I know I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think there is anything particularly “investigative” about publishing the names, locations, schools, and sporting affiliations of a bunch of racist teenagers.
Is slinging racist epithets at Barack Obama (indeed, at anyone) revolting and pathetic? Of course. Should the people making those comments be called to account for them? Absolutely.
But I’m not convinced that a major news website (which is what you guys are, in hybrid with being a blog) is the place to do it.
Racism matters, it hurts, and it needs to be reported on. But the story here isn’t that individual racists exist, that their names are Ricky or Addison or Cody, or that they go to XYZ high school and here’s how you can track them down at their after school sports meet. I’m not sure that it particularly matters that they’re high schoolers, either, except that high schoolers might be less likely to twig that it’s smarter to post their racist remarks under a pseudonym that can’t be traced back to them.
Here are some ways you might have handled the story better. Report the tweets (keep the usernames attached, I just don’t need to know where they go to school), and write about why some people jump to racism as a first resort when they lose an election. What does this say about “post-racial” America? Or indeed, about “post-racial” milliennials?
Or you could get in touch with the kids directly and ask them for an interview. Who are they (and I don’t mean stats or demographics, I mean who are they as people) and why do they think that way? What does it say about the culture that they inhabit that they haven’t been called out on their hate speech closer to home than Jezebel? How are racists created?
As it stands, the story you published doesn’t really tell us anything, except that there are at least twelve teenagers in the United States of America who write racist crap about the President. Which in a country of over 300 million people, is hardly notable.
Do not call your editor. I repeat: do not call your editor. Especially if they’re not technically your editor yet. That is to say, if they haven’t commissioned you to write something for them.
Advice to phone in pitches is a relic from the days when editors weren’t sitting in front of their emails all day, and your only alternative was to mail a letter which might take days or weeks to arrive (not a great option if you’re working on something newsworthy). It might still be an okay strategy if you’re exponentially more charming and – more importantly – articulate over the phone than you are in writing, but most writers aren’t. (I’m not.) It’s why we’re writers rather than public speakers. We structure our thoughts best on paper.
Plus, sending a written pitch has the advantage of showing that you’re a good writer who “gets” the tone of their publication.
I have occasionally called editors I work with when there’s something I need to work through with them that would just be way too convoluted to hash out over email. And I’m a big advocate of meeting up with them in person when I’m in the same city. And it might be worth giving them a call to follow up on a newsworthy story that simply HAS to be published in the next 2-4 days, but even then I think a lot of editors would be weirded out by it. Email is safest, for both pitching and following up.
On whether to pitch or send the whole story, it really depends on what kind of writing you’re doing. I started out writing opinion pieces, which is a great way to get your work out there when no one will read your pitches. Send through a complete story to the relevant ed, they realise, “hey this person I’ve never heard of can actually write!” and they publish you.
This tactic would also work well for literary nonfiction, personal essays (but make sure you tailor your pieces to the publication’s voice and specifications – which are better determined by reading a few issues than through reading writers’ guides, which tend to be very inaccurate in my experience), and blogs. But for most magazine work and reported features, I say pitch all the way.
As for the differences between breaking into the Australian market and breaking into the US, my hunch is that the Australian market is better for newbies. Let me put it this way: I first got published in the Sydney Morning Herald when I was 22, and I’ll be lucky to crack the NYT before I’m 32 (maybe even before I’m 42). Australian publications also seem to be more likely to give regular gigs to favoured freelancers, and I think are able to push the boundaries a bit more – at least within the women’s magazine market which I tend to frequent.
That said, the US does have many charms, which is why I’m publishing my book there!
Related: Ask Rachel: How do I write a killer newspaper/magazine/website pitch?
Mihal asks: You’ve interviewed some fabulous women, do you have any tips of the best way to approach people for an interview - someone like Caitlin Moran, did you approach her directly or go through a publicist?
As a general rule of thumb, the more famous the person is, the more likely gatekeepers are involved. So, interviews like Tina Fey, Natalie Portman, Kate Moss? Were all organised via a negotiation between my editors and their publicists. My only involvement was being the contributor lucky enough to get to interview them.
People who are well known in their fields but not internationally famous are a different kettle of fish, though. I thought I came up with the Caitlin Moran profile on my own, so much is it “the kind of story that I would write”, but a quick check of my email archives reveals that her Australian publicist (whom I knew through our days on a certain magazine forum ten years ago) contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing something about her book.
I then pitched a profile to my editor - explaining who she was, as she hadn’t “broken” in Australia at that point, although she was getting heaps of buzz in the UK - the idea was accepted, and Caitlin’s publicist put me in touch with her directly to organise a time and place (something that would never happen with Tina Fey… unless you worked for the New Yorker or something, and then maybe). If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have hesitated to contact her over Twitter, email, or to approach her publicist in Australia or the UK myself.
So, a couple of tips for setting up similar interviews yourself:
- Look for people who are doing work that will be of interest to the publication’s readership, but who aren’t “celebrities” per se (I’m thinking people like writers, designers, artists, chefs, directors, activists, business people and so on… you get the idea). These people are usually more interesting to speak to than A-listers anyway, because they haven’t already had 93 previous magazine profiles written about them.
- To approach the publication or the interviewee first? Chicken or egg? It depends on who you have the stronger relationship with. When I’ve pitched these kinds of stories, I’ve often done it tentatively: here’s an interesting person, here’s why they’re interesting, here’s why I’d be a great person to write about it. Then, if the editor expresses interest, I’ll go away, approach the interviewee and ask if they’d be interested in doing a profile with that publication. If you don’t have strong clips though and you do have an existing tie to the interviewee, it might be worth getting their buy-in first, to make your pitch more solid.
- You don’t need to write profiles in order to interview interesting people. I speak to interesting writers, researchers, commentators and so on all the time for topic-based feature stories. When writing these, don’t be afraid to aim high - approach the most exciting people you can for comment. The worst they can do is say ‘no’.
I hope that helps! How do others go about organising these types of stories?
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