There’s a book on my shelf called “An atlas of preimplantation genetic diagnosis.” One of its authors gave it to me years ago, when I interviewed him for a story for the Chicago Tribune, where I was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow. But I never wrote that story. By the end of the fellowship, I had done more than a dozen interviews, but never organized the material to write it up.
Still, the story, and the people I had interviewed for it, stayed in the back of my mind. So, I took notice when one of the sources, John Ioannidis, published a now-famous essay in 2005 in the journal PLoS Medicine called “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” In it, Ioannidis presented mostly theoretical arguments suggesting that probably more than half of all research studies, including epidemiological studies, are false.
I pitched it as a news story to the magazine where I was interning, but the editors weren’t interested. Perhaps that’s understandable: The study was quite abstract and even contained mathematical formulas. And who would have thought that Ioannidis’ article would become one of the most viewed articles in PLoS Medicine? At the time, his criticism seemed a bit strong.
But I kept thinking that Ioannidis had hit on an important issue and decided to attend an NIH workshop that discussed the weaknesses of epidemiological studies in medical research. It put Ioannidis’ research in context and let me talk to experts who shared his views on epidemiological research. A few months later, I attended a session on epidemiological studies at the AAAS meeting, which featured Ioannidis and other experts.
Finally, I felt I had enough material to pitch a story on the limitations of epidemiological studies to the Los Angeles Times. It became one of the most-emailed stories and even made it into the 2008 Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. After some additional reporting, I also published the story in the Swiss weekly national newspaper SonntagsZeitung.
Don’t give up when your pitch is rejected. Good story ideas take time to mature.
The profile that turned into a feature
Her tale began in 2011, when she met with an editor at Minnesota Monthly to pitch a profile of a local farmer who had been busted for selling raw milk, which is illegal in Minnesota. Emily had always wanted to write about milk, and thought the farmer might be an interesting person to cover. “It sounded like he was a really strong character,” she says.
The editor agreed: He assigned a 3,000-word profile. But, halfway into the reporting, he killed the story, because another local magazine—the only direct competitor—had just covered the farmer.
But at this point, Emily was too immersed to give up. “I thought this is a bigger story,” she says. “Similar things were going on in a lot of other states.” What’s more, she had enough material to write a thoroughly reported pitch that would outshine all her past pitches. She emphasized the story’s national angle and pitched it to a number of national magazines from The New Yorker to The Atlantic to Mother Jones.
They all rejected it: One editor said they had run too many food features; others told her they’d just published stories about breast feeding or the underground food movement. “[This] went on and on and on for months,” Emily remembers. “I went through so many cycles of being totally depressed and giving up to being determined and sending it back out.”
She let the story rest for while, until she heard about a new Minnesota-based magazine called thirty two. This time, the editor not only wanted the story, but was also willing to give Emily the space she needed.
Although it didn’t pay much, Emily decided to do it. “I wanted to write the story,” she says. “Having a long story published in a way I was happy with was going to be part of the payment for me.” In January 2013, the story finally appeared, at 6,000 words—twice as long as the profile killed almost two years earlier.
The extra time allowed Emily to realize how extensive the raw milk movement really was, and to tell the story from an angle that hadn’t really been told before: What drove these people to continue to break the laws for the sake of milk? “As time went on, I figured out who the characters were and what their conflicts were,” she says.
A killed book review becomes an essay
Emma Marris (bio) also revived a killed story. A magazine killed a review of a book, whose author suggested hunting as a good way to deal with the population growth of wild animals like turkey and deer on the east coast, given that wolves don’t exist anymore. He also argued that it’s hypocritical for liberals to say that deer and other wild animals should be protected but then be opposed to hunting.
Emma knew liberals who were into hunting, so she pitched the story to Slate as an essay about the book and why liberals should embrace hunting. “I gave it the catchy title ‘the hipster hunters,’” she says. When the piece appeared, she remembers, it “turned out to be one of the most widely read things I have ever written. It just got a gazillion ‘likes’ on Facebook.”
To Emma, the lesson is clear: “If you get something killed and it’s not because it’s lousy, then you’d be a fool not to try to sell it somewhere else, because it really only takes ten minutes to write a pitch.”
Did you have a pitch rejected or a story killed but just couldn’t let it go? What happened? Let us know in the comments!
Photo credit: Andreas von Bubnoff.