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The Art of Pitching: How I Got Published in The Atlantic (upupgrow.com)
225 points by mike2477 11 days ago | hide | past | web | 88 comments | favorite





There's more to this story. I was the first person to be interviewed by this journalist (Michael Thomas @curious_founder). He approached me on Twitter to ask questions about digital nomad and remote work life (as I founded Nomad List and have been doing it for years).

I told him it'd be great to see more honest depictions as most articles are heavily idealized making it sound all great, when it's not necessarily. It's ups and downs (just like regular life really).

What happened next may surprise you. He wrote a hit piece on me changing my entire story that I told him over Skype into a clickbait article of how digital nomadism doesn't work and one of the main people doing it for awhile (en public) even settled down and gave up altogether.

http://qz.com/775751/digital-nomad-problems-nomadlist-and-re...

I didn't settle down. I spent the summer in Amsterdam. Cause you know, it's a nice place! But he needed to say this to make a polarized hit piece with an angle. And that piece became viral. Resulting in me having to tell people daily that I didn't and getting lots of flack. You may understand it doesn't help if your entire startup is about something and a journalist writes a viral piece how you yourself don't even believe in that anymore. I contacted the journalist and Quartz but they didn't change a thing.

It's great this meant his journalistic breakthrough but it hurt me in the process.

I'd argue journalists like this are the whole problem we have these days. The articles they write can't be balanced because they need to get pageviews. Every potential to write something interesting quickly turns into clickbait. It turned me off from being interviewed ever again. Doing my own PR by posting comment sections of Hacker News or Reddit seems like a better idea (also see how Elon Musk does exactly this, seems smarter).

So yes, I'd argue don't follow this guy's path, instead be nice, honest and write interesting articles. It might take longer but you'll have more karma and long-term more success. And maybe you can convince me to do interviews again, some day :)


Bad journalism happens everywhere!

Some years ago my father was interviewed for a local newspaper about the stadiums that Portugal had to build to host "Euro 2004", an European soccer cup. He said that he didn't like that the government decided to spend a lot of money on it, etc.

A few days later the interview came out, and it was fully reversed, saying that he agreed with the stadiums and that it was a good opportunity for the country, etc. My father is not a know figure, nothing like that, but changing the content entirely??


They write what they want to write, you're just a source. So yeah don't think they'll write your story for your benefit. You need to hire an expensive P/R agency if you want to do that. But on the other hand if you know their interests and your interests align with their, in that you can produce a click-baity idea for them then they might bite. But yeah be weary of the media. They have their own problems to solve. They don't care about you or yours.

Thank you! I learnt my lesson and lost some of my naivety.

Thanks for sharing that painful incident. Almost anyone who has been directly involved in a story ends up being unpleasantly surprised by the outcome. It is why I don't mourn the deaths of so many media outlets. They earned it.

He makes $1k everytime he hits HN's front page. This is his business model.

How exactly?


If we want to combat clickbaiting, we need to stop making websites profitable the more they're read. If we take action to install uBlock (blocking) or AdNauseam (fake clicking), we make it at least less effective. In the latter case, we turn it around.

Well, clickbait might mean "BS content" to you, but it means "stuff we want to read" for those clicking on those links.

We had clickbait titles for ages now for them to actually be a "bait" for anyone. Almost everybody knows what they'll get when they click on a listicle or a gossipy title or whatever, and they click on because they like the content.


This almost reads like 'We should encourage people to eat junk food because some people like the taste of it.'

Yes, "almost", it just lacks the "encourage" part.

So is writing 4,000 word articles that ideally help other entrepreneurs. That's a pretty important caveat to include. But hey, I'm biased :)

I had a WSJ journalist threaten me if I don't participate he'll write whatever he wants. Another NY Times journalists wrote completely made up stories and sold their version of it to the public. I really don't like the media, a bunch of bullies and slimeballs.

Any journalist worth their salt will let you record the interview as well as any communication. You could also save/forward any of theire-mails. If this happens to you make it public/talk to their editors. I'm also skeptical as WSJ and NYT are top-tier publications, and honestly most journalists are highly ethical.

> I had a WSJ journalist threaten me if I don't participate he'll write whatever he wants.

You don't abandon a story if the people you are writing about refuse to participate. There's nothing wrong with this.


It seems like you missed the tone. The OP is implying that if they didn't give a quote for the sorry, the journalist will write them saying what they want them to say.

I'm extremely suspicious of your first anecdote^, given how vital the care and feeding of sources is for someone who makes it to the WSJ, and given that you're probably not being interviewed by Woodward and Bernstein about a story of grave national importance. I suspect miscommunication is at play here, probably in both cases, and I'm confident in that assessment given the drive-by characterization that follows. Can you back up either anecdote with emails from the journalists in question? Your claims, at face value, would lead to the end of more than one career if publicly demonstrated (since you specifically named two mastheads that would care about such behavior, unlike others).

Burden of proof is on you here.

Journalists do lean on sources, but the stakes have to be pretty damned high. I'm willing to be wrong here, but there's an underlying narrative to this comment that I think is really driving it.

