- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

Fielding pitches

Many of our most interesting and unusual foreign stories come from a large network of freelance correspondents, or “stringers,” who are essentially independent contractors selling us stories one at a time.

They are a varied but intrepid group. Some are young Americans fresh out of journalism school who have set up shop in a remote corner of the world. Some are longtime U.S. expats looking for extra income in retirement. Some are foreign citizens employed as journalists in their home countries who are moonlighting in their spare time.

What they all have in common is the need to be salesmen as well as reporters; if they can’t sell their stories to editors here in the United States, they don’t have work. Hence the art of the pitch.

On any given day, sprinkled among the press releases, think-tank reports and Viagra advertisements that stuff my e-mail inbox, come a dozen or more story proposals, or “pitches,” from stringers around the world.

Some go for the hard sell, like this from our stringer in Almaty, whose initial story on the murder of a prominent opposition leader in Kazakhstan appeared at least a day before our competitors wrote about it:

“OK, it’s time for the WT (The Washington Times) to take the lead again in the murders story,” the reporter e-mailed last week. He explained that five suspects, arrested a day earlier, had been linked to the country’s security forces and that the president was promising severe punishment for whoever was responsible.

“Can we do say 500 words, even 400 if space is tight? Most of the wires wrongly reported that the arrested five had fessed up to the killings, which the minister clearly said they had not,” the stringer concluded.

We didn’t take the story that day but did ask him to send us a comprehensive update for early this week.

Different approaches

Other freelancers take the deferential approach, like a young man in Indonesia, approaching us for the first time, who explained he had been referred by one of our regular stringers, told us where he had gone to school and explained how long he had been in Indonesia before getting to the point.

He had been in Banda Aceh photographing a school shortly after the December 2004 tsunami, he explained.

“For a while now, I’ve been wanting to return and do my own documentation of the same students. Interviews, slice of life, anything to get closer and document the difficulty of living with such a past.

“You could say that I would like to report the story from a more intimate point of view, following the children around during the day and talking to some of the teachers and other adults involved.”

We told him we could not commission such a story without knowing him better, but if he wanted to submit a completed story “on spec,” we would consider it.

Some of the most successful pitches are short and to the point. Stringer Bruce Konviser in the Czech Republic — who has contributed to the paper for at least 10 years — sold us two stories with this succinct e-mail:

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is due to visit Prague next week. Even though [Czech Republic] wasn’t adversely effected earlier this winter when Russia cut its flow of natural gas to Europe via Ukraine, the Czechs do get 75 percent of their gas supplies from Russia and supply is expected to be a topic of conversation when Putin meets his Czech counterpart. Interested?

“And any interest in the Czech model who slipped photos of Cuba’s disenfranchised out of the country? The photos go on display today in Prague and organizers are hoping to be able to show them in Washington and New York.”

Mr. Putin’s gas sales have been of continuing interest for this newspaper, so we agreed to take that one. We had not heard before about the Czech model and the Cuban photos, but we’re looking forward to seeing the story. Watch for it this week.

• David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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