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Q&A With John Surico
By Whitney Dangerfield

John Surico is a journalist and researcher who writes about our changing cities. He is an adjunct professor, graduate program coordinator and alumnus at the Institute, and his reporting can be regularly found in The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Guardian, and other outlets.
 

Q: You regularly freelance.  Do you have a formula for your pitches? Are there points that you always try to address? 

A: For a long time, I've been following an equation shared to me by a former colleague at The New York Times. (I use it in my class, too.) First, if it's an editor you've never worked with, you want to establish who you are: what you write about, where you've been featured, etc. That's why forming a portfolio or website is so important. Then, the story hook: here's what the story is, and why it matters—this should be some variety of what will be the nutgraf. I also discuss what my story will add and why it fits for that specific publication, which comes after reading that outlet's coverage a ton to find a niche I can fill. And finally, you want to land on what you'll deliver: the story/word count, any multimedia, etc. In total, this shouldn't be any longer than 3-4 grafs. Remember: editors read dozens of pitches a day, so keep them tight!

Q: You have a specific beat. How important is it to find a beat when you’re freelancing? 

A: I was a bit of a generalist when I first started freelancing over ten years ago. Breaking news, which covered crime/courts, politics, metro stories, etc. But as I grew as a reporter, I was drawn to the topics I enjoyed covering the most. First, that was criminal justice; then, national politics; and, for the last six years, cities and infrastructure. What I write now is way different than I wrote then: as I was getting started, I took anything that came my way, and it was often 'stringing' or hard news assignments. But as I developed my beats, I was able to pitch longer stories that I wanted to write about, as someone who was recognized by editors given my experience covering certain topics. So it has a notable impact on what you're able to write.

Q: How do you find your ideas? 

A: All sorts of different places. I make a point to walk, cycle and take transit every day, since I primarily write about transportation and infrastructure. (I also think it's the best way to get around.) That gives me a front-row seat to the issues and experiences out there. I also am constantly keeping tabs on different policy debates and advocacy efforts, so I'm 'in the know' of what's happening in my field. That's mostly done over Twitter and Instagram, books, PR pitches, or just coffees with sources and experts. And finally, I hear what my friends are talking about—New Yorkers are full of story ideas! The key is to develop that 'idea!' light bulb that goes off when you hear something of interest. My advice is to constantly keep as many avenues as possible open: get out there, and the story ideas will come!

Q: At what point did you start feeling comfortable pitching? 

A: It definitely took a little bit. First, I just wanted to prove myself as a reporter, so I took on a bunch of news assignments as a blogger for the Village Voice and, later, a stringer/runner for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I had a pretty rigid 'say yes' policy for assignments, which took me all over the five boroughs, covering all sorts of different things. Once I felt like I had a few editor contacts at those outlets—folks that, I believed, trusted my work—and story ideas in the pipeline, that's when I started pitching more.

Q: What is a story you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of? 

A: If a story of mine provokes any sort of conversation or thought amongst readers, I'm proud of it, because that's what I want my reporting to do. But one story that comes to mind was a piece I wrote for the now-defunct Neighborhood Joint column in the Times' Metropolitan section. It was a column about places in New York City that are exactly what the title says: neighborhood joints; institutions in their own right, with some 'only in New York' quirk to them. This one was a 24-365 produce store in Astoria, Queens, where I live, which serves the diversity of populations that reside there. My partner (Angela Almeida, also a journalist and graduate of Arthur L. Carter) suggested I title the piece 'A Parthenon of Produce.' (The owner is Greek, and Astoria is a known Greek neighborhood.) Of course, that instantly became the headline. And now, everything inside and out of the store—their merch, their trucks, their calendars—is tagged with '"A Parthenon of Produce' - The New York Times." Angela loves showing that off to everyone who visits.

Q: What do you know now about freelancing that you wish you knew when you were first starting out? 

A: Oof, so much. Where to begin? Firstly, try to take tax prep courses—I'm still finding out things about expenses that nobody ever taught me. Remember: every journalist was you at some point, so there is no such thing as a dumb question: if you don't know something, just ask someone! (I didn't know travel time counted towards an hourly rate until, like, two years into freelancing.) Other freelancers are your comrades in solidarity, so lean on them for advice, contacts, and networking. Just find out ways to pay them forward in the future! Editors are humans, too, so treat them as such when it comes to response time and edits. (You will have good ones that become friends and bad ones that you avoid—it's only natural!) And finally: I always say that I'd rather work with a decent, reliable writer than a great writer who ghosts. Reliability and professionalism—even if it's just a thank you email—go further than you can imagine!

CALLS FOR PITCHES 
  • Washington Post: Lifestyle editor looking for stories about small-space living for the home section.
  • Longreads: Looking for pitches on: 
    • "arts criticism—books, TV, film, music, games—that’s not simply tied to new releases but instead explores connections and underlying themes.” 
    • "smart and unexpected personal narratives on navigating the internet and social media, as well as thought-provoking pieces on time, place/home, and identity."
    • illustrated essays
    • personal essays about books, the natural world, conservation, climate change, and the creative ways in which people are trying to cope with inflation.”
    • essays on subcultures, communities, obsessions, and current cultural trends
    • ^ Note that each of these links include the editor's name and email address
  • Catapult: Personal essays. A "good Catapult essay looks outward at the world we live in, interpreting our culture as keenly as it investigates a story of the self."
  • Business InsiderPitches or first-person essays from people who work non-linear schedules.
  • Hakai Magazine: "Colourful, action-packed, behind-the-scenes profiles of scientific research." 
  • The Sun MagazineEssays "about how pleasure creates meaning. Whether you enjoy food, wine, fashion, raking leaves, or building model rockets, how does it sustain you?"
  • The Drift: Looking for contributors for its Mentions section, which publishes extremely abbreviated reviews. Pitch here
  • New Amsterdam News: Accepting pitches for stories about the impact of COVID-19 as well as gun violence on Black and brown communities, esp. in NYC. Send story ideas to lacklight@amsterdamnews.com along with a brief introduction as well as your CV/resume and some clips.
  • Apogee Journal: New editor looking for pitches. 
  • Greene Street Review, the publication of the Department of EnglishArticles on culture, style, commentary and similar topics. There is a soft 400 word limit. Both print and video submissions are welcome. Pitches should be sent to greenestreetreview@nyu.edu.

HOW TO PITCH GUIDES: 
CONTACT WHITNEY IF: 
  • You have ideas for Schneps media, which includes AM New York, Brooklyn Paper, and many other publications. 
  • You have ideas for The Future is Ms. series in Ms. Magazine. The publication is looking for news reports from or about young feminists. 
  • You have ideas for articles about the disconnect between the portrayal of young people in the media and the reality of your lives. 

Workshop your pitch with Whitney Dangerfield, the publications director, and your fellow students. 

When: Thursdays, 3:30pm-4:30pm
Where: 20 Cooper Square, Rm 600

Come ready to read your pitch and to receive and give advice. 

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Thanks for reading! 
-Whitney Dangerfield, Publications Director


If you have ideas for the newsletter, let me know!
Email: whitney.dangerfield@nyu.edu
Office hours: Tuesdays and Wednesdays 2:00pm-4:00pm
Website: Getting Published
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