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Don't Ever Write for The Verge: A Cautionary Tale
Posted - 6/18/2013 11:37:42 PM | show profile | email poster | flag this post
Some of you may have noticed a tech news website called The Verge. It is largely a Wired knockoff, but there are occasionally some interesting features and good reporting. You cannot write for these people.
I have acquaintances who had written for The Verge and got the name of a contact, who I will decline to name. I sent this editor a story idea, on the official Charles Manson website — yes, there is such a thing, run by a few of his allies in California — and the presence of Manson’s music on Pandora, Spotify and the like. It was unconventional for them but this editor liked it and thought it could be extended to discuss how the internet is a neutralizer for what was once fringe (which seemed trite and obvious to me, but whatever, I agreed to run with that as an aspect).
He didn't give me a deadline or word count. "As long as you need" was the reply for both. I did some research, hunted down some sources and talked to the representatives of these streaming services and turned in 4,000 words about two months after pitching it.
Though the editor "really enjoyed it" (I’m going to start quoting directly from his emails), the first thing he asked for was a 2,000-word version with a new intro. After that "we can decide if there is anything that can be added or expanded upon or whatnot." Obviously, if you respect a writer’s time you figure out these parameters beforehand, instead of asking to see a piece this way and then that. But I soldiered on and did a 2,000-word second draft and filed it via Google Drive.
Drive automatically sends you an email whenever someone else posts a comment in or makes a change to a document you share. The next morning, I wrote up to 19 such emails, sent between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. His overall impression? "Dude. I couldn't be happier with this draft. You have the basis of a really great story here. The beginning really draws the reader in and establishes this as a contemporary story, one with an air of mystery." He also said he was upping the pay from 25 cents a word to 30 because it was so awesome.
I went through his notes. Some of his suggestions were odd. He wanted me to speak in first person often for a story not at all about me. Also, he was flabbergasted that I wrote "did not return calls for comment" or some variation a few times. That's the norm for the AP and The New York Times when a reporter gets no response after contacting an obvious source, but he said, "Never acknowledge your inability to get a source!" Not "that’s not something we do" but "that's something that’s never done." I started to think maybe he didn’t have much experience in journalism.
But he was the editor, so there was no point in protesting. All his suggestions were doable so I did them and turned the story back in. Because his response had been so positive, I assumed we were on our way to being done.
Then the situation took a nose drive. The editor suddenly asked for revisions of things that were untouched in previous versions, cut out sections he had previously labeled as "pull quote gold," rewrote sentences to confuse facts and, in one case, misspell a name I had not misspelled. The Drive documents became dumping grounds for vague suggestions and bizarre comments. He wrote that he (the editor) believed Manson was in league with the Scientologists and when I told him a sentence he had added was not technically accurate, he replied, "I like this concept of accuracy. Let's try it!" He pointed me to several links to weird Manson-inspired stuff (and there is a lot of that online). What was I supposed to do with all that? Rewrite the story to include every out-there idea every whackjob ever had about Charles Manson? At one point, I was confused about what he wanted from a section and he told me — oh, so helpfully — "Just write for an hour and see what you come up with." I also asked him to please not insert unverified Manson quotes from an anonymous website, especially when such quotes are on the offici
Posted - 6/18/2013 11:38:54 PM | show profile | flag this post
... official site that is, ya know, the center of this story. These points are so rudimentary I had to put serious thought into how to make them without sounding condescending.
This process dragged on for another month during which I did two more full drafts (plus many tweaks in between). Of course, this isn’t the only thing I worked on over this time but as weeks rolled by without it being resolved, I slowed down my intake of new assignments. The decent pay rate became minimum wage considering the time spent. A freelancer friend of mine thought this guy was merely inexperienced, but between the late-night editing marathons, strange comments and sheer lack of direction, I worried his issues extended a bit beyond that.
Finally, he wanted a new ending and wanted it sewn together from a quote from Steve Jobs about iTunes he found somewhere, an acknowledgment the 44th anniversary of the murders are coming up next August and a few links to that random Manson internet stuff. If you are wondering what Steve Jobs has to do with all this, so was I. I could get over the fact that he thought my research of three months should be scribbled over with what he had googled in three hours, but I couldn’t follow his thinking to any end. So I said that, while I was sure all these things would gel together if he were writing the story, they wouldn't be very fluid in my hands, which was as polite as I could put it. I got permission to redo the ending (again) on my own terms. The flurry of Drive activity stopped. He told me, it "reads well" and "we're golden."
Six weeks later, he sent me an email reading, "Ultimately, we aren't happy with the result and don't wish to put it on the site.” As for the first part of that statement: me too! Last time I saw this piece it was a hot mess, but I thought if I followed his instructions I would at least get a check out of it. (I did get a small kill fee.) I am sure someone else on The Verge’s ridiculously complex editorial hierarchy made the coup de gras. The editor may have argued his feeble little heart out for it.
