MEMO TO PROSPECTIVE FREELANCERS

Categories: How-To

Thumbnail image for village voice tilda cover.JPG
Dear Prospective Village Voice Freelancers,

Each and every day, you send me pitches for stories that you hope I'll bite on. Some are quite good. A few are excellent. Most, however, don't interest me in the least. I try my best to answer as many pitches as I can. If, for whatever reason, I'm not interested, I try to find the time to send a very brief message thanking you for your submission and politely turning you down. I simply don't have time to explain the reasons why I can't take your story. Sometimes, I'm too busy to say anything at all.

If I do turn you down, please don't take it personally. There are many different reasons why I can't take your story, and even some stories with a lot of merit won't get chosen.

But for the sake of your career -- this really is a small town, after all -- it's best not to reply to my rejection with the kind of message I received from a freelancer earlier this week.

For the most part, this freelancer did a good job trying to sell his story idea to me. He wanted to do a kind of postmortem of Air America, the liberal radio network that never really made any money and finally died off.

I was never very interested in Air America when it was on the air, and I didn't sense the country going into mourning when it went off the air, but sure, I can see why a postmortem might be interesting.

But here was the problem: the freelancer wasn't pitching me terrific material that former Air America hosts had said about their experiences, he was proposing that he go find out what former hosts might say.

Now, you have to understand. My freelance budget is extremely precious to me. I really have to be sure I have a story with a lot of impact before I commit any of our money to a story. But in this case, a writer I didn't know was asking me to commit to a project that might turn out to be interesting.

But it also might be a dud. There's every chance that former Air America hosts might say completely predictable things about how much they enjoyed the experience, blame the bad economy for the demise of the experiment, and then take a few gratuitous shots at Rush Limbaugh for good measure.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this fellow might have put together a great piece. But, not knowing him and not knowing what he might find, I just couldn't take a chance. It just wouldn't be a smart use of our limited budget.

What I am happy to pay for are stories that a freelancer has landed cold before he or she ever sends me a pitch. Like the story John H. Tucker, a Columbia graduate student sent me a couple months ago. He had done his reporting, nailed a great story, wrote the thing with skill and care, and there was no way I could turn him down when he sent it to me on spec. The result was our cover last month, "Tales of Hippie Crack."

So anyway, I let the Air America guy down gently, I thought, with my standard "thanks, but I can't use this" response.

He followed that up quickly with a request for more detail on why it was being rejected.

This happens pretty often, and I ignore that kind of message as a rule. I simply don't have time to go into it. Most of the time, I get a "thank you for responding so quickly." That's a smart thing to do. I know there's disappointment on the other end, but the pros understand that you can only print a few of the many pitches that come through.

But then, every once in a long while, you get the angry guy who can't believe you turned down his story.

After I had not responded to his request for more information, the Air America guy sent this...

Not trying to be a punk

Just don't get it

My pitch has built in buzz. Not saying it's the be all end all, but
it'd be a "fun" postmortem, with ample dirt and ballbusting

Versus a Tilda Swinton cover

???


You can imagine how much I look forward to a future pitch from this genius.

Take a couple of things from this look into the business, prospective freelancers.

First, keep in mind that a rejection of your story is not rejection of you. I've turned down story pitches from great writers who went on to do plenty of other things for us. Pros understand this.

And second, take heart in this: the vast, vast majority of story pitches we get are really poor. Yes, this is a bad economy, there are few permanent jobs, and you seem to be up against an army of other freelancers all competing for space. But the truth is, many, if not most, of your competitors aren't very strong.

If you can land a surprising, counterintuitive exclusive story, report it out with knockout details, and then spin it into a yarn in a hypnotic narrative structure -- believe me, we will beat a path to your front door.

Oh, and one other thing...

You're damn right, Tilda Swinton on the cover.

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