Picture yourself in this situation, if you haven’t already: You’ve pitched a story idea to a newspaper, magazine or online editor, received a nod of acknowledgement either in person or by correspondence and words of praise but not commitment, was thanked for your input and then left with the impression the editor would get back to you for follow-up. Days, weeks, maybe months pass without that follow-up.
Then, forewarning aside, the same story idea turns up, in almost the identical context as your pitch, in the editor’s publication.
The first natural thought is, “That (insert your favorite insult here) stole my idea!” A grand display of teeth-gnashing, fist-clenching and floor-pacing follows, and soon after arises the notion to give that editor a piece of your mind.
But before you do, consider two things. First, if you intend to give someone a piece of your mind, remember to leave enough for yourself. And second, the likelihood that the editor “stole” your idea is indefensible and improbable.
The truth is, nobody “owns” a story idea. Those thoughts swirling around in our heads afford no collateral by themselves. We like to think they do because of the inspiration they give us and the biased belief that nobody else had them. But unless an idea is written down, it doesn’t technically exist. And even then, it must be copyrighted before the owner can pursue and expect compensation for theft.
When an “original” story idea winds up flowing from someone else’s pen or keyboard, a few factors probably came into play:
It wasn’t original — Across decades and thousands of publications, assorted story themes have been hashed and rehashed, with tweaks made here and color added there as freshener. Arguably, the idea you’re pitching took root the same way it did for another writer, and another writer before that. Inspiration takes many forms, one being the unanticipated reflection of another person’s inspiration.
Bad timing — Chances are, too, the publication had an idea much like yours on its calendar. Publications of all sorts stockpile ideas and schedule them well in advance to keep their production on track; your idea might have been on the docket or in process long before it became “your” idea.
Editor’s prerogative — Part of what editors do daily is determine the optimum bang for a publication’s buck, and that includes finding the best writers and reporters for particular story ideas. Experience, talent, resourcefulness, enterprise — these all factor highly when editors assign a story to one person instead of another. Bear in mind though, this does not imply greater general competence; rather, it points to specific competencies certain stories need to shine.
Lack of expertise — Along that line, for freelancers, this suggests they develop and hone special skills and have a “niche” they can call their own. An editor shopping a story idea on mutual funds or needlepoint, or seeking and editor who can easily clarify either story, will choose talent they know has better-than-average knowledge of those topics before tossing it up to the crowd. When making a pitch, prove not only the story idea’s value but yours as well.
Of course, not every editor or publication possesses sterling intent and unassailable character. Because ideas lack easy protection, it’s possible for editors to plumb for ideas after their dependable reserves of material dry up, or their motives are unmasked, but this is bound to bring them detrimental long-term results. The various publishing industries, whether print or electronic, are close-knit environments made tighter through the nation’s economic tumult over the past four years. That and the rise of social media have forged both direct and relational connections between writers and editors that were once unimaginable.
So basically, editors who lift others’ ideas too often risk their reputations and their jobs, an unwise tactic to take in a shrinking marketplace.
But to be sure, writers can employ tactics of their own against the concept of “idea theft”:
Research — Look into a publication’s background regarding freelance work. Learn the publication’s policies and practices, and try talking with other freelancers to see how they were treated. Above all, read through as many back issues as you can find, to see what ideas have been done and how they were presented.
Confidentiality — Ask editors to keep ideas confidential and extend the courtesy of a reply once they know whether to go with the story. No editor is obligated to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And if the pitch is submitted in print, clarify the confidentiality concern with a line or two making the same request. Furthermore, keep story sources out of written proposals where possible, if for no other reason than to protect their confidentiality as well.
Contact — Stay in touch with editors, but don’t hound them. A call, email or note after a couple of weeks to remind them you’re eager to get to work is OK. Maybe mention, too, that other editors have expressed interest in the story, but say this only in honesty. Don’t make allegations or claims that editors can verify but you can’t.
Patience — Most editors, no matter the publication, are swamped with offers and ideas amid their other work. Weeks may pass before they’re able to give a response. So, scrutinize the calendar and plan to give pitches well ahead of the events they address. Harried editors will appreciate it.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.