Surprising approach to pitching the New York Times

This summer I presented at a conference where New York Times reporter Richard Perez Pena was kind enough to sit for a panel about how PR people should work with him.

One of the things he said was dumbfounding.

I had looked at his recent work – much of it was, frankly, the kind of coverage that PR people would NOT want. He was just doing his job, uncovering questionable behavior and highlighting negative outcomes from programs that were supposed to help people. So I singled out two stories that were more positive that could have been the result of PR pitches. And I asked him how he found out about them and what made him decide to cover them, out of all the hundreds of potentially worthy topics he could cover on any given day.

One was about a program for international students at Oregon State University. Richard explained all the important trends relating to international students and how OSU had one of the oldest and largest transitional programs for them. And then, he said, he needed another story to work on in Oregon if he was going to fly all the way there.

“And there’s this guy in Hong Kong who emails New York Times reporters incessantly,” Richard said. “He’s been emailing me for years. He emailed me and said, ‘Did you know they’re using art to teach climate change at [the University of] Oregon?”

And that was how he found his second story for the trip.

Incredulous, I asked more about this guy in Hong Kong and what he did to get his emails opened by NYT staffers.

Richard, who was being awesomely open and generous about this, started chuckling and explained how he would get frustrated with this guy periodically and stop opening his emails. One time the guy wrote advocating use of a new word for reading digitally, “dig-ing,” but was worried people would read it as “digging.”

“I don’t know why I opened that email [about the class at the U. of Oregon],” Richard said. “It depends on what I had for lunch, or how I felt about my editors . . .”

Now some people could hear that anecdote and get frustrated and feel like there is no rhyme or reason to pitching top-tier media. And I would understand that reaction.

But I draw the opposite conclusion – if a random, occasionally annoying guy in Hong Kong with no PR training or responsibilities can place a story in the New York Times, surely someone who carefully researchers and crafts a targeted pitch can do it!

Now, this anecdote also highlights the factors that need to align for success, even for a promising story idea. Richard likely wouldn’t have cared about this email if he hadn’t already planned the trip to Oregon. Sometimes you can use social media and/or clues from previous coverage to uncover such influencing factors. But you can’t know everything all the time, so you just do the best research and targeting you can and get that email out there. And if it doesn’t work that time, you try again.

Next time you’ve done your homework and think you have a good idea, but are still feeling apprehensive because of previous rejection, remember:

If a random guy in Hong Kong can do it, so can you!

This article was originally published on August 8, 2014

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