for, these guides sometimes include examples of what they are not looking for. For example, the National Geographic pitch guide states that they seek “stories of international and not merely local interest.” So, if your pitch about sea otter sightings along the Oregon coast primarily centers on the local community, it may be a better fit for a publication like Crosscut, a Pacific Northwest news site.
A pitch guide or pitch callout might also specify criteria for the types of writers an outlet will accept pitches from. For example, editors may be seeking a writer living in a particular city or someone who has a minimum amount of experience. Pay attention to these specifications, and make sure you’re qualified, Weiser says. These criteria may sometimes exclude academic writers with little to no journalism experience. That said, other publications, such as The Conversation, Sapiens, and Scientific American, explicitly solicit pitches from scientists.
If a publication doesn’t have a public pitch guide, or if you’re still unsure what they’re looking for, Seo suggests asking around. “If an editor is active on Twitter, it doesn’t hurt to shoot them a DM like, ‘Hi, what are you looking for? Is there an area of coverage that you want more of?’” Editors like to see that you’re trying to meet their needs, so don’t be shy. You can also ask people in your networks for advice about pitching specific publications.
Pitch with Your Best Foot Forward
After you’ve done some research on the publication you decide is right, use that knowledge in how you craft your pitch. Emphasize why you think your story is a particularly good fit for that publication. Is there an already-published story that yours builds on? Is there something in your story that their audience will be especially interested in? If you are pitching a story that seems obviously well-suited for the site, you may not have to belabor this point. But if you are pitching a publication with a more general audience, such as The New York Times or BBC News, articulating why you think it’s a fit will help your case.
Try to match the publication’s style in your pitch, too. A quirky or personal lede would be especially welcome in a pitch to Slate or The Cut, for example. Or, if you hope to write for The Scientist, make sure your pitch shows that you have no problem navigating the weeds of a research study. Tailoring your pitch to a publication shows an editor that you’re in tune with what they’re looking for.
The kind of story you pitch may also improve your chances of success. If you’re pitching an outlet for the first time, Laskow suggests starting with a small-scale piece, such as a news story. “It’s helpful to remember that an editor is making a bet on you,” she says. “The barrier to making that bet is lower for a smaller story.” Once you establish a relationship with an editor, their experience in working with you will make them feel confident about accepting more-ambitious pitches in the future.
Sometimes a pitch is simply rejected. When this happens (and it will), don’t take it personally.
Keep in mind that the pitch itself is one of the best ways to showcase your skills as a writer. This can be especially important for newer writers who might not have clips of published stories. (Editors also know that published stories have had at least some, if not heavy, editing.) Your pitch is “the only thing coming from your pure brain,” Laskow says. “If it’s well-constructed, clear, and interesting, an editor will be willing to take a risk on someone who’s never published professionally.” You can also consider aiming for publications that are vocal about interest in working with first-time writers, such as Hakai, or, if you’re in academia, The Conversation. Wherever you pitch, make sure you take time to find the right editor to contact and introduce yourself with a concise, personalized email containing your stellar pitch.
Unfortunately, even the best pitch sent to an optimal publication risks slipping to the bottom of an editor’s inbox. If your pitch doesn’t get a timely response, don’t panic—it may just be lost. If your story isn’t pegged to something immediate, wait a week or two, and then follow up. “Editors are people,” Laskow says. “If someone hasn’t responded to your pitch, it’s not radical to email them like, ‘Hey, did you have a chance to look at this?’ I’m always okay with that.” As you wait for a response, avoid the temptation to send your pitch elsewhere. It’s tactful to pitch one publication at a time.
Sometimes a pitch is simply rejected. When this happens (and it will), don’t take it personally—there are many reasons a pitch can get shot down that don’t reflect poorly on you as a writer. “With practice, you get used to being okay with getting a no,” says Clara Moskowitz, a senior editor at Scientific American. Rejections can also provide valuable information about the publication you pitched and help inform future attempts. An editor may ask you to do more reporting or fine-tune your angle, for example. If they signal that they’re open to receiving a revised pitch, address any feedback you receive carefully and try again. Weiser’s rule of thumb: “If someone doesn’t pick up a pitch after three tries, I move on.”
Fortunately, your research into what publications would be a potential fit for your story means you now have a list of other viable options. You could prioritize the publication that you think is the next best place for your story to land, for example. Moens takes a slightly different approach, aiming for top publications that are a good fit, expecting rejection, and then recalibrating accordingly. “You’ll eventually land something,” he says. Others may go more with their gut. If there’s a publication whose work you find yourself naturally drawn to, listen to that impulse, Moskowitz says. “If you notice that publications are putting out good work that you like, pitch them,” she says. “They all want good stories and new voices.”
Celia Ford is a sixth-year PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, where she studies how our brains make sense of the world, and how we update our expectations when the world changes. A TON early-career fellow supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Celia also writes for the Berkeley Science Review and is on the job market. In a past life, she was a drive-time alt-rock DJ at 95.5 WBRU FM. In a parallel universe, she is a pole dance instructor, bass guitarist, and devoted cat parent. You can follow her on Twitter @cogcelia.