Crafting the “Reactive Story” — Reworking News Stories into Web Features

by Steven Threndyle

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 10.14.07 AMIf you’re as ADD as most writers I know, you probably spend a bit of your day on social media and get a significant amount of your news from what your friends are posting or tweeting. And, if you’re in story-hunting mode, (and you should always be in story hunting mode), you might think of a fresh angle and, even better, have the perfect editor to pitch it to.

From to vox to Slate to Salon, there are a lot of on-line outlets to hit up and, unlike magazines, they’re hungry for content. Here’s an example of a story I sold to Vice.

In early June, rock climber Alex Honnold successfully free climbed (without ropes, or any safety protection) the massive rock wall called El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He got more than fifteen minutes of fame, in fact, click-bait stories about the crazy solo climber were instantly posted and reposted.

Rule #1: You MUST act fast. Honnold’s feat took place on a Saturday and most editors wouldn’t be at their desk until Monday, and with luck, you might get a story in by Wednesday or Thursday.

Rule #2: You must have a fresh angle: I initially thought, “fear.” For a mainstream audience, this story is about dealing with the fact that one false move will have you hurtling towards certain death. Being afraid of heights is a human survival instinct. I thought about comparing Honnold’s feat not to other rock climbers, but to tightrope walkers or Cirque du Soleil performers. Don’t overthink this part of it; jot down three reasons why the reader should care.

You might have enough content to pitch/write more than one or two stories; making your spadework worthwhile. Also: “think evergreen;” while the event you are writing about is likely over in the next 24 hour news cycle, you might have some interviews left over for another story.

Rule #3: That angle must align with your target outlet. For this story, I adopted the Three Pitch Rule, that is, I came up with three possible websites (magazines are too slow) that are similar enough in subject matter that I don’t have to change the pitch much. Ideally; you want a respected, reputable outlet and an editor with a light touch.

As for pay? Well, this is the internet, and the new reality. I usually have three editors in mind to pitch the story to, and those media outlets are closely aligned so that I don’t have to change that much from one to the next. I try not to pitch simultaneously, but sometimes you have no choice. You’re like a stringer in a small town newspaper, selling (in all likelihood) to the first bidder.

I pitched first, despite having had a terrible experience with them in 2012 around late payment for a similar short lead-time story. But I had a relationship with an editor there who had straightened out the payment mess. I fired off an email at to her 9:00 and she said “definitely interested” by noon, though there was a bit of back and forth about a clear angle. She liked the “fear” factor but said it would hinge on getting an interview with Honnold himself. Tracking down Honnold was painless but somewhat problematic; his answers to my questions were fairly rote while I was looking for something a bit more exclusive.

Rule #4: Use Your Time Wisely. In a sense, you should pretty much have this story written in your head (from the bullet points in your pitch) by the time you get the go-ahead. In some cases while researching the pitch, I’ll reach out to subject matter experts beforehand to see if they’re available to provide a quote. You’ll likely want one primary interview and then three subject matter experts. Try to line up an interview with the main character, or figure how you’ll be able to craft a decent story if they won’t consent. (This would probably kill 95 percent of all magazine stories, unless you are Gay Talese). One terrible PITA task that the editor will likely ask is, “oh, can you help us source the photos?”

Rule #5: Murphy’s Law. Be prepared for things to go wrong, and that the story that you’ve pitched might not be the one you end up writing. As I predicted, a blizzard of stories was coming out and most of them addressed the “fear factor.”

I became frantic, writing these long, descriptive paragraphs about the history of the Yosemite Valley and why this story was important beyond the climbing community and then finally, an “unreported” angle came to me—it was about how sponsorship and the internet combined to create this “professional” class of extreme athlete. The original “dirtbags” who climbed Yosemite originally lived on pennies per day. Honnold lived in a custom built van worth almost $100,000.

Rule #6: Pare Your Prose. It’s easy to over-report a story that other outlets are covering, and get carried away on your word count. Vice wanted between 1000 and 1200 words, and two drafts in I was still over 2,000 words. But there was a lot of really great stuff coming out. On Friday, JB MacKinnon wrote about Honnold in The New Yorker. Daniel Duane was in the Sunday New York Times. There were some very thought provoking blogposts, too. I got it down to 1,700 words and hit ‘send.’

Rule #7: Don’t Fear The Fix Note. Given the breakneck speed at which online outlets work, you will have to do all of your fact checking and anticipate any ambiguities in advance. The editor had a couple of questions, but no substantive changes. They need the content as much as you need the money, so rewrites aren’t as common.

Rule #8: Do It Again. To make a decent living at this game, you should probably be churning out at least four stories per week. For 1400 words, VICE paid the princely sum of $300 USD, and PayPal pilfered their usual service fee. And now that I was in the VICE payroll system, there was money in my account by the end of the month. Feeling somewhat buoyed by this turn of events, I fired of three more queries to different editors in the ensuing weeks, but none of the stories stuck.

In conclusion, writing timely, contextual stories on current events is a great exercise in focus; something that most freelance writers can likely work on to improve their productivity.

Steven Threndyle is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @threndyleski.

Posted on October 3, 2017 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

Leave a Reply