Pitching to NPR? Our bureau chiefs share their process

On NPR’s National Desk, four bureau chiefs edit news stories from around the country. They are Andrea DeLeon (Northeast), Russell Lewis (South), Ken Barcus (Midwest), and Jason DeRose (West). This is their outline of the process for pitching a story to a news magazine such as All Things Considered or Morning Edition — and getting the story done. There will always be slight differences in how editors operate, but this is a good blueprint.

And remember — the goal is always to get the most sound-rich, scene-rich story that fits the time allotted. Take the listener somewhere!

1. The Pitch: A good pitch involves reporting, and having a thorough understanding of the style and sensibility of NPR newsmagazines.  It is a 3-4 sentence treatment of the story. Think ‘Host Intro’. It should spark interest in the topic and explain the tension (conflict) in the story. The editor will want to know what the point of the story is. What’s at stake? What’s surprising? Make sure you know. The pitch should include a few people whom the reporter wants to speak with as well as a scene or two the reporter wants to record. The pitch should include a possible airdate and news peg. Email it to the bureau chief in your region. (See below for examples of successful pitches.) 

2. The Initial Conversation: This is a 5-10 minute conversation with the editor about elements of the piece, structure, length and a timeline for completion. Some editors will want to hear some of your tape before the writing even begins. Some editors will work with you to develop a “focus statement”: ONE sentence that describes your story. Make sure to ask your editor questions about their process in advance, so you’re clear on what to expect, production timeline, etc.

3. The Reporting: The reporter gathers interviews, scenes, ambient sound and photos.

4. The Check-In: The editor and reporter discuss progress in reporting, especially if the story begins to vary significantly from the original pitch. The editor may suggest additional interviews/scenes. The editor and reporter discuss possible structures for the piece and confirm the story angle and length.

5. The Logging: Transcribe interviews. This is a pain, but you’ll be glad you’ve done it when the editor asks if so-and-so talked about such-and-such. [If you’re reporting a quick turn-around story, logging may be near impossible.]

6. The Outline: In consultation with the editor, create an outline for your piece.

7. The Writing: The reporter writes the story, starting with the host intro.  All actualities should be transcribed in full in the script. The script, including host intro, should be no more than 30 seconds over the assigned length. If it’s too long, you’re not ready for an edit. The intro is included in the length.

8. The First Edit (Big Picture/Macro Edit): The reporter reads the script live (usually over the phone) and plays tape (which the reporter will have pulled before the edit). The editor listens but doesn’t read the script beforehand or during the run-through. Then, the editor gives pointers on structure and narrative but not necessarily on individual sentences. The editor may suggest restructuring the story, cutting portions that feel redundant or distracting, or doing additional reporting. This is a back-and-forth, collaborative process.

9. The Second Edit (Finer Points/Micro Edit): After the reporter has re-worked the script and tape based on the first edit, the reporter will send the editor a script. Then, the editor and reporter begin sentence-level work focusing on information and clarity. The reporter should plan to spend an hour or so re-working the script after the Second Edit.

10. The Third Edit: (If needed) The reporter and editor run through the story with tape to check for time and flow.

11. Production: The reporter voices the tracks and uploads (usually via FTP) the tracks, actualities and ambient sound.

**Important note: NPR doesn’t employ fact-checkers! Reporters check their own facts, and editors help the process. Your editor will expect that you have checked your facts — and will ask you about your sources.

Examples of successful pitches to our Western bureau chief

If your idea is great but your pitch is lousy, a busy editor might not think you have a story. Check out these pitches: succinct, clear focus – and we know what’s at stake and who the stakeholders are.

A pitch from Sacramento:

African Americans are deeply divided over the proposition on the California ballot that would legalize recreational use of marijuana. The NAACP has endorsed the measure saying it’s a civil rights issue because blacks are more likely to be arrested for pot possession. But a Sacramento preacher – and member of the NAACP himself – is encouraging black voters to turn down Prop 19. He says drugs are tearing the African American community apart.

A pitch from KUOW:

Seattle’s homeless camp is moving to city property. Such encampments have grown up in places like Nashville, Sacramento and Tampa in recent years. And many have met a similar demise: local officials shut them down. But the Seattle camp is going to be run by the city itself. The project has led to some battles with the camp’s new neighbors and to a conflict with the city’s own mission to end homelessness. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Liz Jones reports.

A pitch from San Francisco:

You often hear politicians say “We need to run government more like a business.” In California, the Republican candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate are two former corporate executives from Silicon Valley — Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. Scott Shafer of member station K-Q-E-D in San Francisco examines how easily business skills are transferred to the statehouse and Congress.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.