An Inside Look at the Magazine Health Beat

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) recently held its annual Writers Conference, which featured more than 80 sessions covering a wide variety of topics, from how to write a book proposal to how to break into magazines.

While the sessions were targeted to freelance writers, the information is also helpful to PR professionals looking to get their clients in these publications. Not only does it give you an inside look into what the publications look for, but it also gives you an idea of what freelancers need in order to pitch these publications successfully.

Following is a recap of the session on how to pitch to health magazines, which featured Catherine DiBenedetto, articles editor at O, The Oprah Magazine; Jennifer Rainey Marquez, senior editor at Parade; and Leslie Quander Wooldridge, senior associate editor at AARP The Magazine.

(You can read other recaps from the conference here: Breaking into Women’s Markets and How to Look and Sound Great on Camera.)

Catherine DiBenedetto, O, The Oprah Magazine

As articles editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, DiBenedetto edits feature stories and the health section, Feeling Good. She has also worked for Wired and Field & Stream.

The Feeling Good section is 6-8 pages and covers both physical and mental health. It covers a wide range of topics, from the psychology of forgiveness to the nutritional benefits of various types of seaweed. One story is 1,500 words, and is typically in the first person, with anecdotes and examples woven throughout. The rest of the stories are 400-600 words, in a variety of formats – annotated illustrations, Q&As, profiles, decision trees, charts, and first-person narratives – to keep it interesting.

DiBenedetto said 90 percent of health stories in O, The Oprah Magazine come from pitches. When pitching, include as much information as you can. She is not interested in stories about parenting, relationships, rare diseases. Stories have to cover the most number of people possible.

Other things DiBenedetto looks for in a pitch:

  • It offers fresh, surprising service. The goal is to provide concrete advice that will resonate with a large percentage of readers. When pitching, include what specific advice the piece will offer. “It’s really hard to pitch a story if you don’t know what tips the story is going to provide,” she said.
  • It has a news hook – new research, a new book, a trend, scientific insight, etc. Why run the story now? But she does occasionally make exceptions for great service pieces or cool formats no one else has done before.
  • It has an extra layer. Can a story be formatted in an interesting way? A creative layout can elevate a piece by offering additional service or visual aids that bring the text to life. If you have an idea for how to package your story, include that. Sidebar ideas are also welcome.
  • It’s well-written. “The pitch is the best way we have to judge a new writer’s voice,” said DiBenedetto, “so we’re looking for pitches that are well-crafted, tight and lively.” Use a lead in your pitch that you would use for the actual article.
  • It’s comprehensive. Feeling Good pieces typically run anywhere from 550 to 1,200 words. The pitch should clearly outline the structure and content of the piece.

O, The Oprah Magazine offers freelancers $2 a word.

Jennifer Rainey Marquez, Parade

Marquez is the senior editor for Parade, covering health, among other topics. She was formerly the senior health editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, and has also served as health editor at Women’s Health and Woman’s Day.

Parade is a small publication with only a few spots for writers to pitch. The good news is that because it’s a weekly, those spots are open 52 times a year.

Marquez said half of the stories are produced in-house and half come from freelancers. The magazine’s lead time is 3-4 weeks, and story ideas should be pitched 6-8 weeks in advance. She prefers to be pitched by email.

When pitching, remember:

  • Space is at a premium. Cover stories are only 1,500-2,000 words, while other pieces can run as short as 250 words.
  • Parade has the largest readership of any magazine in the U.S., with both men and women, older and younger readers. Think broadly in terms of whom the pitch should appeal to.
  • Parade is “America’s Sunday magazine.” Think about the “Sunday feeling” in your pitches. Readers are relaxed, and are planning and looking forward to the week ahead. They’re in the mood to be informed, entertained, inspired. If your idea is super-gritty or super-edgy, it might not have the right vibe for Parade.
  • Parade has a very granular, local reach. Because the magazine is delivered with nearly 700 newspapers across the country, it tries to hit the community/hometown “American stories” note.
  • The magazine is like a mix between Time and Reader’s Digest. While the magazine wouldn’t run the hard-hitting Time cover story on Syria, they would do a version of the Time cover story about inter-species animal best friends, or the new science of your brain, or a new trend story about the state of the American family.

What/where to pitch:

Non-celebrity cover stories are typically pitched in-house or written by “brand-name” contributors, but she will make exceptions for a very special subject/writer, such as if you have access to an amazing emotional narrative no other national media has picked up on, or you’re an expert on a trend that’s begging for national coverage. Here are some past, non-celebrity cover subjects that ran in 2011/2012:

  • “The Science of Love” (to coincide with Valentine’s Day)
  • “Inside the Minds of Sports Superfans” (to coincide with the Super Bowl)
  • A profile of a never-ending altruistic organ-donor chain
  • “Born to be Wired”: How being connected 24/7 is changing how our kids live
  • “Take Back Your Weekend!”
  • “The Science of Cats vs. Dogs”: Which pet has the upper paw?
  • “Where Do We Go from Here?” about the end of the space shuttle program

Most features are treated as packages, with multiple editorial elements. A reported, newsy mainbar might be accompanied by a service-driven sidebar, a fun timeline or an infographic — or some combination.