Still, after more than three months of hard work and patiently wading through drivel, I am pissed. I am also angry for the sake of my sources, some of whom put in considerable time assisting me with the understanding this would go somewhere. What angers most the arrogance. He got a pitch he liked and a draft he "couldn't be happier with" but still thought it would be better with his own dung-stained creative fingerprint on every sentence. And how did that go? He turned a piece so good I was apparently going to get extra money I didn’t ask for into one so bad it can’t even run. Great job!
When I was an editor I killed a few pieces. I've had things of mine killed before, but leading on a writer to put in so much work without committing to a piece is inexcusable. Maybe I should have pulled out halfway though. There certainly were enough red flags.
Freelancing is a tough career and we are at the mercy of editors, but there should be some professional courtesy of the other end. Think before totally wasting a writer's time. Figure out if you want a story and how you want it before a writer starts or at least before months have gone by and he is on draft four.
Posted - 6/19/2013 9:36:51 AM | show profile | flag this post
sound like bad experience,but no deadline and no word count would
have raised a red flag for me right away. and you never mentioned a contract. I think you also need to take some responsibility for this.
Posted - 6/19/2013 12:12:02 PM | show profile | flag this post
"Freelancing is a tough career and we are at the mercy of editors, ..."
Not really, as long as you run your business like a business. Two business-killers shine like beacons in your rundown: You don't have a contract for this assignment, and you're a sucker for flattery.
You shouldn't have pulled out halfway through; you should never have started in the first place without a contract spelling out all the details. You should never have fallen for editing that not only made you uncomfortable, but also could have wrecked your reputation, because the words "really enjoyed it" and "pull quote gold" rang in your ears. (An editor addresses you as "Dude"?)
It sounds like you need to take control of your freelance business.
Deposit your kill fee, and sell the story elsewhere. Only this time make sure you have a contract and self-confidence.
Posted - 6/20/2013 2:02:40 AM | show profile | flag this post
This situation sucked, but it was a learning experience for you:
1. Specify all the terms upfront. If you are willing to move forward without length, etc. specified in writing, you are asking for trouble.
2. Just because someone is an editor doesn't mean you have to agree with them. I know that's hard to do when you are starting out. But when you get more experience, you learn there are times when you tell an editor no. And there are other times you simply ignore an editor's request and the request disappears.
3. Sometimes you have to say enough is enough. Online journalism isn't a road to riches, but again one thing you learn over time is you can't allow an editor to control your time with every whim.
4. Nothing is certain until the piece runs. An editor might love a piece and then his boss hates it or it can get killed for a million reasons. Everyone has this happen.
Posted - 6/24/2013 8:23:01 AM | show profile | flag this post
Yeah, I will take some responsibility. When there was no deadline or word count, I should have said, "I have concerns that you don't know what you want and please give me those specifics before I start" and then not written a word until I was convinced this publication was also invested and this person was also coherent. Up until the point where I had already invested too much, I was giving into assumptions that because this person had an editor’s position at a professional-seeming publication he knew was doing and because he had approved it and liked it, it would run. Those are not the kinds of assumptions you should make when so many valuable hours are at risk. Maybe I could have gone with the flow like that for a 1,000-word piece, not a seemingly limitless one (and 1,000 words is a much smarter length for a first piece for a new client). Like most freelancers, I hear no very often so maybe I was spellbound by the yes. Not a good business practice.
That said, I am not making any excuses for The Verge’s complete lack of professionalism.
Also, for what it's worth, there was a contract. It was pretty standard. It allowed them to get out with a kill fee.
I would like to take this somewhere else. I’m open to suggestions for publications that might be game.
Posted - 6/24/2013 1:39:42 PM | show profile | flag this post
Warning: This is not gentle.
*** Yeah, I will take some responsibility. When there was no deadline or word count, I should have said, "I have concerns that you don't know what you want and please give me those specifics before I start" and then not written a word until I was convinced this publication was also invested and this person was also coherent.***
You should take all the responsibility for this one. You should have gotten the deadline and the word count because you needed them to operate your business effectively. The insult of "I have concerns that you don't know what you want" -- what kind of BS is that? You need these details because you're a self-employed professional who takes personal responsibility for running his/her own business.
Drop the "I must accept crumbs from the overlord editors because I am a lowly freelancer" attitude. It's pathetic. You're a business owner providing a service, so act like one.
*** Like most freelancers, I hear no very often so maybe I was spellbound by the yes. Not a good business practice. That said, I am not making any excuses for The Verge’s complete lack of professionalism.***
I freelance, and I haven't heard no very often. You're kind of like an assumption machine! You are right -- making assumptions are not a good business practice. Further, assuming that freelancing is lousy is not a good business practice for a freelancer. Perhaps you are in the wrong field. This is tough love: Run your business in a professional manner, and you will minimize self-inflicted headaches.
