How to land your story – journalist tips from Propeller’s AWE 2024 panel

How do journalists decide which stories they run? What shapes the decisions they make? Do they have unique preferences regarding how they want to be pitched to? 

Propeller Group’s panel at Advertising Week Europe 2024 explored these questions and more. Our Industry Journalists Tell All session, moderated by our Group Director of Content Branwell Johnson, put seasoned editorial decision makers under the spotlight. The panel included: 

  • Omar Oakes, Editor for The Media Leader
  • Alex Farber, Media Correspondent for The Times
  • Alys Denby, Opinion & Features Editor for City A.M.

Establishing publications’ place in the world

With so many sources of news for readers and direct channels for advertisers, ‘traditional’ media brands need to justify their relevance. The panel did this succinctly. Alex Farber said: “There’s so much news out there and it’s happening faster than ever. Our job is to aggregate, distil and provide high-quality analysis. Rather than a broad-brush approach, we’re trying to offer our readers a smaller group of stories that helps them get under the skin of what’s happening in current affairs.”

Alys Denby followed the same train of thought, highlighting CityAM’s unique role in the media ecosystem. “CityAM is there to be a voice for business and a voice for London. That voice is unashamedly pro-growth, pro-business and making the case that businesses aren’t just about benefiting the elite. They’re about creating jobs and prosperity for everybody in society in a way that’s fun and entertaining, with personality.” 

Similarly, Omar Oakes argued that The Media Leader’s strengths stem from its niche focus on the commercial aspects of media and advertising. “We felt there was a fundamental gap in the market for quality insight, analysis and commentary in the trade publication space. In a world where there’s too much information, there’s a real advantage to offering that reference point, and actually just being transparent with readers – because it’s about building that long-term relationship.”

Cutting through the noise

Journalists are bombarded with story pitches and ideas and so have a robust framework for identifying the stories that truly matter. 

Omar emphasised that best-in-class storytelling is anchored in relevance and human connection. “As human beings, we’re only rational to a point. We crave stories, surprises, personal journeys. Be honest about the challenges that your client faced, the failures they experienced. Because when you play the game where you try to justify your clients’ benefit to the publication, you lose sight of how it matters to the people in our industry.” 

For Alex, The Times’ criteria for a good story is rooted in broad appeal and recognisable elements. “Are these names you’ve heard of? Is there some controversy here – some friction or tension? A lot of it comes down to having individuals and brands that really resonate and have mass awareness.” 

Alys’ perspective for commissioning comment was that a strong opinion and a topical hook are the key ingredients for pitching success. “You’d be surprised by the number of pitches that are generic and bland – essentially a client trying to get their name in the paper. Make sure you have a topical peg, whether it’s politics or popular culture, and an angle that no one else has – even if that’s an unpopular opinion.” 

Does data tell a story?

Readership data analytics have a role to play in editorial decision-making but should not lead to ‘clickbait’ headlines. Omar said: “We look at the longer-term trends, over a period of months – the types of stories that readers are gravitating towards. We’re not in the game of really punchy headlines that are going to draw people in; we’re in the business of holding long-term relationships without readers. We know if the content isn’t good enough, people aren’t going to keep coming back to our website – and they’re certainly not going to keep coming to our events.”

Alex acknowledged the role of data and said: “The Times is a subscription business, so it’s not as if we’re chasing a volume clicks game. However, analytics are very much at the heart of the business, and we have a lot of people that have innate knowledge in this department.” He added that the ‘who’ was often the more important element. “ It’s not always what they’re saying that captures attention; it’s who is saying something that’s often very important.”

Alys advocated the need for creativity to be at the fore. “We get quite competitive in terms of which desks in the office are getting the most clicks. But it’s not about clickbait. It’s about having a really high-quality piece that keeps people engaged, ensuring that my juniors can write creative content that they’re really interested in.”

Is there still an interest in AI stories? 

News cycles tend to move quickly but with AI such a transformative technology, PR people do want to know what kind of stories in this territory would capture journalists’ attention.

Alex was sympathetic to the advertising sector’s desire to discuss AI but argued that this needs to be balanced against the reader’s appetite for coverage. “Whilst there’s some appetite for it, people have got tired of hearing about it. This has raised the bar in terms of getting AI stories across the line. Now it’s about disruption, friction – how it’s changing jobs and roles and the impact it’s having on legacy roles.”

 Alys believes that it’s difficult to obtain new opinions around AI. This leaves pitches “coming from people that want their clients to be happy. And whilst I get it – as that’s where the money is flowing – it’s not very interesting for a general reader.” 

From Omar’s perspective, AI remains a relevant topic for media and advertising – but he acknowledged that it’s difficult to know the long-term ramifications on the industry. “I think back to a quote from David Bowie during a Paxman interview, where he described the internet as an alien and we haven’t worked out how it landed on Earth. AI is the latest chapter in this story. We’re in that stage of the hype cycle where we know it’s big, it got boring – but it’ll have a resurgence, just like the metaverse.”

Pitching good practice

In terms of granular advice for shaping a story pitch Alex felt that it was time to move on from the “hi, blah blah blah” tactics that PR has traditionally used. “Have some awareness of the title that you’re pitching into. I understand the ‘spray and pray’ tactics, but you need to approach it with more thought.”

Alys went into deeper specifics, painting a picture for those wanting to crack CityAM. “Don’t pitch us something international. We’re London or business-oriented. Ensuring it’s tailored to the publication is paramount – and make sure it’s fun and interesting.” 

Omar echoed these thoughts, once again rooting his theory in real-world examples. “At The Media Leader, our audience is a specialist mixture of media owners, planners, buyers, vendors. Think about what they’re interested in. It doesn’t sound like rocket science – but it’s about taking the time to tick this box.”

The panel stressed PRs and their clients need to think about interesting pictures to illustrate the stories – journalists need to think about layout on the page and a strong image idea can be a deciding factor. And while it may seem obvious, they requested that PRs include contact details for any quick follow-up questions regarding press releases. Finally, pitches sent in early-to-mid morning are going to meet with a better reception – definitely don’t send anything after 5 pm, as even journalists clock off at some point.