Readers of this blog -- and again, my apologies for being so absent of late -- know that a few weeks ago, I followed Dan Baum's Twitterfeed regarding his unrenewed contract with The New Yorker. I later emailed with Baum, and also, wrote an editorial for LA Observed.
Baum's original tweets contained a few links to pitches he'd sent to various publications, as well as noting whether the pitch had sold or not. I read one or two of them; they were well-written, writing we learned was helped to get that way by Baum's writer/editor wife, who edits not only his articles (and book) before they go to his editors, but the pitches. I am not going to get into the discussions I've seen online, and also had with several colleagues, about Baum's wife working for no byline; that's their business, and those interested in her services can read about them on Baum's/(their) website.
At the time I read the pitches, I felt they might be useful to beginning journalists. I've had at least a dozen beginners ask me how to write a pitch; I am happy to tell them and to share an example. It seemed a generous act on Baum's part to include links to the pitches.
Since the whole brouhaha has died down, I've checked Baum's blog once a week. A few days ago, I came across a post in which he explained there'd been a slight uproar over his saying, in a recent Q & A, that when he's researching a piece for a magazine but before he's actually sold them the piece, he represents that he is already writing the piece for such-and-such magazine. For those who do not understand the process of selling an article: in the main, you write up your idea (i.e., the pitch) and submit it to an editor at a publication. Once they give you the green light -- meaning they are going to buy it --you're now working on the piece for this magazine. But not before. During the research phase of a pitch, it's just yours. You're out there with no big name giving you credibility, but nevertheless must harvest enough information to make your story appeal to that big name.
Baum doesn't see it this way. From the Q & A:
When you are calling people and you don’t have an assignment yet, how do you convince them to talk to you?
I say, “I’m working on a story for The New York Times Magazine.” Or “I’m working on a story for Wired magazine.”
So you don’t let them know you don’t have the assignment in hand?
No, I say I’m working on a story for Wired magazine and I am. My relationship with Wired magazine at that point is none of their business.
He later clarified in a blog post:
For example, if I’m working up a proposal for Wired, and I call a source to ask some questions, I don’t say, “I’m working up a proposal for Wired,” or “I may be doing this story for Wired.” I say, “I’m working on a story for Wired.” And if I have to leave a message, I say, “This is Dan Baum. I’m working on a story for Wired; please call me.”
Is that dishonest? I don’t think so.
The truth is, in such a situation I am working for Wired. Wired doesn’t know it yet, but I am out there gathering information that I will send to Wired’s editors in the form of a proposal. So not only am I working for Wired, I’m working for free.
It is true that I am engaging in a trade with Wired without its consent. I am doing a bunch of legwork for its editors for no pay, in return for the use of Wired’s name and reputation.
It’s fair, I believe, because I’m working in good faith. I am genuinely trying to develop a story that Wired will want. To use Wired’s name in any other context would be dishonest.
Really? I've been a journalist for fourteen years; I know a lot of writers, and I don't know any who would do this in good faith. We've all had to make cold calls -- recently, I had to make some for an article I hoped to sell and did sell to Wired. If the people you cold-call ask who you're writing for, you say, you're working on a pitch; in the past you've written for so-and-so, and they can see some of your work on your website.
As a journalist, I do think it's dishonest to say you're writing for a publication from whom you've yet to get a contract. Baum is a road-tested journalist with good credentials, but who's to stop Joe Blow from calling and saying, "I'm writing for the New York Times"? The person called now feels a certain security (or, as the case may be, hostility) to speak, to open up; to rely that his story is going to appear in the New York Times.
To me, prematurely (one might say, hopefully) using a publication's name is a line that cannot be crossed. But what galls me, and I guess why I am blogging this, is that Baum is doling out this advice as acceptable protocol to junior writers. Think I'm exaggerating about the possible impact? Read the comments, which include "Massively inspirational," "comforting" and "He's so tenacious!" Which makes me think that Baum may be creating for himself an empire along the lines of what Robert McKee did for wannabe screenwriters. I cannot count the number of people I knew in Hollywood who shelled out for McKee's classes, and to whom he became a Svengali.
I could go on; about how much I hate the word "mentor" (want to learn how to write? Read. Write. Write badly. Write better); how having an editor before your editor seems decadent; how I finally last night read a New Yorker piece of Baum's I printed out weeks ago, and how painful it was to see how little his subject wanted the reporter around. Instead, I reprint here what my editor emailed me, after I sent him Baum's Q & A:
Dear Dan Baum,