^ Honestly, it sounds like your clever spin on a common uncooperative source tactic: "if you don't answer my questions I won't have the context to accurately report the story and will have to write what I have," which is just a reporter being honest and giving you an opportunity. I can see that tactic being interpreted as a threat, to be fair, but it isn't.


In my experience from myself and people I know being misquoted or misrepresented, it's when the stakes are low (except maybe someone's profit motive) that things are at their worst. I haven't had any problems myself with my now-sidelined startup, but when I was a teenager I was misquoted about something as trivial as a local video store. Others I know have been misrepresented to an extreme degree on political topics by local papers.

Different issue, but related. Low impact stories are often rushed and not rigorously written. Sloppy versus actual malice, and I use that very specific legal term intentionally; reading about that and Sullivan will better illustrate the distinction I'm making between the two than I ever could.

Playing hardball with sources as that commenter describes is high stakes stuff. Sloppy stories are sloppy stories because they don't get detailed attention. Related, but different.


I agree with your bigger point, but it seems like what's at play here is the asymmetry. Low-impact to WSJ/NYT could potentially be very high-impact (positively or negatively) to the subject of the quote.

I can imagine a lot of scenarios where people feel burned.

Let's say a journalist is doing a piece on topical topic X. They get a bunch of mundane talking points from the usual sources in favor of X. Then they interview a more nuanced founder who is generally in favor of X, but offers a choice quote offering caution. When the story is constructed, the narrative sets up how X is this big trend, but the outspoken-yet-balanced founder--who happens to have a quote or two on the anti-X side of the spectrum--suddenly is found to be the opposition (despite being in the business of promoting X).

It's easy to see how the journalist feels like they got a good quote (founder of X-related company breaks news by not parroting blub-founders!), while the founder feels betrayed (95% of my discussion was blub in favor of X, and you chose my nuanced 5% to paint me as outside the mainstream!)

So from the WSJ/NYT point of view--jeez, here's another obligatory story on tech X, but at least one person gave us an edgy quote. And from the nuanced founder point of view--damn, those slimy journos took me out of context and painted me outside the X herd.


This happens really often and with much renowned publications (NYTimes, Washington Post, Guardian, La Repubblica are just a few that I've seen ppl complaining about similar behaviour) so much that it made me think that if you don't have control over the final draft, sometimes is better to avoid it all together.

So this isn't entirely true either.. Here's my take:

What I did wrong - I didn't run the quotes by Pieter before publishing. I was on a tight deadline, and I simply skipped this step. That was a mistake, but not unethical. Journalists are not required to run quotes by their sources. I only quoted from what Pieter told me. Those who want to verify can hear the whole interview here -- https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8k8VS_zkdqYVGx3U01JU0xaYXc...

- I simplified Pieter's story to fit the narrative I thought I saw. I was blinded by what I thought sounded like a good story. So when Pieter said he had stopped traveling temporarily, I simplified that to "He stopped being a nomad." While he had stopped traveling when I spoke with him (he was in Holland when I interviewed him), he didn't intend to stop traveling forever. When Pieter reached out (and called me lots of pretty harsh names), I emailed the editor and we issued a revision. You can see this in the story.

What I didn't do wrong - For the last couple months Pieter has tried to tell everyone that will listen on Twitter what a shitty person I am. He's called me harsh names. He's questioned my ethics. And he himself has simplified a story: that I'm a clickbait seeking journalist with no experience and no morales. This has obviously been pretty hurtful. I've gone to sleep shaking with anger and sadness (partly because I know I made mistakes in my first-ever published story and I'm insecure about that, and partly because reading Reddit threads where people call you a fucking idiot just hurts). I don't believe I was unethical in any of this. As I mentioned, I used direct quotes and told the story that I heard over Skype.

- Pieter implied in this comment that I didn't write the truth and that I am embody what is wrong with journalism today. He compared my story to "fake news." I think this is a stretch. Again, I could have written a more comprehensive story if I had more than 800 words and 48 hours. But I don't think any of this can be compared to "fake news." My intent wasn't malicious, and I sought to tell the right story. None of what I wrote was untrue. Pieter just felt that it wasn't the entire story. This is common with profiles.

- Pieter also mentioned that I did this for "clicks" but this story was written at a time when I was taking time away from marketing and business. I had no vested interest in the page views my story on Quartz got. I don't even know how many it has. Again, I think this is an oversimplification of a complex human being.

I've tried to reach out to Pieter before, but he blocked me on Twitter. So because I know you are reading this here's my message: "Shoot me an email (mthomas dot denver at gmail) if you want to chat. I feel bad about the mistakes I made. But I don't want you always lurking over my shoulder ready to tell the Internet what a shitty person I am. I made mistakes that anyone new to a field could make. I had no malicious intent, and tried to correct the story when you asked. Please stop writing mean things about me and making me feel bad. I'm a human being with feelings and emotions."

Over and out.


As a trained writer but not a journalist, I feel there are two noteworthy points to consider in this rebuttal.

