We published a lot of great stories this year, all weird and wonderful in different ways. But the one thing they all have in common is that they started as a strong pitch. Perhaps you would like to write a story for us next year, and are wondering how best to let us know about it. Rather than the typically vague guidelines, we thought it would be helpful to show you what a good Outline pitch looks like. So, here are a few we loved, that turned into stories we’re proud of.
Freelancer pitch: Is your Cheeto worth $99k?
There are currently hundreds of results for “rare” Cheetos on eBay. One is shaped like a Neanderthal, another like Wyatt Earp’s gun. There’s a boxer, a super Mario, a Godzilla, and a Harambe. There are some listings whose descriptions are more straightforward: Cheetos for sale described as “penises” or “the letter y”. The asking prices range from 0.99 cents plus shipping to thousands of dollars for an oddly shaped stick of flavor and crunch. In 2017, a Harambe Cheeto sold for over $99k.
The Cheeto brand capitalized on this trend through a “Cheeto museum” promotion a few years ago but people have been posting Cheeto interpretations on social media (or trying to sell them) for much longer. Some people are giving the proceeds of their Cheeto sales to charity while for others, opening a bag of Cheetos is a bit like playing a scratch-off—Low investment; potentially high returns.
I’d like to write about the cult of Cheetos and whether there’s a real market for these items for The Outline. Though the $99k Cheeto probably gave these sales a boost, it's unclear how often Cheetos actually sell for even remotely large sums.
I’ve already been in touch with a couple aspiring Cheeto sellers on eBay and would love to do this as a serious take on a light subject. Let me know what you think!
Though coming up with a catchy headline right away is certainly optional, right away the subject line grabbed me. Is my Cheeto that much money? And if so, why? How? From there, the writer opened with a clear description of a fascinating, unique phenomenon — the existence of a rare Cheetos market, and the types of Cheetos sold there — before giving a bit of history about how this came to be, and a succinct description of how she intended to approach it + the research she had done so far. My interest was immediately intrigued, and we began talking out the reporting/structure, before agreeing on the assignment. — Jeremy Gordon, Deputy Editor
Pitch: Badass wedding rings for men
Hey Jeremy—I hope this email finds you well and in low humidity. I’m getting married this summer, as you may remember, and in that process I haveI discovered the world of very manly wedding bands. For example, there’s this excitingly named gunmetal tungsten ring, and this Manly Bands site that offers such models as The Baller and The Vader—as well as my personal favorite, The Peacekeeper, which appears to be a wedding ring for cops. These products strike me as a symptom of a process in 21st-century American culture that I call badassification, by which previously inert signifiers become vaguely aggressive and tough. Gunmetal is way more badass than gold. The Peacekeeper, which shares its name with a pistol, extends the warrior cop identity into the realm of marriage. I think these rings acknowledge the vague sense that getting married is a pussy thing to do, exploiting the individual man’s need to assert his masculinity in a moment of identity crisis. They also reflect the broader, cultural crisis in which men seek out new ways to assert their masculinity as traditional venues like work and politics become gender-neutral. The gunmetal tungsten wedding ring is to your marriage as the Punisher skull decal is to your truck. Obviously one does not want to get too close to a totalizing theory with this stuff, and I see this as a humorous essay that uses the butch wedding band sector to imply broader trends rather than prove them. What do you think?
**For this semi-reported piece that ran closer to a personal essay, the writer began with an obvious way in — his own wedding — before presenting the subject he wanted to write about (ornate wedding rings for men) with links, descriptions, and a couple of overarching Ideas (the process of “badassification,” the broader crisis of masculinity) that he’d use to connect all of the threads. Even better, he demonstrated clear self-awareness about the perils of reaching too hard in what’s largely a silly subject, which made it easier to to assign it. — Jeremy Gordon
Pitch: Engadine Maccas 1997
Hey Brandy, hope you're good.
So there's a federal election in Australia tomorrow, and I don't care about that and neither should you really, except for the fact that the entire country has bought into this fake conspiracy theory in-joke that the prime minister, Scott Morrison, shat his pants in a suburban McDonald's in 1997.
I'll go into the history of the joke in more detail in the article, but it's gotten to the point where ministers in Morrison's government are being asked about it on radio, and rival politicians are referring to it in coded messages on Twitter, and plaques are being erected at the McDonald's where it (the shit) went down.
There's probably a wider point to be made here about the importance of cutting politicians down to size, or the utility of contempt as a weapon against powerful people who show contempt for the public (Morrison's a right-wing goon who once waved a lump of coal around in parliament), but I also want to emphasise how a dumb Twitter joke is going to define the public memory of a prime minister.
He only became PM in September, and he's almost definitely going to lose tomorrow. I think there's something beautiful about an entire country deciding this is going to be his legacy.
