Ideas Can Come From Anywhere: M. Scott Brauer Gets A Pitch Into Bloomberg Businessweek
One of the toughest things a photographer can accomplish is successfully pitching a story to a big-name publication. It’s even difficult to get your images published by magazines you’ve already worked with. So M. Scott Brauer had a tall task ahead of him even though he’d been collaborating with Bloomberg Businessweek for years. All it took was a story about COVID-19 and sewage — lots and lots of sewage.
I've worked with Businessweek for 5-6 years at this point, but this is the first pitch I've gotten in the magazine, I think. I've had others that editors liked, but for whatever reason just didn't end up working out. Rejection is a fact of life as a freelancer, and in my experience it's a pretty rare thing to have a photographer's pitch end up in print, so this was especially exciting.
The story centers around an MIT-affiliated lab that’s testing sewage for COVID-19 infection rates. Scott heard about the research because, like any good journalist, he tries to get his hand on every news outlet he can find so as to locate a compelling topic.
I don't work with any publications local to me, but I regularly read as many as I can. I talk to a lot of people, both when I'm photographing for other stories and just in general. I get on PR mailing lists for big institutions in my coverage area. Story ideas can come from anywhere.
In this case, I was particularly keen to find a new angle on the COVID-19 pandemic. As a freelance photographer, I'm never going to beat the wire services, so any work I pitch or do usually has to be either a unique angle, a unique story, or a unique approach. I'd heard a local news radio report on WBUR about an MIT-affiliated lab working on testing sewage for COVID-19 infection rates.
Amazingly, Scott already has experience with, uhm, stories of this ilk. What he realized this time around is that he’d stumbled on something of a gold mine: this COVID-19 angle had yet to be beaten into the ground, so there was a good chance of him getting his shots into a major publication like Bloomberg. Aiding the chances was the fact that Scott’s contact at the magazine is always welcoming new ideas.
Years ago, I worked on a piece about fecal transplants for the Chronicle of Higher Education and knew that any story dealing with sewage gets people thinking and laughing. After researching this lab, it seemed there hadn't been any news coverage about what they were doing yet, even though demand for their services was basically through the roof. They reached full testing capacity a day or two after announcing availability with requests coming from all over the United States.
After doing a little initial research, I reached out to an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek who always welcomes pitches. I mentioned that there wasn't any other coverage that I could find of them beyond a couple quick announcement coverage pieces online. So that covered the unique story part of what makes a pitch good. It was also a unique angle on COVID science, which news publications were starving for, and probably still are.
I also have a lot of experience photographing in biomedical labs; I've been in such a lab taking pictures almost once a month over the past 6-7 years for various clients. They all kind of look the same, so my approach wouldn't be that unique, though the editor requested I do my blast-flash approach, which is a bit different from how a lot of photographers work.
We’ve covered Scott’s blast-flash approach on this site before, though for something completely different. This time around, instead of Scott doing it for personal work, he’s created this unique type of imagery for a widely read periodical. The photographer had to be patient upon submitting, however, and nearly sent the story someone else’s way. Just in the nick of time, Bloomberg got back to the Boston-based freelancer and the rest is history.
I got a quick email back from my editor saying that they loved the story and would pitch it at their weekly pitch meeting. Then I didn't hear anything for a while and I was thinking about pitching to another publication. Then I got an email saying that it fit perfectly into some upcoming coverage they'd had planned and would move ahead on it.
They handled all the negotiations, and I just showed up at the lab at the appointed time and spent a few hours documenting what they do and sent in my pictures.
The editor loved the shoot and asked for a bunch of hi-res options and ended up with four images in print and online.
Check out more of Scott's work at mscottbrauer.com.
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