What Editors Are Looking For In A Freelance Pitch, According To Harper’s Bazaar’s Nikki Ogunnaike

Photographed by Serena Brown.
Welcome to About My Business, Unbothered's brand new career column. For years, I was getting tons of DMs like “How can I negotiate my salary?,”  “I don’t know how to discuss mental health with my boss,” and “Why does this white woman insist on asking me everything just because I’m Black?” This is a space to answer your questions while spilling my guts, tips and tea. 
I’ve been a media heaux for as long as I can remember. Teenage me was obsessed with glossy magazines, and even more — the editors who made them. Before being an influencer was a thing, the big editors at publications like Marie Claire and Teen Vogue were influencing the shit out of me. I studied their trend curations, I followed them on socials, and I’ve even sent fan mail. They were my idols. 
They were very much a physical representation of my dream life and who I wanted to be. In my heart, I was always @lauriseirl — a beautiful, smart and confident woman — but sometimes it’s hard to have the guts to be who you want to be in a small town. I grew up in Harford County, Maryland, where even the most stylish people held themselves back from outfits that may be deemed “too daring.” Seeing these women in loud-ass clothing, bravely speaking their minds and solidifying their opinions in print was revolutionary.
I remember the feeling I would get whenever I’d get a response back from my favorite editors, to feel seen and heard by those I looked up to most. It was electrifying (now as an adult, I recognize that feeling as empowerment); it felt good. I wanted to find a way to tell these editors what I thought they should be writing about in Teen Vogue, ELLE, or wherever so I started experimenting and researching new ways to be heard by them. 
I’m about to let y’all into my top secret bag of pitching tricks. I’ve been building this bag since I was a 19-year-old at Harford Community College, and I even hit up my former editor Nikki Ogunnaike for some added sauce. If you’re a media heaux, I’m sure you already know who Nikki is,but just in case you’re new to the game, allow me to intro! Nikki was just named Digital Director of Harper’s Bazaar. Prior to that, she was the Style Director at GQ, spent time at Glamour, and was the HBIC of’s fashion vertical — which is where I had the pleasure of working with this #careerqueen. When I was in college, I heavily stalked her Twitter (along with Rajni Jaques’. Told you I was obsessed!). What I’m trying to say is that the following tips are sacred as hell.

Tip 1: Tell Them Why It Has To Be Them

“A lot of people pitched me because they just wanted a byline, in general I’m constantly looking for what about this pitch says Harper’s,” shares Ogunnaike. Magazine editors take pride in where they work. They care if it’s unique for their specific audience. For example, tell them why you’re pitching to them as opposed to another similar outlet. 
“You can tell when people haven’t even read Harper’s Bazaar. I get a lot of pitches for stories that have already been done. Make sure it hasn't been done recently, and if it has been done, what is the next iteration? Come to me saying ‘I know that the The New York Times did this a few weeks ago, but this is the next level of this conversation’ or ‘this is my rebuttal.’”

Tip 2: Tell Them Why It Has To Be You

“My freelance commissioning can ebb and flow based on what the team looks like,” says Ogunnaike. Sometimes editors will look for thinkpieces, while others may just need help with a simple round up because they're short on in-house staff. Ogunnaike adds, “I’m always looking for both. Even the essays — they don't have to be first person. You may have an anecdote that kicks it off and then you talk to three others who feel similarly.”
In my opinion, the best outside pitches are always personal essays. Think about the topic you want to discuss. What personal connections do you have to the subject? Have you written past pieces about it? At the end of the day, you want them to finish your pitch feeling like you are somewhat of an expert on the topic and you have a unique point of view. This is what will make them want to hire you specifically, and not just pawn the story off to an in-house writer on the team. According to Ogunnaike, “There has to be proof that they have a unique voice.” And another thing: you don’t have to be famous. “My writers come from anywhere! For me, if I know you have a blog or clips or some sort of voice (and it could be on social), but something that shows that you're a thoughtful writer, I’ll call you,” she adds.

Tip 3: Finesse Ya Format

When you’re pitching an article, you likely won’t need a whole “slideshow” presentation.
In fact, Ogunnaike says the trick to a freelance pitch format is being succinct. “I am clear, not clever when it comes to subject lines. No, ‘Hey! Hi. Saw you here.’” Editors like Ogunnaike receive emails on emails on emails. “There's constantly stuff coming in,” she shares. “Focus on being really clear. You gotta get me past the subject. I may not even recognize the email address, y’know?”
When you’re cutting to the chase, don’t forget to mention the why. Remember your own unique point of view. “I get a lot of pitches that are like ‘I want to write about Bridgerton and the leads.’ And I’m like ‘Okay! What about them?’” 
I asked Ogunnaike what a pitch should look like for someone just getting started in medi. Here’s an outline of what she said:
You should also consider being concise as a protective barrier. You never want to give too much off rip. Not only is it overwhelming for editors, but it’s also kind of like one of those why-buy-the-cow-if-you-can-get-the-milk-for-free things. Unfortunately, I’ve heard stories about people who have pitched places, been ignored, only to find that outlet published their story angle without them.

Tip 4: Push On Despite Rejection

Moment of truth: You probably will be rejected at some point, and it’s okay.
“For me personally, if you don't hear back on the third email, I missed it. I do not plan on responding,” says Ogunnaike. I understand the inclination to take that personally, but you just can't. You can't expect people to read every single person’s email and be able to respond.”
Ogunnaike’s advice: “Trust the process. It is a process. The process is the good part. Throughout you’ll meet a bunch of different editors you'll learn from. Things will work out one day. You just have to order your steps. It's okay to not land your first pitch at whatever major organization. Landing clips at smaller places will give you a really robust portfolio. It's okay to be published by your local newspaper.”
Even if you’re not quite at the local newspaper level, you should still release work. “Shop it around,” Ogunnaike suggests. “Take it to contributor sites like Medium, and Substacks. I read Medium all the time! There are ways to get your work out there without going through the system.”

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