Stories

How to Sell Viral News (Without Selling Your Soul)

By Darlena Cunha May 26th, 2016

On April 5 I was sitting at a downtown Starbucks in Gainesville, Fla., to edit a piece while my children practiced martial arts down the street. Then something crazy happened.

Florida Governor Rick Scott walked in for a coffee, and a local woman, Cara Jennings, began to berate him. She called him “an asshole,” said he “didn’t care about working people,” and criticized his health care policy in light of an anti-abortion bill he had recently signed. I caught it all on video.

By now, nearly everyone interested in political or feminist news has seen the clip that propelled Jennings into infamy. But most likely, they didn’t see mine. There were three of us in that shop savvy enough to whip out our phones. One man, a regular there who always sits at the corner table, kept his video private.

I knew the incident had two angles: a woman “losing her mind in a Starbucks” or a woman attempting to hold a public official accountable for his decisions affecting millions of constituents. I wanted to make sure the story went down the second path, which I saw as the more journalistic angle.

“I didn’t want her to look foolish,” he said to me the next week. “I knew people would tear her apart.” Another man, Stephen Bender, quickly threw his up on YouTube. Meanwhile, I frantically tried to contact every editor I knew.

I knew the incident had two angles: a woman “losing her mind in a Starbucks” or a woman attempting to hold a public official accountable for his decisions affecting millions of constituents. I wanted to make sure the story went down the second path, which I saw as the more journalistic angle.

I questioned my decision each moment we spent fact-checking and researching, especially when other outlets I’d pitched started running inferior recap stories on the raw video.

So, instead of hitting upload, I got up from my perch and started interviewing her. “Who are you, and why did you do that?” I snapped her picture at the end of our brief interview, grabbed her contact information, and sent the pitch out to as many outlets as I could think of.

And I waited. It was excruciating, particularly as I watched the other video’s views skyrocket.

An hour later, The Washington Post responded to my query. I was in. But I questioned my decision each moment we spent fact-checking and researching, especially when other outlets I’d pitched started running inferior recap stories on the raw video.

When all is said and done, I missed a great opportunity to go viral by not posting the video immediately. However, the route I took transformed a flash-in-the-pan internet sensation into a series of news pieces with context, nuance, and staying power.

3 steps for reporting breaking news as a freelancer

So, what do you do? What do you do when you’re a freelancer and news breaks right in front of your face?

Sometimes, you’ll see something before it breaks, like Louisville-based freelancer Dana McMahan did 18 months ago. She happened to see on Facebook that a local bar, Meta, was going to use its allocation of Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon—an extremely popular and expensive alcohol—to make jello shots. In the world of alcohol, this is unheard of. She knew she had a story.

She contacted an editor she worked with regularly and, despite not knowing if the pitch was confirmed or not, called the bar, talked to owner Jeremy Johnson, hopped in an Uber, and went out to get the story. It went up on NBC the next morning, and soon after, other publications ran shoddy recap pieces.

“Lots of places reported on the story, but no one interviewed the bar owner or patrons, no one went to the bar,” McMahan said. “I was the only one to call the distillery and the distribution centers, too.”

From talking with McMahan and other freelancers who have broken news, as well as my own experiences, I determined three key steps to reporting breaking news as a freelancer.

1. Interview everyone you can

By the time I was done filming at Starbucks, Governor Scott had already run out the door, so I was left with Jennings and some baffled Starbucks patrons. I interviewed them. I also got Jennings’ permission to use the video. Even though it was in a public place, it’s good form to get as many permissions as you can. Make sure you grab contact information as well because you might have follow-up questions.

Also, make sure to alert the subject about the possible implications of running a story. In this case, Jennings laughed when I told her she would go viral the second this went public. When I talked to her the next day, she was no longer laughing. Exhausted and weary, she thanked me for the heads up. My sensitivity to her plight gave me an inside track that I would need later to fully flesh out the story.

2. Pitch like crazy, but be transparent about it

Under normal conditions, simultaneous pitching is frowned upon and could even burn bridges in the industry, so if you are going to do it, make sure you have a sound reason.

My pitch went like this:

“I have amazing video, and permission to use it.

FL Gov. Rick Scott just came into the Starbucks I’m sitting at and I have a 40-second video of a woman yelling at him about the recent abortion bill he signed and him being SMARMY in return before he and his posse slunk out of the place without their coffee. I have an interview with this woman and I took her picture.

I’m trying to get this story up today, and I know it’s after hours, so I will most likely be simultaneously submitting this idea but I will let you know as soon as it gets placed so that you need not waste time on it.

Thank you so much for your time!”

I sent that to 10 publications, half of which I had worked with before.

If you do not have a network of editors at the ready, particularly on a Tuesday night, put the story up on social media yourself. Do not wait like I did. You can flesh out the story later, and you’ll have the public’s opinion to bolster your pitch, not to mention gaining more followers and building your base.

3. Leverage your insider knowledge for more stories

The next day, I called Jennings back and asked her more detailed questions about her previous role in politics, and what she hoped to accomplish in going viral. I sold that interview to Refinery29, and it gave good insight into why the instance occurred in the first place.

In talking to Jennings again, I learned firsthand that Scott’s office was putting out a defamatory statement about her in a few hours. That meant the story wasn’t over yet, and I had an opportunity for yet another angle. I then asked her about feminism, why she didn’t use the normal political process and what she thought of his remarks on the situation. I published that hours later on The Establishment.

A viral sensation takes seconds to create, but a journalistic career takes years.

I also used my local reaction quotes and the picture I had snapped to place an informed update in The Gainesville Sun, the area’s local newspaper. They welcomed the additional information from a reporter on the scene. And now, of course, there’s this piece on The Freelancer breaking down the behind-the-scenes story.

In all, thanks to my hard work after the incident, a trip to the local Starbucks turned out to be the most lucrative 40 seconds of my career. And what I missed in views by not posting the video immediately I made up for in paychecks. Remember that a viral sensation takes seconds to create, but a journalistic career takes years. If you do breaking news right, you can build your personal brand while also making your livelihood.

Image by Getty Images
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