How to Pitch Jewish Arts and Culture Stories (and Everything Else)

Gordon Haber

As the editor of the CANVAS Compendium, the most frequent question I hear from CANVAS grantees is about getting Jewish arts and culture–focused stories into the media—for example, how to “pitch” an upcoming exhibition or performance. The question comes from people quite proficient in their own jobs, whether they are artists themselves or nonprofit leaders. But enticing an editor or reporter’s interest is a different skill. 

Which was why for a recent CANVAS grantee meeting, we asked three talented and experienced editors—Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic, Chloe Sarbib of Hey Alma and Kveller, and Adam Langer of The Forward—to discuss what they’re looking for and how prefer to be approached with a pitch. (Their outlets are CANVAS media grantees.)

This kind of workshop is part of our new leadership pilot, in which we’re aiming to provide CANVAS grantees with more training, insights, and access to experts. It’s all part of building a supportive community of practice, one that’s equipped to thrive in a challenging environment, media and otherwise. Along with grantmaking and advocacy on behalf of the field, this is what we mean when we talk about “elevating the ecosystem of Jewish arts and culture.”

In the interest of helping out the broader CANVAS community, I thought I’d summarize the proceedings. It’s meant to serve as a brass-tacks look at how to pitch a story, since pretty much every artist and arts organization I know at some point needs to do it. I’m purposely taking an introductory approach, even though CANVAS grantee organizations include many skilled editors and writers; I invite you to send me your own comments and addenda. 

Let’s get to it. The editors supplied us with three case studies of articles they published; you should glance at them for context:  

The Pitch and the Peg

You may be pitching your story hoping an editor will assign a writer. Or you may want to write it yourself. Either way it starts with a pitch. 

A pitch—whether it’s from a salesperson or a writer—is an attempt at persuasion. In this case, it’s to convince the editor that the story is worthy of their readers’ attention, and that it fits their outlet’s editorial scope. 

You’re going to pitch via email. And editors receive hundreds of emails a day. So the pitch itself should be short enough to be read quickly, while including all the relevant information—the basic who, what, when, where, why, and how. (I try to keep it to five or six sentences.) The emphasis should be on why, since every editor wants to know: Why is this relevant to my readers? And: Why now?

This leads us to “the peg.” This is some event or issue that is connected to the piece. In the Hey Alma story, the peg is a new book of photographs of Holocaust survivors. (One caveat: I don’t want to be dismissive of the writers and artists exploring the topic—unless it’s the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—but remember that Jewish publications get tons of Holocaust-related pitches, so you will need something specific and timely.) 

Sarbib mentioned that in her case study, the quality of the images (more on that below), as well as the personality of the artist, made for a strong pitch as well as a strong piece. In other words, the pitch was so clear that the editor could imagine the piece—how it would look and read.  

Interestingly, with Hyperallergic and The Forward, both pieces were connected to a larger issue without a specific time frame.

For Hyperallergic, it was connecting a traditional Jewish garment to a larger, very current conversation about gender roles: textile artist Channing Hansen said, “So many people at the fringes are now sitting at the table, deciding what Judaism will look like,” he said. “There’s never been a better time to be a Jew because of all this experimentation.” 

For The Forward’s piece the larger connection was a Jewish response to the wildfires ravaging California: “I’m not raising money to help people rebuild,” Meg Adler said. “I’m offering free memorials, basically. That’s intentional. I think it matters what the house used to look like. It’s a way to grieve. So to me that’s deeply connected to Jewish spirituality.”

So if your pitch doesn’t have a connection to an obvious event, say to a book launch or exhibition, it will help your case if you can frame the story as illuminating some issue in the zeitgeist.

Timing Your Pitch

Of course, there is the important question of when to pitch, and while it’s different for every publication, timing matters. Every editor needs lead time to decide on if a story is relevant to their upcoming publication’s mix, and to assign a writer. So if you have an event coming up that you’d like to see covered, plan ahead.  

“Often we get the pitch the day of or the day before the event,” Sarbib said, “and it makes it hard for us to move.” 

A good lead time, she continued, “is between two weeks to two months, on the longer side if it’s something we need to find a freelancer for. If you’re coming in at only two weeks, you should be the writer.”

