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The Pitch Cemetery: Exclusive Access and Journalistic Bias

October 19, 2011

This is where a freelancer's dreams normally end up. Credit: mugley

The following is the first of what I hope will become an ever more frequent series on this here blog. Below is a pitch I submitted to a magazine editor regarding a potential freelance story. My pitch was rejected (or, at least, it’s been a few weeks with no reply), but the most important thing to me is that I sent it in the first place. Even trying to step foot into the world of magazine writing is a daunting task, and one that I’ve for the most part avoided, largely due to timidity. I hope that by posting my rejected pitches here, I can: hang my dirty laundry out to dry, document the travails of a fledgling journalist, and maybe, just maybe, hear the critiques of other writers.

As for this pitch specifically, the story idea started as a pithy tweet. A positive response from an editor I respect turned into a brief 140-char discussion, and ended with a prompt that I send him an email. I suspect that this pitch, cobbled together in an hour or two, was both too abstract and too exhaustive. So here lies the pitch in its (almost) original form.

Exclusives and Review Scores 

Hi XXXXXX,

In modern journalism, the person with the product is the person who controls the press.

Politicians limit their availability, generally giving interviews only to “insiders.” Political journalists, as a result, are afraid to say anything too critical lest they lose their privileged access. In medical research, there is the unsurprising result that scientific studies funded by pharmaceutical companies tend to have positive results. The gaming press, too, has a special tie to its over-arching industry. After all, in order to do their jobs, games journalists need advanced review copies of new games, the opportunity to interview developers and artists, and behind the scenes access at press conferences and conventions.

You may think that I’m taking this issue a bit too seriously, and that for the video game press at least, it isn’t such a big deal. After all, elections and lives aren’t riding on a gaming journalist’s coverage.

Yet on the flip side, the video game industry is growing into a behemoth with a global value launching past $100 billion. Video game companies now represent one of the fasting growing sectors in the U.S. economy, expanding at a rate seven times that of the rest of the American economy. And while the industry booms, advertising spending by industry giants follow suit (Battlefield 3′s marketing budget reportedly sits near $50 million.) With this much leverage going into pulling your gaming dollars from your sweaty, power-leveled hands, the gaming press plays an important role in giving you their clear, unbiased take on a new game.

One of the most common ways in which the gaming industry guides the hand of the gaming press is through the use of embargoes, a practice where the developer/publisher sets a specific date and time when news outlets get to share their stories.

Edge Magazine does a great job explaining the two most common views on the value of embargoes. One the one hand, “embargoes are an intervention used by PRs to exert control over how information (read: journalists) behaves, how it flows from brand to audience, in order to make their marketing plans work.”

But on the other, “Embargoes actually represent an opportunity for journalism of a higher calibre. When information is commoditised, careful analysis and informed thought is surely how you create value, differentiate yourself, build a loyal readership – simply getting there early begins to lack potency. In light of this, embargoes are arguably not just of benefit to the marketer but the journalist too, giving them the time they need to perform this task.”

For those who dare to step out of line and “break” the embargo, developers/publishers can respond by giving the offending journalist and their publication a swift kick to the blacklist.

“More than anything, the blacklist is a surefire way for bigger companies to keep smaller press outlets in line. It’s a fear tactic that ensures a “working” relationship between the media contact and the PR for the company,” writes Gaming Blend’s William Usher.

But whatever you may think about the practice of embargoes, the whole debate flies right out the window when video game publishers and developers offer members of the gaming press an exclusive window in which to run their review of an upcoming game before the embargo lifts, all for nothing more than a *wink* fair review.

Now we’re not dumb, and it’s generally considered that these “exclusive early reviews” are anything but fair. After all, if a developer or publisher cuts a certain magazine a sweet deal (one that’s almost guaranteed to drive huge amounts of traffic) and the magazine gives them a crappy review, well, scratch them off the list for an exclusive look at next month’s big release.

Understandably this topic isn’t talked about much by the gaming press, for fear of getting hit with the banhammer themselves. But even if people don’t want to talk about something doesn’t mean we can’t investigate it, and here I propose a rather simple study that we (and your readers) can do together.

Starting whenever you want to run this story (or an edited version, or something completely different), we could start crowd-sourcing a database of the review scores put out by members of the gaming press. If we flag which reviews were released early (as pre-embargo-lift exclusives) as we go along, the project could culminate in what I feel would be a very high quality and interesting feature article about the potential bias in game reporting. As we discussed earlier, even if the review-bias is widely considered to exist, nothing starts a discussion like a nice scientifically-solid result. Another benefit of doing the story this way, working up to the major feature and involving the readers from the get-go, is you end up having a large built-in audience, anxious for your finished product. It may also potentially put you in the privileged position of being the driver of an industry-wide discussion.