The first is what set me off so terribly at Avi Selk, formerly of the Dallas Morning News, and now at the Washington Post, based on his framing of the Ahmed Mohamed "Clock Boy" story at first [1]. Here's the admission:

>I simplified Pieter's story to fit the narrative I thought I saw. I was blinded by what I thought sounded like a good story.

...which is an admission I think is about on par with Stephen Glass-level of integrity, and should be a footer on any resume sent out to potential editors in the future, enjoined with the second:

>Pieter implied in this comment that I didn't write the truth and that I am embody what is wrong with journalism today. He compared my story to "fake news." I think this is a stretch.

...which basically shows there is an integral lack of self-critical thinking, because the first quote is essentially an admission that the second quote can't bear to live with.

Again, I look at these situations as an outsider; I am grateful to not be involved in the business of "reporting" or "journalism" because in modern times I think they have very little inherent credibility prima face. Major news trends and outlets are running with emotionally charged, "I feel this is the story" which isn't journalism. I know when I'm writing an emotionally based hypothesis and try to frame it as such - unfounded speculation, idle musings...

This back and forth is unfortunate but enlightening in how there are a whole lot more details to a story than what one person believes is "the right story" by way of writing. I suppose that's why "marketing" and "journalism" are kind of sort of screwing each other without second thought.

[1] https://artplusmarketing.com/the-clock-boy-critical-thinking...


I disagree pretty strongly with your first point. For starters, Stephen Glass wrote literal fiction; Michael Thomas is, at worst guilty of misrepresenting an otherwise true real-life situation. Glass is among the most notorious fabricators of all time -- we're going to start invoking comparisons to him when something doesn't line up exactly like we think it should? (edit: To clarify, I'm not saying this was a good idea, or an accurate story. But Stephen Glass was guilty of malpractice of the first order.)

I may be off-base, but I think it also seems like you're objecting to the idea that the reporter was trying to fill out a narrative in his story. Even (especially?) good journalists look for the "bigger picture" -- otherwise they're just asking people questions and typing their answers. A narrative is what we expect from journalism. Because he changed pieces of Pieter's story to "fit," then yeah, that's a mess, but I'd expect tech people especially would be accepting of the idea that sometimes you have to leave out some of the details of something complicated.


The end game of the Glass narrative is the most shocking but it's part of a larger slope of decisions and methods which culminated in total fabrication. A downfall of narrative integrity has to start somewhere, and usually it's not whole-cloth deception. A little here, a little there, and when the internal compass starts to re-align with the bearing, then it takes an outsider to notice the context.

Filling out a narrative to match a story is very similar to pursuing a hypothesis in bench science: If the material doesn't actually support the perspective, then the duty of the reporter - writer or scientist - is to construct a piece which accommodates the genesis, development, revision, and conclusion of a story. One that can be reproduced. If one of the main subjects of a piece comes out guns blazing decrying the use of their Good Faith contributions, then those are genuine compiler errors. Something doesn't add up. If the code - or the composition - can't pass muster then there are inherent flaws.

I will disclose that my view of Journalism is tainted by the Best and Worst practitioners of the craft: Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Hunter S. Thompson. I'm no stranger to contortions and line-blurring of Journalism and Literary License, of which this situation met almost none of my internal checklist criteria. If anything I ground my perspectives in the antagonistic yet passionate approach of Samuel Johnson when it comes to criticism...homeboy had the salt to even call out his benefactor in his Dictionary...


In this case, Sabrina Erdely is the much more appropriate comparison over Glass.

Off-topic: I hadn't heard of Stephen Glass' [1] exploits, so I looked them up.

> After journalism, Glass earned a law degree, magna cum laude,[citation needed] at Georgetown University Law Center. He then passed the New York State bar examination in 2000, but the Committee of Bar Examiners refused to certify him on its moral fitness test, citing ethics concerns related to his plagiarism.[3] He later abandoned his efforts to be admitted to the bar in New York.[22]

Wow, it never occurred to him before enrolling and shelling out tens of thousands of dollars that he might not get to practice? Sure, most law school grads don't become attorneys but based on his subsequent court battles it seems like he wanted to.

Also: kinda funny that someone included "magna cum laude" in his wikipedia article, but a wikipedia editor challenged that claim requires evidence, and it's not satisfied. Then again, would we believe it if he published a photograph of his degree?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Glass


If you thought that was a trip, go take a look at Andy Fastow of Enron infamy. He was the compelling force that got me to write a screenplay adaptation of a couple short stories I'd put together over the years. It's my entry to the 2017 Nicholl Fellowship Screenwriting competition:

https://www.scriptrevolution.com/scripts/do-unto-others

Part of Andy Fastow's image rehab was, of all things, talking ethics.

http://www.tuck.dartmouth.edu/news/articles/andrew-fastow-fo...


> Then again, would we believe it if he published a photograph of his degree?

I don't think that's a valid wikipedia citation. From Wikipedia's Verifiability page [1]:

> Base articles on reliable, third-party, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy. Source material must have been published, the definition of which for our purposes is "made available to the public in some form".

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Verifiability#What_c...


