Posts Tagged ‘stltoday’


Is there such a thing as ‘idea theft’?

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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

Four tips for better self-editing

The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until glowing. Hours, days, weeks spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct, and pruning too painful to contemplate. After all, these words came from a place deep within, we think to ourselves, and they are as much a part of us as our own skin and blood.

Which is why Thomas Wolfe said what he did: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”

But prune we must, for as Wolfe and other writers of his ilk knew it’s the editing that makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.

Trouble is, for freelancers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work so as to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. And when it’s just us writing and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, seeking that detachment can be difficult.

However, there are a few tricks available to put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done:

Walk away — That’s right, walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and go do something else — exercise, house chores, yard work, whatever — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting, and don’t even think about the story during that time, the notion being that separation helps the brain reorder its thinking regarding what it has digested repeatedly over a long period of time.

You see, our brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, so that many of us can read this …

It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

… with little trouble, when in fact the corrected jumble says this …

It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.

Because of this trait, even seasoned editors misread once in a while. That’s why they pour over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. And that’s why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.

Change the background — After writing in a black-on-white writing environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue, and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new and organic. Altering the screen font and font size also has somewhat the same effect.

Read aloud — Eyes alone are not the tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over and subsume the other half of our collective perspective. Then, upon reviewing what’s written, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the sentence context deviates from what we thought we were typing. Reading a story aloud in the editing process helps the mind both see and hear the gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.

Read backward — In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meaning of sentences and whether they were constructed well enough to make sense in the first place. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there’s too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.

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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

The keys to good journalism

The moment I thought “journalism” had died and I missed it came before speaking to a college class.

“Oh no, this isn’t a journalism class,” the professor told me moments before I stepped into the lecture hall. “This is media communications.”

“Not the same thing?” I asked. “I thought I was here to address journalism students.”

“Well, yes,” the professor said. “And no. Which is why I invited you.”

Confused, I asked for clarification, which she gave: “Journalism is incorporated in all we do; it’s an element in all we teach. But journalism by itself, we don’t do that anymore.”

And my job here this day?

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” the professor said, sounding apologetic. “I was hoping you could explain what journalists like yourself do in your day-to-day routine — tell them how the theory comes into practice.”

This sounded simple enough. Problem was, the majority of the 45 students awaiting my sage instruction were seniors about a month away from sporting mortarboards. In my own college time, the “theory” we were supposed to learn came into practice almost immediately after freshman orientation. We all knew going in how to type on IBM Selectrics and use notepads, the professors presumed back then. Thus, their chief task was showing us how make something of the space between our ears, the most valuable news-gathering tool we had.

I doubted that anything I had to say to those 45 students would help them get a foot in a door at that point. Yes, they were savvy with networking and gadgetry. And yes, they probably knew how to knead an idea in as many ways as the prefix “multi” in multimedia allowed. But how much theory can anyone reasonably grasp when their eyes are focused on the space below the exit sign?

The key then, I believed, was offering the students less theory and more practicality. I didn’t know how much of the latter their in-class lessons provided. From my experience, the lessons I learned outside class were the ones still rooted in my mind. So, I opted to pass along some of the same tried and tested tips that no text or learned lecturer had awarded me at their age. If even a few students caught a clue, I figured, they’d be better prepared than a lot of their peers.

Among my hard-earned pearls of experience:

Read. Everything — We tend to reach first for whatever we like to read, not what we ought to read. Delving into assorted writing styles expands one’s mind for using words. It’s said that the best way to become a good writer is to first become a good reader, because you have to know and understand how words work before trying to make use of them.

Research. Everything — The habit today is to sift Wikipedia or the first couple of pages of a Google search for key sources, when the truth is that both of those venues are suspect. Wikipedia is vulnerable to prejudiced editing, while Google permits paid placement to influence its search listings. Real research — probing everything from pamphlets to databases and interviewing assorted subjects — takes time and effort, and is perhaps the hardest thing about being a credible journalist. Get comfortable with such sites as PACER and Pipl and Portico, and learn how to conduct advanced searches on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Listen. To everything — Rare is the interview when the subject gets to the point right away. Journalists may have to sit through speeches, musings, even homespun tales before the golden detail they seek rings clear. That’s fine — just listen. Chances are that other important information can be culled from what sources are trying to say.

Develop a strategy — Don’t go blindly into a topic hoping a story will somehow magically appear in completed form on your computer or tablet screen. In advance of pursuing a story idea, figure out how best to go about that pursuit. In other words, have a plan of action before taking the first note or conducting the first interview.

Develop living, breathing sources — The trend toward news aggregation is fine for those happy with merely repeating other people’s ideas. But for the rest of us intent on generating original content, it pays to talk with reliable experts, witnesses and trained observers to discover first-hand information, no matter who they are. And after that, it pays dividends to stay in touch and keep abreast of what they’re doing, find out what they’re seeing. Who knows: these once-used sources could provide insight to other story ideas later.

Ignore titles — Along this line, avoid depending too much on people with big or impressive titles. I struggled mightily in my first weeks of reporting by thinking the titled types possessed all the salient details when it was everyone below them — administrative assistants, clerks, servants, etc. — who had this information. I realized then that executives only make decisions; subordinates are the ones who make those decisions happen, and by extension know where all the signed documents are stashed.

Be skeptical — The saying among my college professors was, “If your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.” The point: Never take others’ word as gospel, for they may have less information than you. Furthermore, there are people out there whose job it is to mislead journalists. Don’t make it easier for them to do their job by trusting what they say.

Be compassionate, to a point — Understand that everyone has an opinion and the interview may be where the subject feels a need to express it. Let people vent, if it puts them at ease, but avoid getting drawn into an agenda.

Talk it over — It helps to talk about your stories with colleagues to get their input, though the solitary nature of freelancing can make that difficult. For journalists going it alone, professional organizations such as SPJ, the Online News Association and the American Copy Editors Society offer venues for discussion, as do the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Freelance Success and Freelancers Union.

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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 

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