I said I would… it’s only taken me 8 months to get around to doing it.
My piece about scientific research at Guantanamo Bay was published by DISCOVER Magazine’s online division last week, so it seemed like a good time to dig up the original pitch, and talk a bit about the conversation that ensued with the editor that led to the final piece, which can be seen here.
Before I lay out the pitch, I want to mention that I specifically decided to query DISCOVER’s web editor rather than the print magazine editor; the idea I had in mind seemed to fit better within the web departments, and I suspected that it would be easier to break in as a freelancer with limited science credentials through the website (which tends to have shorter articles) than in the print magazine. *PITCHING COMPANION SITES OF PRINT MAGAZINES IS AN EXCELLENT WAY TO WORK TOWARD SEEING YOUR BYLINE IN PRINT. Many print magazines have companion sites that publish original content separate from or in addition to the digitized versions of articles that appear in the print mags.*
Here’s the pitch, which I sent on June 18:
Hi, Amos-In October 2008, I traveled to the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to visit the controversial facility where alleged terrorists have been detained in America’s “War on Terror”. One of the few journalists given access to the facility in 2008, my intention was to interview administrators, guards, and other civilian employees about detention policies and their own experiences at Guantanamo. Though I did conduct numerous interviews on this subject, I quickly identified two categories of narratives I hadn’t expected to hear: the stories of immigrant civilian employees on the base doing work ranging from food service management to land mine clearing, and the stories of researchers conducting scientific studies on the base.Because of its relative isolation, Guantanamo Bay is, according to numerous experts I’ve interviewed, one of the most pristine marine and terrestrial habitats in the world, and offers unparalleled opportunities for scientific study in disciplines as diverse as herpetology, paleontology, and botany. Its natural environment also offers opportunities for military personnel, including exceptional recreational snorkeling and SCUBA diving, as well as serving as a site for physical rehabilitation of soldiers injured in Afghanistan and Iraq.I am interested in writing an article for Discover’s website about the research that is being conducted on the base by American scientists. I have ongoing access to herpetologists, paleontologists, and botanists who continue to conduct their research in spite of the uncertain future of the base. Having researched this topic, I can say with confidence that little has been published about scientific work at Guantanamo outside of academic journals and institutional newsletters. Nevertheless, the subject is compelling, the work is significant, and the research itself indicates how the complexity of the base has been reduced to a single aspect of activity, albeit an important one.Photos are available to accompany the article.Thank you in advance for your consideration,Julie Schwietert Collazo
The editor to whom this pitch was addressed forwarded it to the specific editor who handles the website, who replied to me within five days of my initial email. It was that editor who expressed interest and suggested that the topic be presented as a photo essay. I’d shot enough photos while at Guantanamo Bay to support the number she required for a photo essay– 8-10–though I ultimately supplemented my own shots with a couple shots from sources (including the amazing 1909 photograph from the New York Botanical Garden) and one shot from a contact I’d made while on the base and with whom I have stayed in touch. I told the editor I liked the idea of the photo essay, and she set a deadline of three weeks. I filed the piece on July 16, and it ran on August 6. This is the other benefit of publishing on the companion site of a print publication; you’ll often see your work published more quickly.
As I already mentioned in an earlier post, this assignment was a thrill–and not just because of the byline. I was truly stoked by the scientists I interviewed for this piece, and the assignment has definitely amped up my interest in science-related topics.
I’m happy to answer any questions about this pitch. If you’d like to “workshop” one of your own pitches, please feel free to email me at writingjulie[at]gmail[dot]com, and I’ll feature you in a future post.