Slightly surprised that you weren't willing to include the criticism (and your side) in a 'How I Got Published In The Atlantic' article. Instead you chose to tell the heroic story of someone who hunkered down for a couple of months and cracked the code.

The mistakes you made may seem trivial - but they aren't dissimilar to the ones that brought down the careers of Jonah Lehrer and Johann Hari.

Only mentioning it now when challenged damages the credibility of your OP (which is a shame, as it's well written.)


As someone who talks too much though isn't as successful as you, thank you for responding to that in a public forum. It is good to see both sides, hope you guys work something out.

That being said, if he's unhappy with the way you framed the story and you understand that, isn't it inappropriate to continue using the digital nomad story in ongoing pitches (this one included)? It's not obvious you aren't echoing the same message that he disagrees with. Just to reiterate, this is straight from the article:

"Did you hear that Levels is settling down in Amsterdam? Apparently the father of digital nomadism is no longer a nomad."

You are still benefiting off of his story. Isn't it more productive to not use that example anymore? Here he is saying "I didn't settle down", and without any context (this forum) a reading of your article today gives the impression he has. It's inclusion in the story is not dishonest or obvious wrong, but it doesn't seem right either.


How would you feel if someone wrote a story about you saying that you were done with writing, because it's not all it's cracked up to be? And then every time you made a pitch, the editor replied back saying "I thought you had stopped writing?" Or maybe they didn't write back at all because they found this article and suspected you were someone wrestling with chronic burnout?

I would feel more sympathetic if you would show that you understand and appreciate how your actions affected him.


Except he isn't. He's hawking this piece on Twitter with gems like 'as a fellow writer...'

Your attempt at defending yourself actually makes you look much worse. Time to put your foot in your mouth and do some self reflection.

I too enjoyed your blog post and came back feeling happy for you. I appreciated what you went through and shared. Then seeing Pieter's comment totally turned everything upside down for me. I feel sorry for Pieter and for you. (A different kind of sorry, though).

> I had no vested interest in the page views my story on Quartz got.

I think that's a bit disingenuous. As a writer, if your story is successful and generate lots of views, this is definitely a strong factor in your favour. You're much more likely to benefit from a popular story. If you truly didn't care, then you can post on your own blog (even then I'd argue you care how successful it is).


Thanks for posting. You have confirmed Pieter's version of events: you were more interested in a provocative angle than you were in representing facts accurately.

I read your how-to article, and enjoyed your writing. And I came away with the impression that Pieter (who I had never heard of before) had chosen to settle down in Amsterdam, as in buying a house or somesuch. I wasn't interested enough in digital nomadism to go and read the article about him, but I thought I might read it over the weekend.

then I come here and discover that Pieter was just spending a few months in Amsterdam (and as he said, why wouldn't you if you had the opportunity), followed by your side of the story, which by now is taking on a life of its own, perhaps to the be the subject of its own article one day.

Look Mike, you may have made a rookie mistake (or several of them) on your first story, but by the time you wrote this how-to guide you were aware of both the errors and the fact that the errors seriously pissed off the subject of the article and his fans. And yet here you are, still telling the story about about how you got your ass in gear, pitched a story about a digital nomad who settled down, and mention that in the process of writing it you learned additional detail. I would never have guessed form this that you put your foot in it and it resulted in some negative publicity for both your subject and your publisher.

That's not cool. While most of the facts in the story are true, your idea that they can be subordinated to support the narrative that inspired you is bullshit, in the technical sense of a disregard for the factual rather than a deliberate untruth. If you feel the facts should fict the narrative then don't call yourself a journalist. Write fiction whether wholly invented or dramatized versions of real events, or advertorials, or whatever. In journalism facts have to be subordinate to narrative even if that means your story hook breaks.

Now, I feel an literary theory argument coming back towards saying that all journalism is inherently subjective and contains narratives, but you're not writing for an audience of ironically detached English majors who want a nice think piece with some amusing stylistic flourishes, you're writing for a general audience whose primary interest in your article is the actual subject matter. Your job as a writer here is to adapt everything to the truth of your subject. 'Globetrotter takes a breather' isn't quite as compelling a hook as 'nomad settles down' but it's up to you to mine those more prosaic facts for whatever gems of human interest gleam therein.

And please don't use the 'tight deadline' excuse. It was your first story, yes? So you either leave yourself some wiggle room or be extra extra careful to represent your subject accurately. While your feelings and emotions have been hurt by Pieter haunting you on the net, how much worse do you think he felt to see an inaccurate portrayal of himself in a prestigious nationally read magazine, which readers default to taking at face value? I'm going to give it to you straight: he's haunting you because you fucked up, you're compounding your fuckup by glossing over it in your personal marketing, and you're compounding it again by relitigating the issue in public. Everyone makes mistakes, but how you handle them is what makes you a professional as opposed to a hack.

When you fuck up at work, especially if you're freelance, you need to take the same approach you would with a family member or spouse: own it, apologize, and then shut up. It's possible that nobody has told you this, and you're also surrounded by cultural signifiers of people who built whole careers (and possibly now administrations) on peddling bullshit, but I'm pretty sure that you didn't agonize for years over your desire to be a writer so that you could peddle a slightly different flavor of bullshit, did you? Now that you've figured out how everyone else sells stories, you need to find a different and better way to do that. There are lots of techniques that work in terms of getting readers' attention, but ultimately end up shortchanging them - bathos, hyperbole, burying the lede, and so on. It's true, you need a hook and you need to bait it with something so readers will bite and you can get paid. But the day taht the fish start to think your bait always smells a bit off, it's over.


> And please don't use the 'tight deadline' excuse. It was your first story, yes? So you either leave yourself some wiggle room or be extra extra careful to represent your subject accurately. While your feelings and emotions have been hurt by Pieter haunting you on the net, how much worse do you think he felt to see an inaccurate portrayal of himself in a prestigious nationally read magazine, which readers default to taking at face value?

Great point, among many. If I'm reading both the rebuttal and rebuttal-rebuttal correctly, there didn't seem to be a need to skew the narrative in the way that Pieter alleges. It was an interesting story already, and Pieter himself says he was open to talking about the complexities of his own life and career. It was already compelling that he could admit that there were struggles and tradeoffs; knowing that he quit doesn't add much, nevermind that it appears to not be the truth.


Standing [slow clap] ovation! Especially that last paragraph!

Maybe you should be writing for the Atlantic.


OP needs to frame this and hang it on his wall for the next few months. This is the prescription and medicine that he needs.

You should look at the definition of "nomad". Stopping somewhere temporarily is pretty fundamental.

>I didn't run the quotes by Pieter before publishing. I was on a tight deadline, and I simply skipped this step. That was a mistake, but not unethical. Journalists are not required to run quotes by their sources. I only quoted from what Pieter told me.

Isn't that called quoting out of context?


No, quoting out of context is when you omit parts to make a quote show someone saying something with different meaning than what he originally said.

The journalist here may have or may haven't done that, but not because he haven't run the quote by the source. You can quote perfectly in context without running the quote by the source.


>quoting out of context is when you omit parts to make a quote show someone saying something with different meaning than what he originally said.

Isn't that exactly what happened?

>The journalist here may have or may haven't done that, but not because he haven't run the quote by the source.

Huh? Not?

>You can quote perfectly in context without running the quote by the source.

You can, but that's not what happened, is it?


No, taking a quote of context is not the same as not running a quote with the source prior to publication. The former is unethical, the second is an optional practice.

I dont't run quotes by sources when I know that I have recorded it correctly and when I feel certain of the speaker's intent and context.

Most photojournalists don't let the subjects see the photos prior to publication. Not just in the past days of film, when it would have been logistically difficult, but even today with digital cameras. Most subjects have strong opinions about what photos capture them nicely. But photographers generally believe that photos capture truth, at least in a limited technical sense.

edit: It's worth throwing in a hypothetical cases based on real quotes. Pretend these happened in a private interview that you have taped:

- Case 1: "Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?" [0]

If you were not a journalist sympathetic to President Bush, you would print this quote ad verbatim (minus the stutter before "is"), because it fits a narrative that Bush is a doofus, even when speaking about our children's education. I think if you ran this by him, Bush would politely request that "is" be changed to "are". But including the quote verbatim isn't a distortion of the truth, it's literally what's on tape.

- Case 2: "It depends on what the meaning of is is" [1]

Here's a case where a neutral reporter might ask for clarification, because the reporter is genuinely confused. However, I think most reporters would run with this, because even in a much longer interview/deposition, this quote seems to succinctly sum up Clinton's general shady evasiveness. Not sure what President Clinton would ask for here, he might have found it amusing to add to his Slick Willy persona.

- Case 3: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know." [2]

I personally think that this is a brilliant quote, on its immediate face. But it's such a complicated phrase that it's possible that maybe Secretary Rumsfeld messed up a syllable in such a way that totally changed the meaning. It does him nor the reader no good to leave in what was literally said if it doesn't represent Rumsfeld's mindset, unless the story is specifically about Rumsfeld's tongue twisters, and this is an example of how he tripped up.

So if you have a tape of the person speaking, and you are certain what they said, literally, and what they meant in context, what exactly is the point of reading the quote to them pre-publication, except to bring clarity in the cases where you are unsure? And what threshold of doubt does it become unethical not to offer a reading to the interview subject? It's not a clear decision, thus, why it's an optional practice left to the discretion of the reporter and circumstances.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ej7ZEnjSeA

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4XT-l-_3y0

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiPe1OiKQuk


I think the point is that the snippet you originally quoted isn't a description of quoting out of context (even though the article being discussed in this thread does seem to be an example of it).

> That was a mistake, but not unethical.

No one cares. If you fail to demonstrate professional ethics, it doesn't matter whether it's because you are unprofessional or unethical.


You are misinterpreting what he said and then saying no one cares about it, this makes no sense. He's not saying he was unethical by accident, he's rightly asserting that reporters have no obligation to make sure sources approve of the quotes being attributed to them. Sources don't get to copy-edit stories, especially ones they're a part of.

> I simplified Pieter's story to fit the narrative I thought I saw. I was blinded by what I thought sounded like a good story. So when Pieter said he had stopped traveling temporarily, I simplified that to "He stopped being a nomad."

These are the key three sentences which betray the whole ballgame.

He bloody said temporarily. You damn near libeled the subject by changing that to your narrative. One is a temporary decision and the other is a complete lifestyle change which, oh, by the way, he has built his entire life and brand around. His alleged lifestyle change was the whole basis of your story. I'm amazed Quartz didn't retract you. This seems open-and-shut retract and rereport to me, but then again, I'm not editing Quartz and I don't have all the information.

Why are you able to feel that you missed something now? Why did you miss this during your reporting? Did you not ask the right questions? Did you pull a Erdely and write TO a desired narrative with the thinnest of support? Every answer arrives at you and is troubling, especially that you're so willing to engage the subject in public to the extent that he blocked you. You're arguing with a subject and trying to skirt his blocks in a public forum. Step back for a second and think about that; your value as a journalist is solely what information you can develop from your sources, and why would anybody source for you after this?

The tone of your self-promotion itself already gave me pause that you are pursuing journalism for the wrong reason. You have a worrying penchant for muddying marketing and journalism, and that your first hero piece was taken as a hit by the subject only reinforces that.

I don't know if I'd compare you to Glass yet, but my Erdely bells are ringing while reading all sides. There's nothing wrong with being a marketer, which seems to be your skill set and that's fine. Be very, very, very cautious translating that to journalism, though, especially since you're a few bylines in, ostensibly without training, and explaining journalism in the comments here. And blaming deadlines for grievous journalistic missteps. And claiming this sort of reaction from a subject is common for profiles. All of this greatly concerns me.

> Please stop writing mean things about me and making me feel bad.

The irony.

Also, if one subject of one story got under your skin as far as you have claimed, abort journalism as a vocation immediately. You are going to destroy yourself when the stories get bigger and controversial. Your first death threat is waiting for you in the future, so either steel yourself to the opinion of others or accept that you're not cut out for it. Imagine if you had recently "gone pro" and were assigned to the Trump campaign.

(Former short-lived investigative journalist. I was sent a link to this comment section by a metro editor with some unkind commentary added, by the way, so your self-promotion might be slightly backfiring.)


Just finished listening to that interview. Drama aside, that was a great story.

...didn't see that coming.

Don't take my comment here as a rebuttal to the facts in your specific case, but I want to point out that the core concept of what journalists do is to filter and summarize. A journalist will never tell the whole story because that is not their job. In a good story, I see my published-output to total-reportage ratio to be about 5% or less, i.e. very little of what I've researched and reported makes it into a published piece. In a typical hour-long interview, only maybe a few minutes of what was actually said may be represented. But ostensibly, that's because the other 55 minutes helped inform me what the relevant 5 minutes are.

That said, even in positive stories, sources will call me back and express surprise/disappointment that, for how long I talked to them, they were just a single paragraph in my bigger story. I see it similar to the surprise people have when they hear how a good programmer, ideally, puts out an average of a few lines of code a day. The work is not just about what you physically put out, but what you leave out.

Tangentially, it's worth noting that some stories may change midway when more facts are known, and the interview subject doesn't realize that the direction of the story changes. Once I was asked to write a routine profile of a well-known business owner. I stopped by his office and had a very nice interview with him. Then as part of my regular routine, I did a quick check of court records to see if his or his company's name showed up. And it turned out there was a recent case filed by an employee making serious allegations of mistreatment and sexual discrimination. So I called the CEO again and asked him to comment on that, and he expressed displeasure that, rather than telling the story of how great his company was, I chose to focus on cheap linkbaity sleazy distortions.

If you hear his side of the story, it's going to sound like I betrayed him to follow my own SJW-narrative to get clicks. That was not the case at all -- I was just a newbie and had no problem writing a happy story. If I had chosen to completely ignore the complicated, negative facts, then it's fair to argue that I was still pursuing a "narrative", one in which everything was going hunky-dory with the company, rather than life being complicated and messy.

That said, there are what I consider to be sketchy practices when it comes filtering: when the reporter deliberately misleads you into why they're interviewing you, e.g. telling you they want to do a profile about your awesome volunteer work when really, the story is about you being accused of crimes. And also, choosing to quote you out of context, or using the "sexiest" quote just because it's sexy-sounding, not because it represents your story well at all.

Again, not a commentary on your specific case. Just more of a reaction to others who think it's shady when journalists don't tell the "whole story". Journalists never tell the whole story. That's an impossible feat, even if it were desirable.


This is a great article if somebody has unlimited resources to pay rent, buy food, and focus on obtaining a basically temporal literary achievement; however, it offers no practical utility with respect to actually getting paid to write and earn a living by way of the craft, so...uhh...if you need a textbook fluff piece, here ya go.

Agree. The article had good points with the part about pitching especially helpful. I do get too that the focus of this piece is more on how to get into these publications. I do wish though that the author spoke a bit more on how he survived as a freelance writer.

