If you’ve been a journalist for long enough, you’ve probably gotten at least a few requests from aspiring writers asking to pick your brain about how you’ve made your living in the industry.
Seattle-based food writer Naomi Tomky gets a lot of these requests from pastry chefs and line cooks. Many of them have recently been laid off; some are simply tired of the physical toll that restaurant work has taken on their bodies. They don’t necessarily know how freelance writing works, but they have ideas and want to write about food.
“I wish I could help everyone who writes to me,” Tomky says. “But I can’t. I have two kids and full-time freelance work.”
So early this year, Tomky created a resource to demystify one of the biggest barriers to entry for freelance writers. Successful Pitches is as straightforward as it sounds: a database of pitches that have successfully led to stories at a variety of publications.
Via a simple Google form, writers can submit successful pitches along with information such as type of pitch (cold pitch, requested by editor, etc.), type of story (print, online), and a link to the published story. As of late June, Successful Pitches included several dozen successful pitches from outlets including Al Jazeera, CNN, Eater, the New York Times, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, and even this one. Tomky said the site was inspired by “Who Pays Writers,” an anonymous, crowdsourced list of rates searchable by publication title.
“If you don’t know how to pitch, and you don’t know what a pitch looks like for a 500-word essay versus a 2,500-word feature, this is how you can go and find out,” Tomky explained.
The skill of good pitching, while related to the skills of writing and reporting, is not quite the same. When I lost a full-time job and suddenly needed to freelance, I had no idea how to cold-pitch a story. As a staff reporter, my editors sat fifteen feet away from me and were usually available to brainstorm half-baked ideas. I had a beat, so the topic was a given, and I never had to convince them that I should write the piece, since I already had the job. I never went to journalism school, but if I had, I still might not have been taught how to pitch.
Tomky said Successful Pitches is the resource she wished she would have had when she started out ten years ago. She had a background in marketing, which she felt helped when it came to selling her ideas to editors, but she didn’t have a clear template to follow. “I spent a lot of time reading on the internet to figure out what I could, but there wasn’t anywhere where I could go and look at a pitch,” Tomky said. The Open Notebook has long hosted a similar pitch database for science and technology stories, but this kind of resource hasn’t existed for other beats.
Successful Pitches is the latest in a growing movement to create a more transparent, equitable journalism industry. It also comes at a time when furloughs and layoffs have pushed even more staffers into the freelance ranks.
“There’s more a spirit of transparency and awareness of hierarchies of inequalities, as there are in many fields of life right now,” Kyle Chayka, cofounder of the freelance collective and new-media company Study Hall, says. “I started freelancing in 2011, and at that point it seemed really hard to know how to pitch someone.”
“I think people just don’t know what the rules are, because there are no rules.”
Study Hall is perhaps the biggest and most visible organization to come out of this new movement for transparency. Founded as a coworking space in Brooklyn in 2015, it has since expanded into a network of over 4,500 members who share resources and tips on everything from pitching to labor organizing in the media industry. The site, says Chayka, saw its biggest increase in membership in May, following a wave of layoffs caused in part by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Its priciest membership tier costs $11 per month and includes access to an editor contact database and a slew of freelance resources, including “how to pitch” guides for specific publications, and a database of pitches that worked. The organization also offers a $1 membership for journalists and media workers of color. (Disclosure: I’ve been a member of Study Hall since 2017.)
“J-school is really expensive and not accessible to a lot of people, and it doesn’t really teach you how to freelance,” Chayka says. “I think that the kind of educational content we produce can be a replacement for or supplement to J-school.”
Study Hall also publishes original works of journalism and media criticism, some of it public and some accessible only to members. The company currently has one full-time and six part-time employees, including Chayka and cofounder P.E. Moskowitz.
“Our model has been that we have to charge for access to these things to some degree because we want them to be self-sustaining and we want to pay people for the time they work on them,” Chayka says.
For Sonia Weiser, sharing such resources with other freelancers has also become its own kind of side hustle. Weiser, who has been a full-time freelancer since 2016, launched her “Opportunities of the Week” newsletter in 2018 as a place to compile all the calls for pitches she found each week. She now charges $3 per month, but makes the newsletter free to those who are unable to afford it.
“There are a lot of freelancers who have the sense of, ‘I earned this with my hard work—I don’t want to give it to you for free,’ ” Weiser says. “It makes sense that people want to keep opportunities to themselves. I get it: You’re trying to make money. Why would you point someone in the direction of the really meaty carcass when you need the meaty carcass?”
Weiser has at times fought her own instincts to be protective of resources, but ultimately she believes transparency is necessary and right.
“I want to make freelance opportunities as accessible as possible for people who don’t know how to look for them or can’t afford to look for them,” Weiser says.
Tomky believes that freelancer protectiveness is often driven by fear. “I think people just don’t know what the rules are, because there are no rules,” she says. “They don’t want to piss off an editor who’s giving them work.”
Tomky hopes to make a few tweaks to Successful Pitches, but she believes that simple is the way to go, and says the basic structure won’t change. “The fact that it isn’t costing any money right now is what’s going to make it so sustainable,” Tomky says. The site’s hosting and domain costs were donated.
She hopes that Successful Pitches can be a stepping-stone for new writers who might later join an organization like Study Hall. Tomky says she probably wouldn’t have joined the network if it had existed when she began her career, “not because it’s not a great resource, but because I didn’t know what that value was.”
“The problem is you have to know that you need them,” she says. The first step is knowing what it means to even get a pitch accepted and make money writing.
“I want someone who is twenty-five who just got laid off from their restaurant job to be able to go in and find a pitch,” she says. “I don’t want any barrier to entry.”