Cover features also need to meet special criteria, i.e., it must be a story that just about anyone would be interested in reading.

Non-celebrity secondary features are shorter than cover features but longer than a column. At about 750 words, non-celebrity secondary features are often more service-driven stories, but could also include profiles or news-driven trend pieces. Here are some examples of successful secondary features:

  • A service story about how to distinguish normal aging from signs of the disease (pegged to Pat Summit’s announcement that she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s)
  • A profile of a soldier-turned-farmer whose farm has become a place for disabled vets to work and heal.
  • The story of a beloved Arizona public library that’s struggling to stay afloat.
  • The science if willpower:  how to make your good habits stick (it ran two months after New Year’s Day as a “resolution update”)
  • A story about how the citizens of Shanksville continue to keep vigil at the crash site of United Flight 93.

Stay Healthy is a weekly column, edited by Marquez, that comprises much of the magazine’s health coverage. The column includes a wide range of health subject matter, including disease prevention, fitness, nutrition/healthy eating, weight loss, behavioral/psychological health, kids’ health/parenting, “breaking down the headlines”-type newsy stories, and overall healthy lifestyle.

A few times a year, Marquez also assigns short profiles of “Health Heroes,” someone who is making a positive difference in improving the health of other Americans.

The word count for these stories is typically 250-300 words, so pitches need to be targeted and well-defined. Here are some examples of columns that have run recently:

  • Bystanders aren’t performing enough CPR, but a new hands-only method, endorsed by the AHA, means it’s easier than you think.
  • New guidelines suggest pediatricians screen kids as young as 9 for high cholesterol – here’s what parents need to know.
  • A review of gadgets designed to help you stay active at your desk.
  • A roundup of new health apps.
  • A new survey shows parents don’t feel comfortable talking with their kids about weight – here’s the right way to tackle the conversation.

Views are one-page essays (about 750 words) that run toward the back. While the magazine has a few standing columnists (Connie Schultz, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski) and other contributing book, Marquez will occasionally run a one-off essay from a freelancer. These need to be heart-warming or funny, with a very universal theme/takeaway.

What not to pitch:

  • Celebrity stories
  • Front of book: The FOB section is undergoing a redesign and no longer accepts pitches.
  • 7-Minute Solution: These are always done in house.
  • Anything having to do with regular columnists, e.g., Marilyn vos Savant.
  • Anything having to do with Parade franchises: What People Earn, What America Eats, Parade All-America, etc.
  • Stories related to pregnancy or babies. The magazine does cover kids’ (ages 8-18) health topics.

Marquez said Parade offers freelancers a rate of $2-$3 a word, “to make it worth your while, since it’s such a small story.”

Leslie Quander Wooldridge, AARP The Magazine

Wooldridge is the senior associated editor of AARP The Magazine. She currently edits front-of-book news and trends pages, which include health topics, along with back-of-book relationships content. She is also a freelance writer for other outlets, including the health section of USNews.com.

AARP The Magazine, the largest-circulation magazine in the world, focuses on a consumer audience aged 50+. Two big focuses of the publication are health and money, so those sections offer good opportunities to break in.

The magazine has a lead time of 4-6 months. Health features and departments should be pitched to Gabrielle Redford. Shorter, trendier health items should be pitched to Wooldridge.

Wooldridge offered these do’s and don’ts:

DO:

  • Read 2-3 issues of the magazine before pitching. “We have covered quite a bit.”
  • Make sure your topic really applies to the 50+ audience.
  • Get to the point quickly.
  • Be able to show why your idea is right, and why it’s right now. For example, they wouldn’t take a pitch on a story about general yoga, but a pitch about aerial yoga, which has specific health benefits for people 50+, would be appropriate.
  • Think about multiple platforms.
  • Be conscious of your tone of voice when pitching. Some new writers can be patronizing to the audience. Remember, the magazine is accessible and generally upbeat.
  • Include more than a few sentences in your pitch. Submit well-developed, well-reported pitches, especially if you’re new to the publication.
  • Be patient. It can take up to six weeks for Wooldridge to review ideas and respond.
  • Email. Don’t call or send snail mail.

DON’T:

  • Don’t pitch a roundup of various diseases. The magazine likes to focus on one new timely issue.
  • Don’t pitch items on stereotypical “older people.”
  • Don’t pitch overly “science-y” pitches. Remember that AARP The Magazine is an aspirational lifestyle magazine.
  • Don’t pitch expensive health treatments or products – readers are typically not wealthy.
  • Don’t pitch children’s news – readers are

What not to pitch:

  • Stories about 80-somethings running marathons or super-athletes age 70+. “These people are amazing and we admire them,” she said, “but we’ve done these stories before.
  • Stories that focus only on the magazine’s oldest readers. Most stories should be relevant to younger and older audiences. (An example of an actual pitch: oatmeal, “because you don’t need teeth to eat it.” – Don’t be the person that sends that pitch.)
  • Standalone stories about individuals who have a particular health problem.
  • Stories about rare diseases.

Because stories are typically less than 350 words, AARP The Magazine offers freelancers $2 a word.

Author Maria Perez is director of news operations for ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. To read more from Maria, visit her blog on ProfNet Connect at http://www.profnetconnect.com/profnetmaria/blog/

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