If you're a good enough writer with good ideas and you keep pitching persistently, you'll get traction soon enough. It's whether or not you're able to survive the unstable early goings that's the issue.

From my experience, if you're jumping into freelance writing without any savings (and starting from scratch with no connections with editors, no previous published pieces, etc.), it's hard to survive. Pitches take time (some editors might take months to reply). Writing/research takes time (you're essentially unpaid until your piece gets published). Even harder is the invoicing. You have to hound some publications to pay you (some take 45+ days to pay after your piece gets published). You really have to plan your pipeline well. When I tried doing it full-time for a bit, I planned ahead in terms of income (i.e. income from this month came from all the work I did in November). The moment you slow down or you stop pitching though, you know it's going to affect you in two months time.

Getting through the gates is tough but the hardest part is trying to find sustainable work that can pay your bills month to month. If you can develop relationships with editors (who consistently greenlight your pieces or give you regular assignments), that helps a lot. But, if you're starting out without any of that, the constant grind to find something regularly is stressful.

I still do it because I love it but I don't do it full-time anymore because I need to pay my bills.


Have you taken a look at his main site? He's selling a course on growth marketing.

I'm pretty sure being a freelancer journalist is not his main gig. Rather, this article was supposed to demonstrate one of the ways he was able to 'growth hack' his way into publications.


Nope, I didn't see the rest of his site until after I commented. Make sense under that lens, getting published in those places do help a lot reputation-wise.

Ha! 45 days is on the good side these days.

Although the author isn't struggling to make ends meet and land a paying writing gig, his advice is directly applicable to someone who is:

1. Check out Open Notebook - it really helped me see what my pitches were missing

2. A good pitch must have unique angle, be good storytelling in it's own right, answer 'so what' has lead to 'a ha...that explains why...'

3. You need to have lots of stories to pitch, be persistent and have a daily routine. Keeping track of each pitch in a spreadsheet is great for motivation.

To me it seems these are specific, not-obvious pieces of advice grounded in personal experience. Not at all fluff piece.


You mean life is keeping you from doing what you really want to do? I think most people feel that way.

This is all excellent advice. I especially love that the OP uses a spreadsheet to systematically track his pitches and their status. I think using a spreadsheet for such structured list keeping is the best way to get comfortable with spreadsheets (if you're "just" a writer) while being the optimal way to improve your own work and note-taking. I do it for public records requests and searching for Craigslist apartments.

I feel like this is such a basic skill that I'm surprised this is even a discussion.

Sadly it isn't. People who don't use spreadsheets see spreadsheets as some bean-counter tool, i.e. working purely with numbers and calculations. They don't see the immense value of structuring your notes, at least compared to just dumping them free form into a Word document.

Hey, thanks so much for saying this. It means a lot :)

I agree that spreadsheets are an awesome way to organize life. I've become obsessed with Google Sheets. This year I learned the power of all the plugins. For example, I built a stock tracker that pulls live data from Google Finance (with no programming background). I also built a custom dashboard for my business to track revenue. It worked better than anything else up to $30k / mo in revenue.

Some great resources on this Zapier post -- https://zapier.com/learn/google-sheets/best-google-sheets-ad...


Was just going to edit my own comment but since you've shown up with a reply; maybe I'm missing something obvious, but I couldn't find your name anywhere on the page. Not as a byline or at the footer. Might be worth adding it as not everyone will come through your front page. It'd also be helpful to see links to your published stories :)

Ah that's a great point, haha. Sometimes I forget to do the most obvious things :)

I linked to them, but right now my CMS isn't underlining links (WTF, right?)


In the meantime, here's The Atlantic and Quartz story. Two more FastCompany stories on the way :)

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/spacex...

https://qz.com/775751/digital-nomad-problems-nomadlist-and-r...


Very good article. Just after the MacGregor joke, Andrew Stanton says "storytelling is joke telling, it's knowing your punchline". This is illuminating. It's something we probably do instinctively but it helps a lot thinking about it voluntarily.

Zinsser's "On Writing Well" is fantastic, esp. parts 1 & 2 and "The Travel Article" which is a story by itself... I so much love this book!

What's maybe missing from your article is who do you pitch to? How do you find emails of editors and how do you get them to open your message when you're starting out and nobody knows your name?


It's so fascinating to me when people ask how to find editors. Journalists are notoriously addicted to Twitter. Not only are they very discoverable by doing a search for their name/job title with "+ Twitter", many of them are also unable to not reflexively reply to someone who follows them on Twitter. Or even if you don't follow them -- just read Glenn Greenwald's feed and look at how many randoms manage to get his attention.

That said, it's hard to do a pitch via Twitter. I'm just saying use Twitter as a way of getting acquainted. And honestly, reading someone's Twitter feed helps you understand a bit about their personality and where they are coming from, which again, is helpful knowledge in any cold call situation.


Hey, thanks so much for this feedback. I really appreciate it :)

You're right, I definitely missed some important stuff. I sorta took for granted the fact that emailing people has always been second nature for me. Will do a follow up on this since it's just as important.


