The Perfect Pitch: Dee O’Keeffe

Dee O’Keeffe is features editor with the Evening Herald. This article is based on her presentation at Freelance Forum 2012 on 24 September 2012.

Before I tell you about my perfect pitch can I just say that I have a lot of admiration for anyone who chooses or finds themselves through circumstances leading the life of a freelancer – it is without doubt terrifying and gratifying in equal measures.

And so to the perfect pitch – while it may sound obvious, being familiar with the paper you are pitching to is essential, at this stage I’m not even surprised when I realise one minute into a conversation or three lines into an email that the person who wants to write for The Herald has not picked up a copy of the paper for about 55 years – and so has not idea of who our reader is.

There are 223,000 Herald readers by the way and 120,000 of that figure are women, 103,000 are men and 114,000 are under the age of 44. That kind of information is not hard to come by, and neither is the startling truth that The Herald is a Dublin-centric title, yet so often ideas presented to me are way off this mark and are a waste of my time – relevance to my readers is my number one ask from contributors.

One lady living in a remote mountainous area petitioned me for months on end about writing for the paper. After I failed to respond to her fourth email, pitching about a piece about why dogs are mans best friend, she called the office demanding to know what I wanted, what she could write for me. I told her what I tell anyone writer who comes to me looking for work but without any appropriate ideas – buy the paper.

And do keep that in mind – it’s not enough to simply check out a website, it won’t give you a concise picture of who we sell to, what our voice is. You have to buy the paper and see what’s in each package every day it’s on shelf, Monday to Saturday in our case, so you know when I’ll be looking for health pieces, or something on relationships, career, celeb, diets etc.

I’m probably not alone in saying that email works better for commissioning editors – but only most of the time. If a journalist I have never worked with before decides they have something to offer the Herald features department then a quick phone call to introduce yourself and say you will be mailing in some ideas that day for consideration is a good start. And of course once there is a rapport the whole process becomes easier – and it’s always fun bouncing ideas off one another.

Any ideas should be succinctly summed up – give me a header and a two line soundbite of what the piece is about, followed by sub headings of issues or areas you intend to cover in the piece, perhaps some ideas for side bars and, crucially, suggestions for illustration.

I’ve some copies here of a pitch I was given for a piece on renting – and how it’s a uniquely Irish thing for us to consider a place that has no mortgage attached to it to be less than a home. It’s a good synopsis of the angle the writer is taking, she gets the all important Dublin focus and has researched a possible celeb angle for pics as she understands this one may be trickier than other pieces when it comes to display. It’s worth bearing in mind that this topic was something that came up during a friendly chat on the phone we were having apropos of nothing. It piqued my interest and I asked the writer to send me a more in-depth pitch – as Norah Efron said ‘everything is copy.’

Most publications like real life stories too. We recently carried a good feature on immigration and it was a good read because it was about the people left behind – we had someone who had seen a family member move, another person who had a friend leave and one girl whose boyfriend is now living abroad. They were all young, attractive people with lots to say – the journalist pitched the piece to me perfectly, then secured her case studies and gave us the contact numbers to organise pictures while she wrote the article up.

First person pieces work well too – particularly when the writer is enthused, riled up or darn right furious about the topic in question – see Tanya Sweeney’s piece on the Tracy McMillan’s book “Why You’re Not Married … Yet” in tomorrow’s feature package, it’s certainly got her all fired up!

Of course the most important thing in the whole process is not just delivering what you promise, but doing so on time. I always agree a deadline with the journalist but there has to be wriggle room for them if something comes up. I got a text yesterday from a contributor who was having trouble getting expert quotes for a piece she was working on – which I wanted for 7am today. She saw a problem, texted me on a Sunday to ask if 11am today is okay and I was fine with that.

While you have a bit more leeway in features, news is of course a completely different animal. When I worked on the back bench I was calling freelancers at 6/6.30am for opinion editorials. It’s not unusual for feature writers to be good at op eds too so it’s something to keep in mind when you’re looking for new areas you can get in to. So I hope I’ve covered most of the does and don’ts when it comes to pitching, if not I’ll be happy to answer any questions as best I can.

And just remember what Pete Hamill said: “newspapers will always break your heart.”

And with that I’ll direct you to the last line of The Thorn Birds: “still we do it.”