Every year or two I write the same article (or blog post or whatever), and it’s usually about specific media properties I’m editing or launching or, in some cases, have only some marginal involvement with. The article is always directed to freelancers who are pitching stories to that publication and do it in the worst, most offensive, time-wasting way. (Here’s my Observer version.)
And I cleaned out my inbox today, so one unlucky but deserving freelancer got the following email after BCCing me on a publication-inappropriate blanket pitch, twice. (The blanket email ended with “Give [me] a chance,” and the freelancer is not a kid with no experience, which would make it more forgivable.)
Hi [redacted] – No self-respecting editor is going to assign you a story if it’s clear that you’re pitching multiple publications at once and BCCing everyone on your list. I don’t normally even respond when freelancers do this, but you’re the third offender in my inbox today.
Your pitch needs to be targeted to the pub you’re pitching and it needs to be clear that you read that publication. Why should I (or any busy editor) give you a chance if you’re not willing to do the minimum amount of work?
I don’t know why this is so hard to understand. All you really have to do–and I say this as someone who started in media as a freelancer myself–is imagine for five seconds what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a crappy irrelevant pitch that even more insultingly, was sent to 1000 people besides yourself. It basically says:
– I don’t read your publication, or if I do, I can’t be bothered to frame my pitch in the context of what you’re doing
– I don’t know if you’re the right person to pitch, but I’m happy to clog your inbox JUST IN CASE!
– I think you’re so desperate for stories from freelancers generally that you’d accept something that was shopped to every outlet in existence–at the same time.
The irony here is that the emails I got today were for a publication where I advise editorially but don’t assign articles for. That’s a somewhat forgivable mistake and if I got a real pitch, tailored to the pub, from someone who bothered to do the research and wasn’t spamming me and half the media industry, I’d forward it to the right person because it would seem like a good faith mistake.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
So here are some omnibus guidelines, freelancers:
– Know the publication you’re pitching. Make it obvious to the editor that you do, perhaps by mentioning similar coverage the pub has done, writing the pitch in the style of the pub, etc.
– Make some (tiny! cursory!) attempt to figure out who to pitch. If you spam everyone who has an email on the masthead, it’s not as if they won’t know you’re doing that. People talk to their colleagues. And when the office manager forwards you the same pitch wanting to know where it goes, you really look like an asshole.
– Do not mass email editors. No one you’d actually want to write for is so desperate that they’d take something that’s been shopped everywhere.
– Do not call with a pitch. Ever. It’s inappropriately disruptive. (And it makes you look like a technophobe.)
And some next-level guidelines if the pitch gets to the discussion level:
– If you get a pitch rejected and see the same topic covered in the pub, it doesn’t mean that the pub stole your pitch. You’d be floored at the number of times I’ve gotten pitches for stories about things our staffers would cover and are covering (I’d like to a profile of Bernie Sanders!) and then when the obvious, have-to-do-it profile of Sanders comes out, the freelancer accuses the pub of “stealing the idea”. Then you have to tell the irate freelancer that they weren’t the only person who noticed that pour-over coffee was A Thing now, or that the snowstorm might have produced some hilarious behavior from people in the outer boroughs. Does idea stealing happen? I would guess so, occasionally. But in my 14 years of working in media, I’ve never personally seen it. I have seen a lot of freelancers pitching ideas other people also had.
– The more high-concept and/or voice-driven the piece, the more of it you’re going to have to write on spec to get it assigned by an editor you haven’t worked with before. If you don’t have exclusivity or a scoop or some level of expertise, you’re going to have to actually write more of the story to prove that it works and you can do it.
Pro-level: Ask upfront about payment terms and read your actual contracts. If the publication pays “net 60”, don’t call them in two weeks wanting to know where your check is. But I’m all for holding their feet to the fire on day 61, btw. But also understand that your editor doesn’t necessarily control the checkbook, and if the company is late, your editor is probably not the person being negligent or making a conscious decision to pay you later. With very few exceptions, they are going to be on your side in that situation, because only an unprofessional jerk would assign something, knowing or believing that the freelancer probably wouldn’t be paid or wouldn’t be paid in a reasonable period of time.
I had a freelancer at the Observer who had done work for the paper before I got there and who called up and practically threatened to kill my first child because the paper was late paying him. I had never even worked with this guy** and I was just as upset and infuriated that people weren’t being paid on time as he was, but he didn’t care about that, ignored my explanation that I did not actually manage cash flow for the company; that the accounting department told me they had just processed the check; and told me that he’d call my boss and get me fired. I explained to him, diplomatically, that my boss was precisely the reason why he hadn’t been paid on time, and happily gave him my boss’s telephone number, should he feel inclined to complain to the right person.
I was sympathetic to that guy’s situation, but I will never, ever work with him (and ironically, didn’t in the first place!) Know where your bread is buttered–and isn’t.
Another pro-tip, same level: if you need a payment expedited, that’s sometimes negotiable, especially for a something that’s particularly valuable to the publication. But you have to negotiate it up front. (I also tell publications I advise that there’s a premium for paying faster. Most people are willing to do things for lower fees if you can pay faster than industry standard. Even freelance writers understand the time value of money, and reliability is just as important for publications as it for freelancers.)
So end of rant. But I’m just going to auto-send this link to the next TK/infinity number of people who inappropriately spam me with pitches.
** And FYI, I approved all payments to freelancers that were outstanding the day I got the job. One high profile columnist repaid me for making sure he got paid immediately by resigning publicly in the New York Post, having never spoken to or worked with me at all. I’m sure it made him feel good to publicly tweak the owner of the paper, but it also ensured that I’d never work with him in the future. I was collateral damage in that situation, but it doesn’t excuse the behavior.