BY BRITNEY DENNISON

Last year, I spent three months writing a feature story about my friend. We grew up together and had always been close. I knew him really well and I knew he had an incredible story to tell.

Bryon Crowhurst is a veteran of the Afghanistan War. Like those of the 40,000 other men and women who served, his experience is as unique as it is breathtaking and heartbreaking. When I finished writing his story, I asked him if he’d like to read it. He insisted instead that I read it to him.

I was nervous. I hadn’t held back in my writing. The piece was honest and it detailed his losses and mourning. I’ll never forget what Bryon said to me when I finished reading. He hugged me and said, “I didn’t know I had a story to tell.”

I wrote this piece for a class assignment, but I also believe it deserves a wider audience. Unfortunately, I haven’t found that audience yet. It’s hard to convince somebody to take a chance on yet another story about Afghanistan—to convince them to get past the thought, “Well, I’ve heard this a million times.”

This is a common problem for journalists who want to tell a story on well-trodden ground. There are plenty of great stories out there that haven’t been told, and yet journalists often fight an uphill battle to have theirs stand out from the crowd.

It’s something that I’m grappling with right now, and something journalists, freelancers, and editors deal with every day. So, we decided to ask around. Our question: How do you pique interest in stories that seem “been there, done that”?

Here’s what we learned.

Do your research

If you want to pitch a story “that’s been done,” first, go and revisit the story. Look closely at what stories have been told and when. It is important to understand what is going on so that you make decisions based on evidence, not impressions.

Critically analyze the coverage. Which voices have been included in the previous coverage? Who is missing? What may have changed? Once you satisfy yourself that you understand the story and have a new angle or idea, prepare a strong pitch.

—Kathryn Gretsinger, associate professor at the UBC School of Journalism, CBC radio host and trainer

On the one hand, an obscure or totally new story can be a tough sell—if no one knows about it, sometimes no one cares—but on the other hand, it can also be hard to elbow your way into a well-trodden story. I think the first step is to know what else is out there: know exactly what else has already been done on the subject and what its strengths and weaknesses are, and be ready to use that information. I recently sold a new look at a very well-known crime story by (delicately) pointing out what I felt was missing from previous long takes on the subject, and arguing that my story would fill that void. I also added a personal angle, which—depending on the type of publication you’re pitching—can be an asset.

—Eva Holland, editor, World Hum, freelance journalist (SB Nation Longform, Vela, Reader’s Digest, Up Here, National Geographic)

Know your audience

To stand out, consider the story from the perspective of the publication and the audience. Why should someone devote their attention to your story? What are they going to learn that they didn’t know? What is going to grip them from start to finish? In journalism, we often focus on researching the story, at the expense of researching the audience for the story. Know your story but also know the audience for the story. Be relevant, be interesting, be unique.

—Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the UBC School of Journalism and former BBC journalist

Have something new—or something better

“Something new” has been the bread and butter of journalists since they wore little cards that said “PRESS” in their fedoras, and for good reason. Give people something that they haven’t heard of, even on an issue they know a lot about, and they’ll see it as a chance to one-up their ex at a dinner party the next time the topic of Syria comes up. “Ah,” they’ll say, “but did you know that there’s mass starvation predicted for this coming winter?” Then they’ll lean back and triumphantly puff on their cigar, and silently thank you.

—Jimmy Thomson, editor-in-chief of WORST, freelance journalist (VICE, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic, Toronto Star)

My job as a news editor is more of an aggregator than an original news creator. I don’t have to convince an editor to tackle an overdone story, because that’s kind of the job description; we’re taking all of the sports news and putting it in one convenient, customizable spot for people, with little in the way of exclusives.

The challenge, then, is getting people to use us over someone else for that purpose, and that really comes down to just “be better.” Personally, I try to inflect a personality in my posts, and where some may just relay the headline and nut [explanatory paragraph], I’ll try to include more analysis of the news and what could come from it (e.g. the fantasy angle to injury news). With sports, everyone is eventually going to have all the same stories, so your only means of differentiating are to provide a depth others aren’t, or present that same news in a more enjoyable way.

—Blake Murphy, news editor, theScore

Prepare a strong pitch

Sometimes being able to peg your pitch to a well-known and/or well-loved story can be a real strength, rather than an obstacle. For instance, I knew my story about the “McCandless pilgrims” who continue to visit the bus from Into the Wild had a built-in cult audience. Editors knew that, too, which is why it was a relatively easy sell. A kind of “legacy of X famous story” approach, like that one, can be useful, especially if you can match it up with an anniversary. I’m sure we’ll spend the next four years reading “One hundred years since X famous First World War event” stories, for instance.

—Eva Holland, editor , World Hum, freelance journalist (SB Nation Longform, Vela, Reader’s Digest, Up Here, National Geographic)

You’ll often get the response that it’s “overdone”—but that’s bullshit. When I pitched a few stories on Syria to VICE last week, I got that exact response. But we had something new, and the editor eventually relented, because we gave him angles and access nobody else had.

—Jimmy Thomson, editor-in-chief of WORST, freelance journalist (VICE, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic, Toronto Star)

Find real people who are actually doing something to affect/change the direction of the story.  Contact those people and find out whether they are willing to talk and ask them where they see the story now. This is important. Very often, the principal players change, or people’s perspectives shift or evolve to reflect differences you may not be aware of. Pay attention to what people are saying (or not saying) and try to understand where they are coming from. Peel the onion.

When it’s time to pitch, be ready for people to bat your ideas away. Start with your freshest, strongest angle. Don’t get into elaborate detail about what people already know. Provide your editors and producers with a reason to say yes!

—Kathryn Gretsinger, associate professor at the UBC School of Journalism, CBC radio host and trainer ♦

Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute