RSS Feed

Pitches that worked: Guantanamo Bay research story for DISCOVER Magazine

Months ago, in response to my post “The long tail of the writer’s pitch,” Simone Gorrindo (herself a very gifted writer) left a comment asking if I’d be willing to share a pitch that worked.

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.


20 responses »

  1. Thanks for sharing. It’s always helpful to see how other writers pitch – I don’t comment often, since I subscribe by email, but I had to stop in and say thanks for this one.

  2. Thank you for posting this! It’s really helpful to see examples. You can learn how to write a CV/ resume at school or from others, but it’s not very easy to find out how to do this kind of thing. And, good on you for throwing yourself into the science challenge (and pulling it off gracefully). My husband’s a former scientist and I always just think of that as ‘his area’. But maybe I should widen my view.

    • Marie-
      Definitely open yourself to widening! 🙂
      My dad is a polymer chemist and my mom got her undergrad degree in zoology and taught high school science before going on to apply her science background in other work, so I was definitely steeped in science from a young age. In fact, before I realized I was really terrible at math, my career aspiration was to be an epidemiologist!

      I’m definitely fascinated by many sciences, and I don’t think you necessarily need to possess profound technical knowledge to author articles about science. What you *do* need to have, are good sources who are willing and able to share their knowledge with you in a way that you can understand it and, in turn, distill the relevant information and convey it to a general readership. I think you also need to know why the story is important so you can really engage that audience. I’m definitely looking forward to writing more science-oriented pieces and actually have a couple in the works!

  3. Way to go Julie! Yes, it was a very good pitch. But, more importantly you have the talent and versatility to back it up.

    This is a good example of why it pays to actually go places and talk to people (…or as you did: listen to people) as opposed to doing research on the web.

    I also like how you parlayed your Oct, 2008 visit into a story that would run nearly two years later. (Not just a story, but a slide show of the great photos you took).

    Of course, I was one of the earlier beneficiaries of your trip there when in early 2009 you were kind enough to do an interview about Gitmo on Travelojos. And for that, I remain grateful.

    • Steve-

      And I’m grateful to you for giving me a platform to share some of my experiences at Guantanamo.

      I definitely would have preferred to have published this story much earlier; I honestly believed that it was particularly relevant when President Obama took office, given his stated commitment to close the detention facility on the base. But everything in its own time ! 🙂 Ultimately, I’m very happy with the way it turned out.

  4. Congrats on the excellent photo essay, Julie! And thanks – this pitch is a great resource and reference.

    I know from your google submission doc you often try and use diff. angles, but did you pitch other publications about this same story idea or similar ones? 🙂 Thanks again!

    • Alyssa-

      Thanks! Yes, I tried slightly different angles and different publications, but none of them bit.

      I also tried (and still haven’t successfully placed) to pitch another Guantanamo article, this one about food on the base. There’s a whole history and culture of food at Guantanamo Bay that’s fascinating. I pitched it to (back when it existed!) and the editor was interested; however, she ultimately passed on the story because I think she perceived it as difficult to follow up and fact-check my sources.

      For the DISCOVER article, I *did* have to provide accompanying documentation of interviews (e-mail and phone), source material, and contact information for sources. Having had the experience with, I was much more prepared to really have everything in place to make the editor’s work easy.

  5. Congratulations on this and thanks for sharing the pitch letter and all the details with us. And, thanks for the excellent tip to pitch ideas to companion sites. Here’s a toast to projects that are so enjoyable to complete!

  6. Hi Julie,

    Pitching is something I find very tricky, so thanks for sharing this! It’s so helpful to be able to see a successful pitch in the flesh.

    The photo essay itself was wonderful; one of the most unusual and compelling pieces I’ve read in a long time.

    I have a question which relates to, I suppose, credentials. At the start of your pitch you say that you were “one of the few journalists given access to the facility in 2008” – which gives you automatic credibility and presumably implies to editors that your view is likely to be unique.

    But what if you don’t have that kind of formal selling point? Are there ways to sound qualified to write a story about a place even if you haven’t gone there as a journalist? I have very generic writing credentials (publication credits, an MA, etc.) and often travel knowing that I’ll later write about the experience, but this in itself does not sound a very compelling reason for editors to take my pitches seriously. Any thoughts?

    Thanks again – I’ve been a closet reader of your blog for some time and always enjoy your posts.

    – Miranda

    • Oh, I love closet readers!

      Thanks for your comment, Miranda.

      Before I answer your question, I should note that as I wrote this post and re-read the pitch, I noticed that I’d completely left out any reference to my publication credits. I was pretty surprised at myself– one, because I didn’t notice this before, and two, because I always include relevant publication credits. But I didn’t really have any science-related credits… which leads me to answering your question.

      My first impulse is to say “It depends.” I’m working with a MatadorU student on crafting a pitch for an internationally known newspaper, and I don’t think she has any prior publication credits. Most editors–especially at a publication like the one she’s pitching–wouldn’t be likely to entertain a pitch without some publication credits. On the other hand, she has crafted a pitch that’s so compelling (and such a well-written article– which she’s *not* going to send with the pitch [more on that later]), that I almost think her lack of a publication history will be a moot point. Besides the quality of her writing, she’s pitching a piece about a place that (1) isn’t “popular” and overdone and (2) that the publication hasn’t ever featured before (and few, if any pubs have, for that matter).

      In a way, I think that may be why the DISCOVER editor accepted my pitch. She found the story unique enough that it was worth taking a chance. Most publications agree to review pieces on spec anyway, so if my writing or this student’s writing is terrible, then there hasn’t been anything lost other than a few minutes of the editor’s time.

      So… all of that was a long-winded, but hopefully useful, way of saying this: If you don’t yet have publication credits, don’t worry. Just always be looking for the angle that will set you apart from every other writer who’s pitching about the place/person/phenomenon you want to write about.

  7. Thanks Julie for sharing this.. Its nice reading such things and it gives me the kind of morale boost to go and edit the pitch I am working on right now..

  8. Thank you, Julie! It may have been 8 months, but honestly, it felt more like 8 weeks. And thanks for the little shout out too.

    This is such an incredibly well-researched pitch. I’m in awe of the patience this must have taken. And kudos to you for finding such a unique story. And venturing into science writing — I’d be so, so nervous trying to do that.

    Beautiful photos!

    • Thanks, Simone- and thank you for asking; I think these types of posts are all too rare, but can be very helpful to writers and (as the comments here confirm) can stimulate useful, interesting process-oriented conversations.

  9. This was very helpful, and the photo essay is fascinating! Thank you.

  10. Pingback: This Week: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Bolivia: Publications & Projects » Collazo Projects

  11. Pingback: Geotraveler's Niche » Blog Archive » Latest News And Shout Outs

  12. Pingback: Backstory of my National Geographic Traveler “Best Places of 2013″ Article « Cuaderno Inedito

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: