Confronting the Pitching Demons

Sometimes when I think about pitching stories to new clients, I just get the willies. Sometimes, though, it verges on full-blown terror.

This has always been so – and for me, “always” means a long time. I first started freelancing early in my marriage to a newspaper reporter whose employers wouldn’t hire employees’ spouses. Working for the competition wasn’t acceptable either, so most of my first decade as a professional journalist was freelance. In those days everything was done by snail-mail, and how I dreaded opening the mailbox!

The first rejection letters didn’t bother me, but after too many in a row I came to dread even sending a pitch.

Eventually I landed two steady gigs – writing for a new city magazine in Norfolk and producing a monthly tabloid published by a Tidewater-area faith-based organization. Pitching established clients was much easier, I found. Story pitches were less personal, and rejections were always followed up with new ideas from both sides.

Fast forward a few years: After seven months of the nomad life, many miles and beautiful vistas, many journal pages and boxes of color slides, the pitching demon got the best of me. I did not write a single article or sell a single photo from a camping trip that took us through much of the northern and southwestern U.S. as well as eastern and western Canada. Not one.

When we landed in Hartford, Connecticut, I had the same job-hunting problem as before: no spouses, hired or competing. At least there were Fortune 500 companies in Hartford, not just military installations! Local gigs were within reach. But pitching remained the same – nerves, leading to angst, sometimes terror. More freelance business was done on the phone by then, and I talked my way into a few one-off publication gigs that added confidence-building pieces to my portfolio. I wrote and edited a community newspaper. I was a busy freelancer, but I did not pitch.

After getting stiffed on a big project, I got out of journalism for a few years. I was lured back in by an ad in Quill, the Society of Professional Journalists’ magazine – a gig stringing for BNA (now Bloomberg BNA), the D.C.-based publishing company that became my long-time employer. I conquered my demon quickly pitching to BNA editors, with the help of a network of correspondents throughout the U.S. who kept in touch and shared tips about working with different editors and covering legal and government news across the spectrum of BNA’s publications.

The BNA gig was my luckiest freelance find because it ended with full-time employment that went on for years. I retired early on full pension 10 years ago, with the clips, skills, contacts, and confidence to get back into freelance journalism. That’s when the pitching demon came back into my life.

The business of freelancing had changed by then. Email and the internet had given independent workers a new way of finding and applying for gigs. Cold calls were less frowned upon, and email follow-ups provided a softer landing for rejections.

I had some early successes finding anchor gigs through networking. The SPJ Freelancer Directory sent another anchor editor my way. I had plenty to do, and my business was profitable.

But anchor clients come and go, and from time to time I needed to diversify my client base. I learned to respond quickly when I found potential clients’ calls for proposals on the internet, tailoring my queries, pitches, and resume to the needs expressed in each notice. I found enough high-paying work that I was able to take in stride the many, many more unacknowledged emails I sent. Outright rejections were preferred to the ignominy of invisibility.

Over time I quit pitching, content with one editing client and all the free time I could hope for. In August I let that gig go, believing I was ready to retire. But this is not an easy business to walk away from if you’ve got the journalism bug!

Now I want to write news and in-depth features, returning to my early freelance writing pursuits. I have a new interest to pursue, and the need for pitching is a fact of life once again. So is my pitching demon.

Happily, it’s too soon to query any editors or pitch any stories. I have much research to do, many people to interview, sources to cultivate, data to collect and analyze – much to learn before the stories will reveal themselves. I have a plan: to gain the confidence of editors by providing news coverage in a specialized, under-reported area while I learn who the players are, thoroughly investigate the subject, and look for some solutions to write about.

Finding those solutions will also help me conquer those demons. I’m sure of it!