Where pitches about the intersection of politics and online often go wrong is in trying to wring too much deeper meaning from an event. This pitch hit exactly the right note in terms of what we might possibly take from the fact that the Australian PM was largely believed to have shitted himself at a suburban McDonald’s, without losing focus of the fact that the Australian PM was largely believed to have shitted himself at a suburban McDonald’s and that is hilarious. — Brandy Jensen, Power Editor
Power Pitch: The Real Losers of the Iowa Caucuses Are Iowans
As the first state in the nation to caucus, Iowa is already overrun with presidential candidates and campaign staffers vying for our votes. Only one candidate will win the caucus, but that won't stop everyone else from spending millions of dollars, burning out volunteers and voters alike, and sowing bad blood before they officially accept defeat and leave the state. My state is home to a whole host of devastating problems that need political willpower to be solved. When the campaigns (finally) leave, these problems will remain - just now without the money and energy to fix them. I want to write about this problem with a call to action for campaigns to leave the communities they campaign in better than they found them.
I’ve volunteered on campaigns in Iowa for the last five years, spending more than 30 hours a week training and managing other volunteers in 2018. In this piece I can talk about my past experiences and what some of the campaigns (namely Elizabeth Warren staffers who worked in Iowa previously) are doing to invest in our community before asking for our vote.
I work as a grant writer for nonprofit in Cedar Rapids, and I don't have clips in any major publications. Here are two pieces I wrote for our nonprofit’s blog for writing samples in lieu of that.
When pitching, it’s always nice to tell me why you are the perfect person to write this piece. Sometimes, the answer is simply “because I’m extraordinarily talented as you can see by the following clips.” But this pitch is a great example of why lacking a bunch of previous published work doesn’t matter all that much when you have other, relevant experience. We added some light reporting to the final version, but it was this writer’s personal connection to the topic that originally sold me on it. — Brandy Jensen
I want to dig through Mark Zuckerberg's trash to see what cool stuff I can find. He has two homes — one in Palo Alto, one in The Mission. It's possible it will be fruitless (I imagine he's probably paranoid enough to burn all his trash before throwing it out) but I think the whole quest might be marginally funny. Could tie it all into larger boring discussions about privacy. What right to privacy does a man who runs the most giant surveillance apparatus in human history deserve? Oh and also I will probably sell the trash on eBay.
The thing I love about this pitch is that it presents a simple idea that’s so inherently funny that no matter what happened, it was lead to something interesting. In this case, the writer Joe Veix’s proposal to attempt to steal Mark Zuckerberg’s trash very quickly led to him discovering that Zuck has private security guards watching over his empty trash cans. This turned out to be a perfect, real-life metaphor for Facebook’s insistence on violating our own privacy while aggressively protecting its founder from public scrutiny, which Joe had proposed as a subtextual theme. Ideas for “stunt articles” don’t always work, but when they do, they help to prove a larger point in a silly way, using a driving concept that essentially helps the piece write itself. — Drew Millard, Features Editor
Like most humans, the Shuar and Quichua — indigenous tribes in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia — have a special relationship with dogs, especially as hunting companions. These tribes use the plants around them as veterinary medicine to treat their dogs when they become sick. For example, ficus to fight parasites or Anthurium eminens to treat botfly infections.
But these indigenous groups also give their dogs psychedelic drugs to enhance their hunting abilities, according to a 2015 anthropological survey in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. It details 22 plant species given to dogs, nineteen of which are hallucinogens (e.g., Banisteriopsis caapi, an ingredient in the brew ayahuasca.) Most of the remaining are stimulants (e.g., Ilex guayusa which contain methylxanthines) while two others were "nocturnal ophthalmics" – drugs that improve night vision.
As for the psychedelics, it may seem counter-intuitive to give them to a pup if you want them to hunt well. After all, if the drugs work like they do in humans, they should produce profound hallucinations. But the study author argues that dampening certain senses like sight can enhance others like smell. "The practice of administering psychoactive plants to canines is well-established," the authors write. “Could such a practice persist if it impaired hunting success?”
A lot of this is speculative, however, because many of the psychoactive properties these jungle plants haven't been thoroughly researched in humans, let alone in dogs. But they probably do help—after all, these tribes are so reliant on their dogs that if they didn't work, they would likely starve. Nonetheless, the authors encourage more research, because this could lead to development of pharmaceutical drugs to enhance drug or bomb-sniffing dogs, search and rescue canines or even service dogs that help people with disabilities.
According to this research, giving psychoactive drugs to dogs to help them hunt is widespread behavior across the globe (the focus in the study is really on these two tribes, but I'd like to explore other cultures as well), but relatively little attention has been given to this issue. Indeed, this topic has not been covered, as far as I can tell, anywhere except this blog from 2015. This seems like a fairly unique concept that hasn't been widely explored.
