by Jason Fagone
From time to time I get emails from people asking me about the best way to pitch stories to magazines. As it turns out, there are already many excellent pitching guides on the Internet. For my money, the best and most practical is Jennifer Kahn’s, which I saw at Gangrey. I could quibble a little with the fact that Kahn wants the writer to bear 100 percent of the burden for a successful pitch. Ater all, you can’t eliminate all risk from a story proposal. Sometimes it’s just the job of an editor to trust that you will find the idea when you arrive on location. But look, leniency and trust are for people who already know have connections and know editors, and if you don’t know editors, or even if you do, really, you need to listen to Kahn. You can’t argue with her results. If you follow her advice, you will land stories in magazines. It’s as simple as that.
If I have anything to offer here, it’s a view from the other side of the fence. The rejection side.
I’ve been lucky enough to be published in excellent, excellent magazines. I’ve worked — and still work with — editors of rare and extraordinary talent. And believe me, I’m incredibly grateful for that.
But I’ve also been rejected from many of those same magazines, and for good reason. I’m not a natural pitcher. It’s taken me years to figure out how to do it, and I still get pitches rejected. And when I started out… let’s just say that I’m glad that my email archives from 2001 to 2005 are sitting on a Zip cartridge gathering dust at the bottom of my closet.
Here’s a pitch that I sent to three national magazines earlier this year. I hit the trifecta; the pitch was essentially rejected from all three. (I say “essentially” because sometimes when you send a bad pitch the response is less like “no, it’s not a good fit for us” than “hmmmmm, can you tell us more?” and that “hmmmmm” is basically a more polite version of an outright rejection.) See if you can tell why:
On the night of February 5, 2011, the Saturday before the Super Bowl, two masked men dressed all in black allegedly sawed through the roof of a jewelry store in Houston, Texas, called Karat 22. They cut through six inches of concrete and swiftly disabled the store’s alarm system and all security cameras. Then, over the next six hours, they cleaned the store’s display cases of jewelry containing 340 pounds of gold. The two men dragged the stolen merchandise into a waiting pickup truck and drove off in the predawn light.
The style of the heist was similar to a series of 30 “rooftop burglaries” that for nearly a decade had plagued jewelry stores in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Oklahoma, and Florida, baffling the authorities. If the rooftop burglaries were all performed by the same crew, that crew amounted to perhaps the largest jewel-theft ring in the country. Always the burglars came in through the roof, dropping directly into the stores’ vaults. They never left behind any evidence. The total amount stolen by the rooftop crew stretched into the tens of millions.
The day after the Karat 22 heist, a 47-year-old ex-con named John Dewayne O’Brien, described by one Texas newspaper as “a guy with [Ben] Affleck-like good looks and athletic build,” walked into Millennium Precious Metals in Dallas, a company that specializes in melting down and removing impurities from gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and rhodium. O’Brien was carrying two Home Depot buckets full of crudely melted-down gold bars. His muscles strained under the load. He said that he had gotten the gold from another gold dealer that was liquidating its inventory. Several days later, O’Brien returned to Millennium Precious Metals with two additional buckets full of gold.
After a seven-month investigation by the FBI, the IRS, and Houston police, the authorities arrested O’Brien, along with his younger brother, Kelvin O’Brien, who is also an ex-con, and a seven-foot-tall man with a shaved head known as “Stretch.” Stretch is cooperating with the authorities. But the O’Briens say they’re innocent. As it turns out, they are in the gold business themselves. They own several jewelry shops in Dallas and elsewhere in North Texas. In a December, in a defiant interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/12/11/3585949/suspect-in-jewel-heist-proclaims.html), John O’Brien claimed that he could produce valid business receipts for every ounce of gold that he took to Millennium the day after the Karat 22 heist. After his arrest, he was able to quickly post his $750,000 bail, and has assembled a “dream team” of criminal defense attorneys that includes a former federal prosecutor and a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Let me know if this intrigues you. I think it could be a fun heist tale that also provides a window into the weird world — the ethics, the customs — of the booming cash-for-gold industry.
So, you can see why this story grabbed me, yes?
- It’s a heist story. Heist stories generally fare pretty well in the freelance marketplace. Everyone loves a good heist story, and I had been searching for a good heist narrative for quite some time.
- It’s a GOLD heist. The phrase “buckets of gold” would probably appear in the story. Who doesn’t want to read a story about a dude (allegedly) stealing bars of gold and melting them into frickin’ buckets?
- It’s full of wacky characters who would probably talk to a reporter.
These three elements are why, the night after I spotted this story in my RSS reader and did some more digging around, I got excited enough to write up a formal pitch.
But here’s what I fucked up:
- There’s no original reporting. Let me type that again: There’s no original reporting. In other words, there’s no evidence in this pitch that I’ve made a single phone call to a single source, or done anything other than read newspaper clips. And in fact I haven’t. And didn’t. If you only quote newspaper clips you’re like the guy at the bar who casually lets it slip that he used to be the bassist for Marcy Playground. Who cares? And who is equipped to verify this claim? ANYBODY can say they used to be the bassist for Marcy Playground, just like anybody can read a newspaper story on the Internet and propose to do an extended version. Editors want to feel like you’ve already done some legwork to develop an original take. The general sense that you want to get across in your pitch is not “I’d like to do this story and if you say yes I’ll start making phone calls” but “I’m doing this story regardless of what happens and I think it would be very cool if the story, which I am doing regardless of what you tell me, appears in your magazine.”
- The final phrase. “The booming cash-for-gold industry.” It’s tossed in as an afterthought when in fact it should have been the seed of the whole pitch, the thing that anchors it to the here and now.
- There’s no deep or surprising or lived-in sense of the characters beyond their sheer wackiness. They seem like cartoons. This is lethal to a pitch. Above all, what you need to do is give your editor a sense that you’ve already worked out the story in your mind, and a story requires characters — and if it’s clear that you don’t really know the characters, then you don’t have a story, do you?
- You tell me. The three weaknesses above are only the most obvious. But I’m sure there are others.
I’m not trying to overly flagellate myself here. I think this gold-heist thing actually could have been a long-form story somewhere. I’m confident that I could have flown to Fort Worth and spent a few weeks reporting and come back with something good; if I didn’t think that, I never would have hit “send” in the first place. But I also see why three magazines found it easy to say no. And I hope you can learn as much from my negative example as you learn from the good advice of Jennifer Kahn and others.