Great article, but I'm wondering if it isn't missing the most important piece of information - how did you track down the editors, and their email addresses? Or is this information that can be gleaned from twitter?

Thanks :)

You're totally right. I forgot one of the most essential parts of the process which is tracking down the right editor.

The short version is this: find the most relevant publication, then search for the most relevant section (politics, business, etc). Then look on their masthead (you can google {publication} masthead) to find this for every magazine. There you'll find the editor of the section you want to write for. Then you can do a quick google search on them to find their Twitter or email.

In terms of process I usually tweet them first and ask what the best way to send a pitch is. They'll usually include their email. Then I send an email with subject line "re: twitter" (that gets opened everytime). In that email I include my pitch.

More in-depth story on this to come. Appreciate the idea!


> (that gets opened everytime)

If I were an editor, I would simply blackhole all personal mails which include tracking pixels.


I've thrown people in the spam filter for a lot less. "re: twitter" as a subject line is even more objectionable to my personal tastes -- but I dislike journalists who are intentionally trying to mislead their audience, even in an email subject.

Confused as to why there is any objection to this. He stated that it'll typically get a reply that includes their email, and he is simply creating context within the subject line – this advantageous for the receiver.

If it were me (and I had indeed shared my email to the person reaching out on Twitter) I'd appreciate the reminder of how/why they are reaching out on email.


do you publicly tweet them or send a direct private twitter message?

Like the article. Hey, an informative article, whoa...

Re the controversy over article one, it is astonishing what shitty reporters we humans are, almost to a person. Just astonishing. I don't exclude myself. Everyone thinks they're a great, accurate reporter so they think reporting well must be pretty easy. Wrong on both counts.


Hey, I remember reading that Atlantic article and being curious to see other things you'd written! Pity you don't have an easy-to-Google name...

A question regarding the spreadsheet: have you found it better to just list every pitch you do in order, even if it's the same story? What I do is have publications as columns and stories as rows, so I can easily keep track of where I have or haven't submitted something, but I'm curious if you see an advantage to the straight list.


That makes my day to hear that! And you're telling me -- I'll never be #1 on Google.. :(

In a thread above I listed the story I wrote for Quartz. I used to write on these blogs too:

http://www.michaelthomasblog.com/ -- my angsty young person writing, and fiction

http://www.getsimpledata.com/blog/ -- my last company

http://www.insatiablefox.com/ -- more journalist writing

I'm working on publishing in one place going forward for obvious reasons haha :)

To answer your question, I found that helpful in organizing pitches by day. But I agree it can be helpful to organize by publication. I guess a perfect tracker would be easily sortable and have numbering to tell how many times you've pitched a publication.

Appreciate the kind words and question!


Storytelling is so critically important for everything in business and life. If you have new ideas or want to create something new you need to be able to captivate the audience with a good story.

You could equally apply this framework to pitching investors, job prospects, customers etc...


That's a great point! I'm really glad you mentioned it. My hope was that this could be as useful to someone pitching their company is it is to aspiring writers.

Great advice for a new marketing director who hasn't had to deal with PR before!

Hey thanks friend!

At the bottom there's an email link to get access to all the pitches. Why not remove the friction and just post some links?

how were you getting the email address to write into? just going through the normal contact us general inbox of the publication or finding one person there and always pitching a specific person?

Hey! This is a great question and one raised by others. I plan to write more on this (totally spaced it on this article somehow).

If you CTRL + F search "The short version" you'll see the short version of my answer to this question. More to come!


This is a brilliant article. It concerns with Magazine publishing but I can guess that the principles apply everywhere. I read the author's pitches with a mind of an editor constantly thinking how would I ever possibly pass it?

The surprising thing about pitching / selling is how oversold is the "magical" knack — of the business guy who knows how to woo. But it's only a matter of understanding that people are willing to listen to you as long as you aren't wasting their time. Editors are more than eager to publish an excellent story, but a pitch like "I want to write about AI" won't cut it.

I have a small blog[1] on which I occasionally write stuff. My process has always been to write a small post, publish, post on HN and disappear with disappointment when they don't catch attention. I think I understand it better now that it's not only a matter of writing novel ideas, but also catching the attention from the first headline, and the first paragraph. In our minds we think of our writing / pitch as a whole, but, for the reader, it's a progressively building story.

[1]: https://shubhamjain.co/


But it's only a matter of understanding that people are willing to listen to you as long as you aren't wasting their time.

No, no: people are willing to listen to you as long as they think you aren't wasting their time. Whether you are actually wasting their time doesn't matter. What this means is there are two ways to catch people's attention: bullshit and say what they want to hear, or actually say something meaningful. The first is exceptionally easy, the latter not as much.

Remember, the person who's job is to sell something is probably selling you something. There's a pretty good chance that what they are selling you is not as valuable as they say it is. This guy is doing an exceptional job selling, yes, but whether he's wasting your time...? Based on the first post in this thread, who knows. That's why these narratives are often misleading and self-serving, intentionally or not.

He's selling right now. You bought it. What's the real value?




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