This is a question for the experienced journalists of MeFi.
September 30, 2014 6:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm a freelance journalist who is mostly self-taught. I didn't go to j-school and I've never worked on staff at a newspaper or magazine. While I'm confident in my research and writing skills (at least I know where I need to improve) there are a few "rules" of journalism that I feel like everyone else knows and I have never learned. Hence this question.

I'm writing a story for Paper A. I interviewed a bunch of sources for this story. One source--I will call him Source--mentioned a Thing he is involved with that would make a good story on its own, but is beyond the scope of the story I am currently writing. I know that in theory I could pitch the Thing as a separate story for Paper A, but I don't want to. This is because 1) it's similar enough to what I'm writing for them now that I doubt they'd want it, and 2) I find Paper A kind of annoying to deal with. I don't want to burn bridges with them because I've been writing for them for quite a while and would like to continue, but I don't want to be writing for them all the time if I can get paid to write for others as well. (I should note here that Paper A is not my only paying client, but they're the only publication I currently write for that covers a certain specific niche topic I am qualified to write about.) The Thing would make a great story for Magazine B. They cover the same niche topic as Paper A, but in a different tone/manner. I have never written for them before, though I did once pitch them and was respectfully rejected. I'd really like to write for Magazine B.

My question is: is there anything "not right" about quoting Source and possibly mentioning Source's Thing in the story for Paper A, but then pitching and (if they like the idea) writing about Thing for Magazine B? If relevant: Paper A tends to work slowly, and the story I'm writing for them is more evergreen, while the Thing is time-sensitive. So if Mag B accepts my idea there's a good chance their story would run before Paper A's story. Also if relevant: Staff at Paper A and Mag B may well be friends who hang out and talk about work stuff, and their readership overlaps. It's not like they are unaware of the other's existence. (I fully realize this might be a silly question, I've just never had any mentor-type person to tell me this stuff.)

Oh, and while I understand the impulse to answer about how this might work in some other field that is not journalism, I'm really hoping for answers from writers/reporters who know how this sort of thing actually works in our field.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is a little hard without knowing the two topics. Depending on how closely related they are, you could be fine, or burning a bridge with editor A.

If the newspaper piece were running first, I would also say you're fine. But since the magazine story sounds like it would run first you have to ask yourself — would the newspaper be upset if they saw the story? Would they feel scooped? If there's any chance of that, then the best practice is to simply talk to your editor at the newspaper. Here's how you do that.

Hey, things are going really well with STORY, and something came up that's related I'd like to check in with you about. In my reporting I ran across another story which is beyond the scope of the article I'm doing for you. It is much more of a long feature piece, probably needing 3,000 words, and it's time constrained so it would need to run in the next few weeks/months. I would imagine it's not for you guys, but I just wanted to check to make sure you were comfortable with me pitching it elsewhere since it's really [FRAME THE STORY AS DIFFERENTLY AS POSSIBLE FROM WHAT YOU'RE DOING FOR THE NEWSPAPER].

Feel free to PM me if you want to check in about the specific story topics and good luck!
posted by amoeba at 6:35 AM on September 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Longtime newspaper publisher here. Amoeba's approach is fine. Your question is whether there is anything "not right" about possibly mentioning the Thing in the story for Newspaper A and then pitching a broader story about the Thing to Magazine B. The answer is no, that's perfectly all right, assuming you have no ongoing restrictive contract with Newspaper A. As a freelancer, you're free to pitch stuff to anybody you want to. Your agreement with Newspaper A probably specifies that what you supply to them constitutes Work for Hire which means they own the copyright to the story. So you do need to be careful about not repeating, in your piece for Magazine B, any language used in the Newspaper A story.
posted by beagle at 6:54 AM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work as a journalist, but I also did not go to j-school or learn "The Rules." I think Amoeba basically has it, except that I would be a bit stricter and say that if I was already working on an article on a particular topic for Paper A, I would never offer a related article to Paper B until after the first article had been published.

I feel like once the article has been published, all bets are off and I would have no hesitation about writing another article using the same sources for another publication.
posted by 256 at 6:54 AM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was a young reporter, my understanding was that you should always be doing this, with every story. It's more efficient to sell four or five articles about, I dunno, various aspects of rock salmon fishing, using different quotes and angles for each one, than it is to write one about rock salmon fishing, one about redwood conservation, one about firefighting drones, and one about uses for vinegar. You do the interview, and then you make as many pieces out of it as you can. Using the whole buffalo. Like that.

You don't give enough information on the topic of the interpersonal dynamics going on to see if there's something weird that would trump that, but in general as long as you're genuinely writing and pitching two separate stories, you're in the clear.
posted by Andrhia at 6:57 AM on September 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Seems to me that if Paper A wanted all your writing, they would hire you on staff full time. Submit your story. See if the editor asks about the angle. After publication, pitch second story to anyone you wish.
posted by 724A at 7:00 AM on September 30, 2014

Yeah, follow amoeba's advice and think of it from the perspective of preserving and servicing relationships. That is your business after all. All my work has basically stemmed from one person; later, much of my work was through people who knew her, or who had worked with her and who then went on to other publications. They knew I was loyal and straightforward and timely and blah blah, and only very rarely (usually accidentally!) caused problems. Heh.

So with that in mind, you're looking at your relationship with an editor at A, while wanting to expand your work circle. Great. You're putting a few carts before horses here, but you're right to think hard about managing relationships.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:16 AM on September 30, 2014

Also? They don't teach this shit in J school.
posted by amoeba at 10:34 AM on September 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

(A side-issue, probably either irrelevant or obvious, but just in case: make sure Source realizes that things he said to you might appear in a different publication than the one you originally contacted him from – people can get weird otherwise! I guess there may be exceptions to this rule in some investigative journalism contexts etc.)
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:27 AM on September 30, 2014

And get all new, different quotes, etc. if your pitch is accepted by Mag B. What amoeba said. :-)
posted by Bella Donna at 2:35 PM on September 30, 2014

« Older Fastest way to finish Bachelor's degree while...   |   Why am I so unhappy with my perfectly OK life? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.