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How to pitch a story without having your idea stolen

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by anotherbucket4monsieur, Oct 29, 2011.

  1. I recently pitched a story idea to a major web site that works with freelancers and was told they liked it but had just assigned a "nearly identical story" to a staff writer. Given the fact that this was a fairly unique idea, their contention is conceivable but unlikely. I tried e-mailing the editor's boss for clarification but received no reply.

    I'm always apprehensive pitching stories to publications I haven't worked with before but it's hard to sell them on a story without telling them what it is. I guess you just have to make a leap of faith and trust the site/publication. In this case, I picked the wrong editor. Anyone have any tips or stories on how not to get robbed?
  2. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    If you're pitching blindly, i.e., not to an editor or publication you know, it is definitely a leap of faith. And asking for a clarification if you think a story was poached only assures you of never getting in the door there with another idea.

    But also bear in mind there are very, very few unique ideas. I found that out as a freelancer by bouncing ideas off my magazine-editor spouse. Editors hear the same stuff all the time. So don't worry about getting robbed. Instead, try to sell stories better by what you can bring to the table, such as a great source or a piece of inside info that another writer wouldn't have.
  3. flexmaster33

    flexmaster33 Well-Known Member

    what playthrough said...you just have to stay persistent and you'll eventually develop a ring of well-trusted publications where you'll get consistent work. Offering yourself up for game-day type coverage takes out the "stolen idea" factor. Most of us have a list of "must-cover" events "would like to cover" events and the "trash-heap" portion of the calendar, which is relegated to call-ins or completely ignored.

    With limited staffs, many of us are only getting to the "must-cover" events, so I'm always grateful to get a freelance offer for a "would like to" -- then of course, I have to cross my fingers that it gets approved by the budget keepers :)
  4. reformedhack

    reformedhack Active Member

    Speaking as a magazine editor who fields pitches from freelancers almost every day, I'll also add that you absolutely must explain why you're the best person to write this story. It's usually not enough to have the idea; you need to bring access and/or expertise to the table.
  5. As I see it, nothing to lose in asking for clarification. No chance I'm going to give this site another free story idea for one of their staff writers.
  6. Just curious. Have you ever received a story idea you liked but decided to give the assignment to another writer because you felt they were a better fit to write the story?
  7. reformedhack

    reformedhack Active Member

    Quite frankly, I seldom receive a story pitch that my team hasn't already thought of in some fashion, or has already written, or is currently writing.

    When I do receive what I consider a "good" pitch, I'll go through a working list of story ideas that my writers and I update and maintain. Most of the time, the pitch serves as a tickler for me to ask my writer, "Hey, what's up with XYZ?" If the writer is working the story, it's still his/hers to pursue. If the writer has abandoned it -- and it does happen -- then I might engage the person who pitched the story.

    But, generally speaking, I'm looking for something super-special. Out of every 100 pitches, I'd say maybe 10 are special enough to make the cut. A good 50 percent of them are totally irrelevant, which leaves about 40 percent that we're already working on or have already done.

    With that background out of the way, to answer your question, no, I haven't given a freelancer's pitch to someone on my staff because I think they'd be a better fit. It's unethical and, well, just plain bad karma.

    I know editors who do that, though, and I prefer not to associate with them. That said, I have hired freelancers and, upon seeing their work, wished like hell that I *had* assigned it to someone else. But just as freelancers take risks by pitching a story, editors take risks in accepting freelance pitches. (That's also the reason we have "kill fees" in our contracts, but that's a different tangent.)
  8. SF_Express

    SF_Express Active Member

    A few things about this, because it's an ethical deal I wrestle with several times a year:

    1) We don't use a lot of freelance enterprise/feature stories. We mostly use freelancers for game coverage. And I try to make that as known as possible.

    2) I'm somewhat uncomfortable with "out of the family" freelance feature pitches for this exact reason (we have regular contributors who I more easily can maneuver this with).

    3) My hard-ass point is that you throw an idea out there, you can't expect me to take it OFF the table for my regular staff guys, either. In other words, just because you pitch something doesn't mean it's now off-limits for us. Which is why I'd rather not get a wayward, one-off freelance pitch in the first place.

    That's SOP for me, and I'm sure it costs us a good story now and then, but it's easier to deal with. If you do pitch a story idea my way, I'll deal with it as honestly as possible, but it's not dead for us just because I say no to you. I don't know any other way to approach it, frankly.
  9. So have you received pitches from freelancers and then assigned their ideas to staff writers rather than to the writer who developed the story idea?
  10. SF_Express

    SF_Express Active Member

    No, never, ever that directly -- or remotely close to that directly, actually.

    I tell freelancers who pitch long story proposals not to do it anymore, basically, and then let the story drop. If somebody on my staff pitches something independently, my conscience is clear (although obviously, appearances might be the the contrary to the freelancer, but I'll know the truth).

    With known freelancers "in the family," I simply send out a note to the staff guys saying that this guy is pitching a story, and is anybody planning anything on him/it, without going into details.

    But no, I never take a freelance idea, turn around and commission it from the staff.

    But again, it's not a black-and-white issue. Some ideas freelancers pitch are mainstream enough that somebody else on the staff will eventually get around to it.
  11. HejiraHenry

    HejiraHenry Well-Known Member

    Special corner of hell reserved for those, and you've all dealt with them, who steal ideas from job candidates and put them into practice without some sort of compensation to the person who pitched them.

    I've had it happen to me, more than once.
  12. Lugnuts

    Lugnuts Well-Known Member

    I'd give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to pitch again soon to show no hard feelings. If a "nearly identical story" happens again, then you start to wonder.

    I can't tell you the number of times I've thought of a story I was sure had not been done before. It had.
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