I can have a story on this in about a week. I've already interviewed a veterinarian, and the two study authors Rocío Alarcón and Bradley Bennett, because I wanted to know more about this concept. When I spoke to Rocío, she underscored the importance of preserving this history, so I want to talk about what it can still teach us. I also want to speak to one or two other anthropologists not involved who can shed some more light on this issue.
**There’s a lot going on in this pitch, but there kind of has to be. The writer is both having to explain about four different concepts here while also demonstrating a level of expertise that helped convince me that he was the right person for the job. When pitching a piece about drugs or animals — or in this case, drugs and animals — it’s important to remember that they often only work when they’re not actually about drugs and/or animals. The piece that this pitch ultimately turned into uses the indigenous South American practice of giving psychedelics to their dogs as a way to discuss these peoples’ relationship with the earth and the importance of dogs to their cultures. ** — Drew Millard
I’m writing to you with a pitch for a piece about the messy and arguably, immoral, business of emotion recognition technology, for the Future section at The Outline.
Emotion recognition in technology covers a manner of developing software & products, so I’m using it to refer to technology that is supposed to detect emotions like boredom, fear or happiness, through people’s behaviour. The network of emotion recognition technology ties into a whole range of other tricky areas, such as the ethics of facial recognition technology, and whether data such as Youtube videos is actually in the public realm. Some of the emerging technology in this area is geared towards marketing or advertising – such as Affectiva, who are in the process of making webcams which track eye movement to monitor people’s attention to advertisements. Other technology, which is arguably more insidious, relies on health data, such as temperature sensors and medical sensors, to identify how you might be reacting to a certain situation. One such use of this kind of technology is lie detection, which is increasingly being floated as a serious proposal at borders in the European Union.
It’s also worth noting that the basis of the science behind what startups like Affectiva and Empath are calling emotion recognition technology is largely junk, as has been explained by academics and actual experts in the field. Yet, start-ups and huge technology behemoths like Amazon are increasingly moving into this space, or are already selling services which use technology that falls under this banner.
I would write this piece first through setting the scene — by describing the range of products and services that emotion recognition is marketed as a part of, and how the nebulous nature of “emotion recognition” technology means that such technology may be legitimised in a range of contexts. I would then examine how the underlying logic is both dangerous for civil liberties (however configured) and isn't really based on scientific research– there are a few experts, such as Louise Amoore at Durham who write about this constellation of biopolitics & technology, who I could approach for comment.
Finally, I would pull these strands together to make the argument that while this might just be another part of the enduring Silicon Valley grift, emotion recognition technology should be opposed and discounted before it has a significant impact.
The tricky thing about pitching stories concerning newfangled technological developments is that these developments can be very boring to describe. The way around this, as Sanjana did above and in the final piece we published, is to get the matter-of-fact stuff out of the way, and to then explain why this development is awful, groundbreaking, life-giving, and so on. But you need to have a bunch of proper noun entities (companies! people!) to which you can actually peg this technology. And then you need to be able to explain what this technology looks like in action, as practiced by these companies and/or people, and what it suggests about the kind of world (say, the future) that they want to build for the rest of us. — Noah Kulwin, Future Editor
Pitch: The Reusable Grocery Bag
I wanted to write to see if The Outline would be interested in an essay I’ve been writing about a totemic modern object — the reusable grocery bag. I’ve been working at a Whole Foods for almost a year and in my 10+ months of waiting to be replaced by Amazon robots, I’ve been able to get up real close and personal with the way American liberalism has decided to invest all its climate anxiety into a single object to utterly ineffective ends. When you have to look it in the face for pay, the emotional fixation is downright alarming. Are these people okay? is a question I ask myself near-daily, taxonomizing the range of coping behaviors consumers develop.
Let’s blow this whole farce open: by bloviating and getting fasch about bags, most consumers are simply trying to pay indulgences against larger, more destructive lifestyle choices. (Unsurprisingly, this often manifests in treating workers terribly.) I’ve got the numbers on that, too; there are studies on the self-soothing mindset of small-scale individual action and the overall environmental impact of these bags and behaviors. I’d really like to wed that overall information with my observations on the ground.
The first two sentences of this pitch sold me. The reusable grocery bag is something virtually everyone uses or has encountered, and while most people probably don’t think too deeply about it, this writer certainly has. And not only has she thought hard about it, she has first-hand experience that colors her insight.
This kind of first-hand detail doesn’t always have to be something that “happens” to you — this is where reporting comes in — but it’s what will adequately strengthen whatever structured argument you spin out from your observations. — Noah Kulwin
Hopefully now you have a better idea of what kind of pitches we love to see. If you have a great, original story idea, please send it over!
Culture pitches: firstname.lastname@example.org
Power pitches: email@example.com
Future pitches: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature pitches: email@example.com