Langer suggested “a month or two,” and Vartanian agreed, adding that it “depended upon the type of story.” A review of an exhibition or performance might require a longer lead time to find the right writer and plan properly; news stories can be shorter. 

Every publication is different, and different editors at the same publication may require different lead times. There’s no harm in asking them directly.

Press Releases? Meh.

The traditional way of attempting to gain an editor’s attention is through a press release. Many PR people simply send out hundreds of them without context. This is a bad practice, and some editors (ahem) find it annoying. It shows that the person pitching is not considering whether the story works for an individual publication, just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

Langer said that he gets dozens of releases every day, and that it’s actually “the hardest way to get attention. Very rarely does this turn into coverage. What attracts me and my staff are compelling stories more than just about art itself. We’re interested it connects to a larger societal issue, a political issue, some trend.”

Similarly, Sarbib said, “I’m looking for a specific take, specificity of perspective and voice.” 

These are hard things to get across in a press release. She did, however, say that “attaching a release to the email can be helpful, but to make sure that it’s an easy-to-open PDF.”

Bottom line: A press release is not a substitute for a tight pitch.

Images, Images, Images

All three editors noted that the pitches for their case studies were strengthened by the quality of the images—the art itself was interesting, as well as the images of the art. So you absolutely should have clear, relevant images of the highest quality—that is, 300 dpi when possible, even if the magazine is online-only. 

Vartanian said that Hyperallergic may send a photographer to an event if possible, but often providing images will be up to the writer, and they’d better be good: “We’ve had to kill stories because the images were terrible.” 

Langer agreed: “Sub-standard art is a good way to get an article un-commissioned.” 

However, since large images may be difficult to download or view, send clear, medium-res images and indicate that high-res ones are available: Sarbib said, “My sweet spot is to be able to quickly click through the photos and know that the high-res exists.”

Then there is the tricky notion of image rights. When pitching or writing a piece, you absolutely need explicit permission from the photographer or the artist whose work is depicted. 

Vartanian said, “We’ve had writers take things off the Internet and send it to us as if they had permission. We’ve had nonprofit organizations send us photos saying they had permission, and they didn’t. So be super careful about the images you’re using. And if you’re getting images from the photographer, be clear about the permissions and guidelines—are you using the image just for one event, or in perpetuity, and so on.” 

Deborah Kolben, the Chief Content Officer at 70 Faces Media (the parent organization of Hey Alma) added: “make sure that the people you are getting permission from actually have the rights to give you permission.” 

Finally, there is the question of video. Even in our TikTok–obsessed era, video can be awkward when it comes to journalism. Here too permission is paramount, and Vartanian said that  “video is hard to incorporate without it being a billboard for the project”—meaning that it can often come across as free advertising for the event, rather than enhancing the coverage of it.  

And you have to be mindful about where the video is hosted. Vartanian added, “Will it be there in five years? Ten years?”

If you do have video, and if it helps the story—Langer noted video can be especially useful in the case of dance—it’s appropriate to include a brief clip and indicate you have more if needed. 

Sarbib said, “We’ve experimented with teasing an article with video on social media, but it doesn’t replace the need for high-quality photographs. Video can be cool, but it’s not a replacement.”

And Finally…

There are a lot of warnings above, which may be intimidating to some. That’s not my intention, and I’d like to stress that editors (including me!) are on the lookout for interesting stories about Jewish arts and culture. Even from new writers—Langer said, “every writer I have at one point wrote their first article for me.” Editors are just extremely busy almost by definition, and like everybody else, they prefer it when people make their jobs easier.  

I should add that CANVAS has no editorial sway over media grantees; they are free to take or refuse a pitch as they see fit. 
One final thought: When an editor says “no,” it’s not personal, it just means they don’t see your story as specifically serving their readers at this moment. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit in the mix of stories they’ve already planned. It’s okay to politely ask why they passed.

Try somewhere else (you can find a great list of Jewish outlets here). And if you glance at those case studies above again, you’ll likely agree they would also work in the secular media. At CANVAS, one of the arguments we make supporting Jewish arts and culture is that it ain’t just for Jews.

If you have any questions about your particular pitch, feel free to get in touch.

Featured image: Berenice Abbott, “Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue,” 1935. Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Read our previous CANVAS Compendium in which artist Tiffany Shlain discusses her influences here.

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