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I suppose it's a function of a job market that where the specialist is increasingly valued at the expense of the generalist, but when people ask me what I did prior to working in media and I respond that I worked in finance, they go through something vaguely analogous to Elisabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of grief. There's Denial: "Oh, you mean financial media, right?" Confusion: "But how did you just switch? Did you go back to j-school? Did you know someone? Did you threaten to have someone killed?" Then, finally, Acceptance and, perhaps, Pity: "Oh. You worked with numbers. Number-crunching. God, that sounds vaguely like (shudder) math. I get depressed just thinking about it." Then, invariably, More Confusion: "But how do you go from numbers to words? They're so different!"
But in some ways, my job pre-media wasn't so different. I spent a lot of time listening to pitches, not unlike I do now as an editor. A few years ago, I was working for an early-stage technology investor and entrepreneurs would send me pitches for their companies, along with an executive summary and/or business plan. If the entrepreneur's pitch was effective, it would result in meeting with someone in a position to fund the entrepreneur's company. More often than not, however, the pitches ended up in the conveniently oversized trash can next to my desk—and the things that landed them there were almost identical to the things that make me reject story pitches now. The qualities that made the winning pitches pass the test were incredibly varied, but the qualities that resulted in rejection—the dealbreakers—were almost always the same. And in most cases, they were automatic.
So here are the dealbreakers—things good to know, regardless of whether if you're pitching stories or the Next Big [Multi-Billion Dollar Market] Thing.
1. "I want to say one word to you. Just one word… Plastics." That line from The Graduate seems charmingly dated but if history is any indication, there's probably an entrepreneur somewhere right now thinking, "Plastics! They're gonna be big!" There always is.
There's nothing wrong with pitching a story that's been done before. There are certain publications in New York that seem to write about the "new British invasion" every 2.5 years, and that story apparently has some enduring appeal—or British invasions are cyclical and no one has managed to notice. And in certain contexts the story can be made new and timely (plastics + nanotechnology, plastics + biomedical research, the entire Blair administration moves to New York, thinking that plans for "office relocation to Soho" meant something else entirely).
But if the story has been done before—and recently—not only will you fail to get the assignment, you'll have aptly demonstrated your lack of familiarity with the publication you're pitching and/or its market if the same story has already appeared in a competitor publication. When operating Nexis required a minimal knowledge of DOS, this was somewhat excusable but increasing digitization and ease of access have changed that. Cursory Googling is expected.
2. "I've got this screenplay…" "Technology investor" seems like a straightforward description, but sometimes the mental images of big green dollar signs obscured the "technology" part for people who wanted money for their projects, forcing the composure of emails stating that while Fassbinder was an excellent filmmaker and you're sure that deep down, Jerry Bruckheimer has some genuinely redeemable qualities, you're not in the market to finance "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant-meets-Armageddon". If history is any indication (again), someone probably is. But it's not you.
The same logic applied when composing emails in response to pitches for stories about barbecue festivals in Chicago and having to explain that the publication's title—New York magazine—was a descriptor of geography and not merely an arrangement of letters designed to optimize the aesthetic appeal of an otherwise ungainly font. Per dealbreaker number one, knowledge of the publication you're pitching is mandatory. Email and phone pitches that aren't relevant begin to feel like spam and telemarketing, respectively, and they're a waste of time for both the freelancer and the editor. And there's a chance that repeated violations will result in your emails being specially filtered—into the editor's "bulk mail" folder.
3. "Thief!" Inexperienced entrepreneurs often present investors with non-disclosure agreements (NDA) before sending over an executive summary or a pitch for their multi-billion dollar double secret plan to sell books over the Internet. Those go directly into the circular file. Why? Because the investors and analysts look at similar deals every day and for every entrepreneur who thinks he or she has an idea no one has ever thought of before, there are usually 7 or 8 entrepreneurs who have. The entrepreneurs, of course, never believe this. No one could have possibly come up with their ultra-niche, ultra-obscure business idea. They only thought of it while scuba diving off the coast of Iceland on LSD, and it's therefore cognitively and circumstantially impossible that anyone could replicate the thought process that led them to stack this widget on top of that widget in such an unconventional patent-pending way. But the reality is, investors get stacked widgets and déjà vu all the time. They don't sign NDAs because they're not going to expose themselves legally to accusations that they stole an entrepreneur's idea and gave it to another entrepreneur (as if anyone would go to the trouble.) And an entrepreneur who presents an NDA is regarded as naïve and unacceptably unfamiliar with the standard fundraising process—thus immediate rejection and, in some cases, gratuitous lectures and profanity.
In media, this is a dealbreaker that occurs while the pitch is in pitch purgatory (the editor has read it, but hasn't assigned or rejected) or after an initial rejection. But it's important because it essentially guarantees that an editor will never, ever look at a pitch from the freelancer under any circumstances. Here's the scenario: Multiple freelancers and maybe a staff writer or two pitch the same story. The story gets assigned to one of them or was assigned separately by another editor or perhaps, was already assigned but hasn't run. The story appears and the pitcher's immediate reaction is to call the editor and complain that the story has been stolen from them. Editors have almost no incentive to steal a story under the worst of conditions and no incentive whatsoever under the best. I think editors stealing stories happens at about the same rate that people get struck by lightning. It's risky and unnecessary. As a result, nothing is more infuriating than to be wrongly accused of stealing a story and having to defend yourself as an editor—especially if the story in question is completely unoriginal and has been pitched multiple times.
The freelancer, of course, has no way of knowing what has been pitched, what hasn't, or when and how stories are being assigned internally. And the natural corollary is that the freelancer has no actual evidence that supposedly stolen stories are, in fact, stolen. Accusations are backed only by the freelancer's suspicions and resulting similarities between the published story and whatever the freelancer had in mind, which is never self-evident proof of plagiarism. In the rare instances where stories are stolen and hard evidence is available, it's worth prosecuting, but if all you have is a suspicion and two topically similar stories, keep in mind that any spurious accusations will permanently destroy your relationship with that editor and likely, that publication (and if the editor feels particular insulted at having his or her professional integrity questioned, all of the editor's editor friends and their respective publications as well.) Make the claim when necessary, but don't do it lightly.
All of these "Don't"s are incredibly simple and don't require—or advocate—any sophisticated parsing of editor motivations or institutional psychographics, yet they occur all the time, even with ostensibly experienced freelancers.
So if you're the freelancer who sent me the pitch about profiling the subject we profiled two days ago, read the publication for a while and familiarize yourself with it, then pitch me again. If you're emailing about Chicago barbecue festivals, call me when there's one in New York. And if you're one of the 283 people who have pitched me a "layman's guide" to whatever the A1 New York Times story was this morning, I assigned it someone else—before you pitched it.
[Editors and freelance writers: send in your respective "dealbreakers" to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll publish them. All correspondence to email@example.com is considered for publication, unless the writer stipulates otherwise.]
Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.