Everyone game for first power pitch

No one showed up in their pajamas — though one West Coast writer had suggested it — as about 100 participants arrived at 7 a.m. CDT (5 a.m. PDT) Saturday, Oct. 17, to sign up for the NASW's first-ever Power Pitch with Top Editors.


No one showed up in their pajamas — though one West Coast writer had suggested it — as about 100 participants arrived at 7 a.m. CDT (5 a.m. PDT) Saturday, Oct. 17, to sign up for the NASW's first-ever Power Pitch with Top Editors.

The event replaced the Pitch Slams of previous years, in which members would have 1 minute to share their ideas with a panel of editors in front of a room filled with NASW colleagues. That format allowed for fewer pitches but gave a wider number of people insight into how editors react.

Conference organizers decided to try a different approach this year in response to comments from previous years that pitching in front of such a large crowd can be unnerving as well as concerns that an idea might get stolen, said freelancer Jeanne Erdmann, organizer of the Power Pitch. Eight editors participated in the event, representing The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Discover, Scientific American/Scientific American Mind, Audubon, Wired, Nature and Cure magazine.

The format for the pitch session resembled speed dating with eight editors seated at small tables lined up in two rows. Each power pitcher was allowed to make up to two pitches; there was time for each of the eight editors to hear 10 pitches. Each pitch lasted 7 minutes followed by a 3-minute changeover. The format provided time enough to share one or two paragraph-length ideas or a handful of sentence-brief ones.

"It's face-to-face, one-on-one," Erdmann said. "You really have to bring your best game."

In what resembled a field day for game theorists, the day started with the signup, which seemed to reward optimism and patience. The doors opened just before 7 a.m. Each on-time arrival then randomly drew a numbered card — from 1 to 104. Those arriving after 7:10 a.m. could draw from a second set of random numbers that started at 200. Because some writers left when the editors they wanted became booked, everyone who remained in the room had an opportunity to sign up for two slots, although not necessarily with the editors they had initially hoped to meet.

The random assignment of numbers gave an equal shot to everyone who arrived on time and avoided the possibility of anyone camping out to get first pick. "We tried to decide the most fair way to do this," Erdmann said of the new format.

"It went well," said Cecile LeBlanc, who pitched to Julie Liebach of Audubon. "There was time for only one idea. The time went by really fast." Although LeBlanc was nervous, she said the editor was helpful. "She made it very comfortable. She gave a very good critique," LeBlanc said.

Christi Fish, a public affairs specialist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, pitched an idea to Nature's Mitchell Waldrop, who provided feedback on ways to strengthen it, demonstrating how public information officers can also benefit from the new format, she said.

SIDEBAR: The view from the other side of the table

Prior to the Power Pitch with Top Editors, Rosie Mestel, of the Los Angeles Times, one of the eight editors, said she hoped those winning her slots had done their homework. "If they're going to pitch to me I would hope they would look at the health section or our health content online and see what we do."

She said she also hoped they would check whether her paper had recently done a similar story, but then acknowledged, "That might be asking too much. I won't be particularly irritated if they pitch something we've just done."

Following the event, Boonsri Dickinson, assistant editor at Discover, said she thought the writers came well prepared. "It was good when it was a two-way conversation," she said. Several of the writers were familiar with the magazine, and for those who weren't she said she helped them determine which part of the book might work for their idea.

"A lot of them came with good ideas and left with stories that might work," she added.

Adam Rogers, senior editor at Wired, also praised the writers' preparation. He said he heard several pitches that could work for the front of the book or might be built into a feature "given a few more turns of the wheel."

David Corcoran, assistant science editor at The New York Times, said he was very favorably impressed by the 10 writers he saw, who were for the most part quite young.

"They were very articulate with good, interesting stories to pitch. I had to tell them that The New York Times accepts almost no material from first timers."

He said when writers told him they were nervous, he tried to reassure them. "I said, 'You're among friends.'" Due to the Times' constraints on hiring freelancers unless they have previously written for the paper, he viewed his role at the event as helping the writers shape their pitches so they could sell their stories elsewhere. "That would make me happy," he said.

Deborah Wormser was an NASW Freelance Fellow at ScienceWriters 2009. She lives in Dallas, Texas, and has written for nonprofits, academic institutions and major media outlets including theheart.org, Heart Insight magazine, Reuters, Seventeen and Men's Fitness.

Oct. 23, 2009