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How and when to kill a story / refuse an assignment

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by OrthogonalWaterfowl, Feb 24, 2010.

  1. I recently had a situation where I didn't go with my gut feeling about a story, and it wound up biting me in the ass (although not too badly). My editor gave me an assignment about a product release, basically a fluff piece about some new computer program. We're a business-oriented technology mag, so this isn't anything out of the ordinary, and I usually just do my best to be as facts-oriented as possible.

    I got a briefing about the product from the company's CEO. But by the end of the interview, my impression was that it was basically just a rebranding of an existing product with no new features, disguised as a new release (this turned out to be pretty much exactly the case). I also asked a couple times what was new about the product and got sort of dodgy, evasive answers. This is where I didn't go with my gut feeling, which was to go to the editor and tell him that I thought it was BS and there was no need to cover it at such length. At the time, though, I'd only been at this job for a couple months and it was only the second story I'd been given for this particular mag (I write for a couple different ones owned by the same company), plus this particular editor is extremely ornery and I was worried that he'd go to my ME and complain about me not being cooperative and refusing stories.

    I wrote the article, and caught a bunch of flak about how it wasn't interesting, he didn't understand what was new about it - basically all my concerns, except now I was getting guff for writing exactly the article he'd given me to write. I also wound up in a real bitchy discussion with my editor and a PR person, who started insinuating that I'd basically blown the interview after being informed that we weren't going to cover it.

    If something like this comes up in the future, I'm definitely going with my gut instinct and going back to my editor first instead of trying to limp across the finish line with a weak article. At the time, I felt like I'd be covered by the fact that it wasn't my lead and had basically been given to me (this was a dumb thing to think, in hindsight). The problem is that I'm uncertain of my ability to reliably convince my editor that a given thing is BS. He's got lots of experience covering this specific industry, but I've got a much more technical background than him and a lot of things that sound fine to him are obviously marketing BS to me (and there's always some BS, given the subject matter). I also don't want to shoot down assignments left and right.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for turning down assignments, besides "Just tell them it sucks and explain why"? And how do I do it without seeming like a suspicious know-it-all?
  2. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member


    You are looking at this as "Editor Gave Me Bum Assignment, I Have To Tell Him To Kill It."

    That is not your role in this. Your job is to write stories but you also need to have a strong understanding of what makes something worth writing about.

    In an ideal situation, you should always be having conversations with the editor before, during and after the writing process -- especially before.

    So don't be afraid to come to the editor to talk about the approach to a story, especially after a key interview.

    Don't look at it as your are coming back to kill a stupid story. You have more info and are coming to have a conversation.

    In this case, I would have have said you talked to the CEO but you have some concerns about the direction of the story. The release seems like nothing new and the CEO was being dodgy when you tried to get specifics.

    Then let the editor say, "Screw it. Write the damn thing. They are a major advertiser."

    Or "Those bastards. Forget about it. Here's another idea."

    Or "Hmmm. Tell you what, here are a couple more people to call to check that out."

    Or "Let's do an expose on companies that try to get rich pasting new names on old software."

    Bottom line, it's a type of conversation you should always have or be willing to have. It's not your role to be the one to kill or forge on with a story. That's what editors are for.
  3. Mystery Meat II

    Mystery Meat II Well-Known Member

    The fact your editor had the same concerns you did tells me you should definitely be telling him these things much earlier in the process. If this comes up again, go to him/her and say "hey, I think this may not be the story we're hoping for, and here's why." If the editor agrees or can point out where the story regains its validity, there you go. If the editor tells you to write it anyway, so be it -- at least he knows your concerns. If the editor tells you to write it anyway with no more guidance, THEN gets angry because you didn't make it out to be something it wasn't, then you've got a problem.
  4. Thanks for the insight, guys. You're right, I've been looking at this the wrong way. I guess I need to do more to keep my editor in the loop during the writing process.
  5. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    Exactly. Make him earn his fat paycheck.
  6. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    I never refused an assignment. Talked an editor out of one once and realized at that point to really pick my battles carefully.

    We get fluff assignments. It's what we do, especially now more than ever.
  7. ADodgen

    ADodgen Member

    I think Mizzou makes a good point about there being a fine line between refusing an assignment and having a dialogue that ends up spiking the story. The first is bad for business, but the second is a natural part of the process sometimes.
  8. shockey

    shockey Active Member

    you've got to know your editor and trust that he trusts you. if you've earned your stripes with any editor, if he trusts you are not a naysayer looking to dodge an assignment, he'll be counting on you to tell him, "i thought this was a cool idea, too, but after making my phone calls there's no value here."

    the best and most secure eds will tell you, "thanks. oh, well, it was worth a try. appreciate you going after it."... and then move on.

    only the dicks -- and there are some, sadly -- will insist, "hey, i give you an assignment, i want a darn story." :mad:
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