Learning to Be Assertive at The Washington Post

By Dean’s Intern Aly Seidel at Washington Post
In SOC, we focus a lot on chasing down ideas. We’re journalists, film makers, communicators: all fields where you have to aggressively seek out work. We look high and low for new stories, we find different angles, we approach dozens of people on the street and unabashedly ask for interviews.
I’m a rare breed: a self-proclaimed shy journalist. In a field full of pitching stories, chasing sources and interviewing strangers, it’s not for an introverted personality. Me, I subscribe very heavily to the ‘fake-it-until-you-make-it’ school of thought, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. Fact is, I’m shy, in a field where you can never be too aggressive about talking to people. Oh, I can do it. But I’m not always going to like it.
The Post is full of people who are very, very busy. Editors who have a dozen things on their desk, reporters filing multiple different pieces a day, people with four empty coffee cups on their desk by noon. Journalism is fast, and when you’re in such an esteemed newsroom, there’s a lot happening. Some days, I’m caught up in that as well. My first day at work, I ended up downtown, using my phone to interview people at the March for Life. I was woefully underdressed for the weather- my flats never recovered from the muddy Mall. After four hours worth of interviews, lots of photos and a pen out of ink, I headed back into the newsroom. There are always days like that, hectic and crazy and extremely fun.

On my first day at The Washington Post, I pitched a story that led me to interview people for hours on the Mall. My shoes did not survive the trip.

But on other days, I find myself scanning other news sites, intensely trying to find a brief on something that I could pitch out. Some days, I find something. Other days, I don’t. I’m either cramming a dozen different things into an eight-hour workday, or I’m asking around the office for assignments. But, going back to how busy everyone at the Post is- sometimes there’s just no time to hand a story off to an intern.
On days like that, you  have to pitch.

1] Battle of the Pitches
Pitching is great. It really is. You’re taking the responsibility out of the editor’s hands. Instead of asking, “Do you have anything you  need help with?” and leaving them to scramble to think of something, you’re doing their work for them. All they need to do is say yes or no.
That doesn’t make pitching easy. The Post is a huge newsroom. I don’t just mean physically- I mean in breadth of what they cover. It isn’t enough to quickly scan your Twitter feed and pitch out whatever is going viral. Odds are, someone already pitched it, wrote it and published it two hours ago.
2] Finding Creative Ones
You need to be able to look in different places. I have a Google alert for “press release”, which means I get inbox alerts about everything from jewelry trends to the EU . You have to filter through a lot of irrelevancies, but it can be a good way to catch stories that might slip under the radar. I have lots of Google alerts, another one being for “study”. Every day, there are articles published about medical studies, research studies, education studies, crime studies– having Google deliver them to your inbox is a handy way to catch it before the rest of the world does.
That’s not to completely dismiss Twitter, either. But a lot of the time, we don’t explore beyond our feed. Being able to personalize whose content you see is a benefit to Twitter, but it can isolate you. If you only follow reporters, you only see what other people have already reported on. Then comes in the “two hours ago” dilemma. Search around for different hashtags. Click on links you normally wouldn’t. Get out of the DMV geographical bubble. Some of the best pitches can come from the 10th paragraph of someone’s personal blog post.
3] You have to, you know… actually pitch
Pitching can be intimidating. I’m talking with reporters and editors who have been in this business quite literally longer than I’ve been alive. Coupled with my natural introvert tendencies, it can be hard to approach someone with a pitch.
Do it anyway. That’s probably been my biggest takeaway at the Post so far. In the past, I was lucky enough that about half of my articles were from pitches, the other half from assignments. Here, it’s about an 80/20 split. If I don’t pitch, I don’t work.
There are ways to make the process easier. Ask your editors. See how they prefer pitches: email? Quick drop by their desk? Shouted over the top of your cubicle? (Probably not that one.) The more you know about their personal preferences, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to get a response. Don’t be afraid to check on it, either. If some time has passed, it might have just gotten buried on their desk.
I’m a really shy journalist. We exist. It’s a thing. But in an aggressive work environment, you can’t be afraid to put yourself, and your work, out there.