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2 min read

Outreach Conference 2018: Man Bites Dog: The Stories Journalists Look For – Richard Fisher

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Why call a talk ‘man bites dog’ you say? Because a dog biting a man is ‘usual’, but a man biting a dog…well, that’s newsworthy.

BBC journalist Richard Fisher explained what makes a strong story that demands publication and social sharing – and how to best pitch to editors with your stories to get their attention.

Richard opened his talk by referring to a Guardian article where a man had bitten a dog – and said the journalist must have had a field day when that story came in!

But what else does a journalist look for in a news story? Here are just a few things:

  • Relevance
  • Emotional
  • Salience
  • Entertainment
  • Sharability
  • Timeliness
  • Inspiring
  • Proximity
  • Conflict

And what about a features journalist specifically? One thing they look for is ‘news waves and timeliness’ – if you miss the peak then you end up in the ‘bathtub of death’!

The second thing is ‘sharability’. Are we creating stories that people want to talk about with their friends and family and share on social? Richard referred to Buzzfeed’s Sharing Principles – things that define the stories that we share. Buzzfeed mentions:

  • Identity – ‘this expresses my identity better than I can’
  • Emotional gift – ‘this made me feel X; I’d like you to feel X’
  • Social information – ‘here is something that supports a view I already have’

The third thing is ‘narrative elements’. A story always has a start, a middle and an end – you know it’s going to take you somewhere on a journey.

The thing that has influenced Richard a lot in his own writing is the idea that there are story archetypes. For example:

  • Quest (i.e. Lord of the Rings – someone on a quest, they face difficulties along the way but will get there in the end)
  • Tragedy
  • Rags-to-riches (inspirational tales of people have overcome difficulty to achieve something great)
  • Battling the monster (people battling a societal or health issue)

The main way Richard interacts with people on a day to day basis is via email (no surprise there!)

He shared some do’s and don’ts with the audience. As for the don’ts:

  • Put all your information in an attachment
  • Feign familiarity (saying ‘how’s the family?’ feels a bit weird)
  • Use badly formatted mass-email
  • Pretend to be a freelance journalist (e.g. using the words ‘article pitch’ in an email subject)

And for the do’s…

  • Find out what they do (is it features or news? Familiarise yourself with their content and audience)
  • Think about your story context
  • Try to get to know the journalists/editors you are contacting
  • Write intriguing and snappy email subjects and first paragraphs (keep it short!)
  • Seek out commissioning editors (it’s not often the most senior editor)
  • Be clear if there’s also multimedia content and where to easily access it in a link
  • Follow-up, especially with 1-to-1 requests (though not all editors are grateful for phone calls)