As for making a statistically solid result, we would need to go through a couple of steps. We would need review scores from a consistent, and decently large, number of outlets. We would also need to keep track of which reviews are exclusives as we go along, as I know of no way to easily do this retroactively. Then all it comes down to is doing a couple of pretty simple calculations; figuring out the average result for each game, figuring out whether a specific publication tends to score above or below the average, and then figure out whether or not a review being an exclusive has an effect on the score.

Though I’m not a stats expert myself (I’m a science journalist, with a BSc and an MA in journalism), I know that I would be able to get help from a proper statistician to make sure everything checks out. Also, I would be more than happy to work with you to oversee the review score crowd-sourcing and the writing of the final feature story.

If this is something that interests you please let me know at your earliest convenience.

Thanks,

Colin Schultz

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2011 8:14 am

    Colin, IANAE(ditor), but I do teach other journalists, and I as a freelancer I do write a lot of pitches, with varied success. I actually am teaching a class on pitching later today.

    My first reaction is that this is too talky — it takes a reader a long time to get to what you propose to do. Having said that: Some pitches do turn out to be long, sometimes up to 1k words, but most of that is usually “What will be in the story I propose,” whereas most of what I see in this pitch is the background to the issue, which you describe *before* you get to the “how I will do this story” graf.

    Second reaction is that once I get to that graf, I am not clear what you are proposing. “Starting whenever you want to run this story (or an edited version, or something completely different), we could start crowd-sourcing a database of the review scores put out by members of the gaming press” sounds as though you are proposing a story *and* an after-pub survey, but I don’t see where you have described the story itself that you propose doing.

    Pitches — like journal articles, like sonnets — are actually a fairly rigid form. If you haven’t yet, you might take a look at The Open Notebook’s new database of pitches; there are about a dozen, they were all successful, and collectively they give a good sense of what the format of a successful pitch looks like. (Disclosure: One of my pitches is up there.)

    • October 19, 2011 8:56 am

      Colin,
      What a great and generous idea to post rejected pitches. Following up on Maryn’s comment — yes, please do have a look at the new pitch database we’ve posted at The Open Notebook. http://www.theopennotebook.com/2011/10/12/new-pitch-database/ So far we have about 4 dozen pitches, and are eager to add more. Good luck with your project!
      – Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann (theopennotebook.com)

      • October 19, 2011 9:49 am

        Hi Siri,

        Your database of accepted pitches certainly is great, and I’ve been diving into it. The only problem is that, with them all being successful pitches, it makes it hard to sort out what NOT to do. I think that having a mirror, of pitches by writers that DIDN’T make it could serve an equally important purpose.

      • October 19, 2011 10:15 am

        Hi Colin,
        Totally agree. Harder to drum up volunteers, probably, but you never know — maybe with your setting an example, that would work. We’re basically limited by resources…would love to do it and maybe will as time and money allow!

    • October 19, 2011 9:47 am

      Hi Maryn,

      I think where I got really tripped up was that I was trying to pitch a project rather than just a story–a project involving a couple small posts, a bit of community building, and a feature article. Because of that, I offered what I thought would be the first post up-front. With a bit of re-writing to the bottom, I thought the pitch itself would make the first story in the project.

      Having never actually learned to pitch in journalism school (o.O) the advice I’ve generally been going on is:

      - Write the top of your story
      - Phase into describing how your story would continue and how you would build it
      - Explain why you are the right person to write that story

      I can definitely see what you mean about it taking too long to get to the “what are you going to DO” part. This pitch is right around 1,000 words, which probably should have been cut in half.

      Is there any way that you would be able to share your class notes about putting together a proper pitch? I bet a lot of people would really appreciate seeing them.

      - Colin

  2. ivanoransky permalink
    October 19, 2011 9:53 am

    Good way to get feedback on the art of pitching, Colin. My class at NYU’s SHERP includes “Pitch School” for this very purpose.

    And don’t miss my Retraction Watch co-blogger Adam Marcus’ “Pitches That Missed”: http://pitchesthatmissed.blogspot.com/

  3. November 16, 2011 10:04 am

    Colin,

    This is great! Thank you for this post. I have found it helpful to read your pitch and then the comments from more veteran journalists. Just what I was looking for when I went online this morning. Since I was educated in a science lab and have no journalism school experience I can use all the pitching help I can get. Good luck with future pitches!

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