*** Also, for what it's worth, there was a contract. It was pretty standard. It allowed them to get out with a kill fee. ***
"Pretty" standard? Without a deadline or word count? No, this is not standard. Where are you hiding your past experience as an editor? You had a choice to sign the contract "as is," without these important details, or to negotiate for them and then sign. The website is holding up its end of the legal agreement by paying you the kill fee.
More tough love: Before you shop your story elsewhere, educate yourself on how to run a professional freelance business. Books are one place to start. A very good book with a new edition out this year is "Six-Figure Freelancing" by Kelly James-Enger. It's a straightforward guide to freelance start-up by a lawyer-turned-writer. It can change your attitude, if you allow it to, and it can help you to avoid making any more rookie mistakes.
Posted - 6/24/2013 11:48:44 PM | show profile | flag this post
That's a good book, but it's more aimed at copywriters than journalists.
In my experience, very few people who primarily write journalism treat it like a business because it isn't a business. The aim isn't about maximizing profit or making a living. It's about telling stories they want to tell. I think it's really more about acting professionally, and demanding to be treated professional, than being businesslike. Because, frankly, if you are truly businesslike you wouldn't be doing journalism in the first place.
Most of freelance journalism writing has business practices that are terrible for the writer. And a lot of that will never change. There are sensible things you can do, like nailing down word counts and deadlines, but that's largely about eliminating confusion down the line. and not getting screwed,
But I know when I do journalism work, I generally make less money for more work than other types of writing, because those other types of writing (copywriting, white papers, etc.) are genuinely run like a business. There is no pretense I am doing them for any reason other than to make money, and no pretense than they are being commissioned for anything other than a profit motive.
--More tough love: Before you shop your story elsewhere, educate yourself on how to run a professional freelance business. Books are one place to start. A very good book with a new edition out this year is "Six-Figure Freelancing" by Kelly James-Enger. It's a straightforward guide to freelance start-up by a lawyer-turned-writer. It can change your attitude, if you allow it to, and it can help you to avoid making any more rookie mistakes.--
Posted - 6/25/2013 11:12:21 PM | show profile | flag this post
*** That's a good book, but it's more aimed at copywriters than journalists. ***
You may be thinking of one of the Bly books. Those deal with copywriting.
There are different genres of journalism. The market for features, including news features, is exponentially larger than the market for news, yet all are journalism.
Posted - 6/25/2013 11:19:10 PM | show profile | flag this post
*** In my experience, very few people who primarily write journalism treat it like a business because it isn't a business. The aim isn't about maximizing profit or making a living. It's about telling stories they want to tell. ***
Not sure where you're coming from, but it absolutely is not only possible but also a necessity for people who write journalism to treat it as a business -- because it is a business. You still pick your customers, and sometimes you write about what you don't particular care about in order to keep the bills paid. You still figure out whether the rate of return on effort for pay offered makes it worthwhile to do the story for that outlet. It very nearly equates with working on staff in a newsroom, where you wrote six times more assignments you didn't love to do than you wrote stories you wanted to tell.
Posted - 7/26/2013 9:19:55 AM | show profile | flag this post
The reason some freelancers don't treat their work as a business is because...it's not, for them. It's a cute little hobby or something to do until they get into grad school or something they like to talk about at parties.
Anyone who actually counts on freelance journalism income for their monthly living costs, retirement savings and everything else keeps minute track of every penny earned, invoiced for and owed. We don't dick around. We ask a lot of questions and get everything possible in writing. If something looks as weird as this thing did, we walk --- and find something solid from someone whose rep we've checked out and trust.
It's insane to assume you never talk back to, or negotiate with, an editor. You're not 12.
Posted - 7/31/2013 1:41:05 PM | show profile | flag this post
Catilin is right. Lots of pro journalists freelance and act like, well, pros. You need to operate with ruthless efficiency -- figure out your story up front with the editor, so that you can do the right amount of research without wasting time on excess sources and info that you won't use but will just confuse you and make it longer to write the story.
Also, getting a clear focus on the story from the editor gives that editor buy-in for what you're doing, and makes it less likely that s/he'll jerk you around on endless re-writes. Do research once that you can sell in three different stories, do cheap, easy short stuff to fill in between major assignments, and check in regularly with your editors.
Treat yourself like a professional and chances are editors will, too. This guy probably felt he had license to jerk your around because he didn't see you acting like a pro.
Posted - 9/6/2013 10:35:07 PM | show profile | flag this post
These are all great posts. If you liked the first version, go sell it somewhere. I don't know where, but you can probably find a market for it. I'm coming late to this, so maybe you already did that. Let us know.