Ask A Freelancer: Is It Okay to Reuse Interviews and Insights?By Nicole Dieker September 30th, 2014
What are the ethics involved with story material? Do you ever pitch different stories based on the same interviews/insights to different publications?
—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
I’ve never pitched two stories off the same interview. From my point of view, if a publication is paying you to interview someone, that entire interview belongs to that publication—even the stuff you don’t use.
However, just because this is my personal preference doesn’t mean other freelancers shouldn’t capitalize on selling multiple stories on one subject to different publications. Let’s say, for example, you contact an expert source and know this interview subject can share enough information for two different pieces. If you’re upfront with everyone—the source, your editors—then what you’re doing isn’t unethical.
We recently had a dustup with an author who had signed her contract, written the piece, checked in to see when the piece would run, and then I saw a version of the same piece on another website that very week (I had said: “Hey, I like THIS part of the story, focus on that part and the other part can be an aside” and the other website ran her story the exact opposite way.) Do not do that, Nick will yell at you really scarily, and you will not be appearing on The Toast (or on the other website, again, because they do not like being part of such a thing.) Ask, always, if you have a question about that sort of thing, and I’ll be so happy to work with you.
“Ask, always” sounds like pretty good advice.
And reusing some material isn’t uncommon. If you have a specialty, you’ll likely wind up working on overlapping stories. Correctly citing past interviews in subsequent pieces just takes a little bit of effort and self-awareness. Ann Friedman explains the nuances in the Columbia Journalism Review:
It’s not okay to reuse quotes without acknowledging that they’ve already been published or without linking to the previously published piece. It is, however, completely fair to mine the same subject matter and find a new angle or thesis on the topic and to pitch a new (but related) piece to another publication. I also think it’s fine to use portions of an interview conducted for one outlet in a piece for a different outlet—as long as the original outlet is mentioned, along with the date and original context of the interview.
I like to be really clear with editors if I’ve interviewed someone or worked with the person before or know the person as an acquaintance or friend. The more I can tell an editor about my biases in advance, the better—that way the editor can flag anything that he or she doesn’t like. (I have had editors take a look at my source list and ask me to find additional sources, which I am quite happy to do.)
But what if you’re simply writing two pieces on the same theme—or writing two or more pieces about the same personal insight?
Let’s look at it this way. I write about the business of writing a lot. In 2014, I’ve earned $5,258.75 specifically covering the business of freelance writing for The Freelancer, The Billfold, The Write Life, The Penny Hoarder, and more. Certain topics come up repeatedly. For example, publications like stories about pitching or getting started as a freelancer. But my Billfold piece “From Pitch to Paid” is very different from my Ask A Freelancer piece “Should You Write Your Article Before You Pitch It?”
I’ve written quite a few times about a method of understanding your business’s cash flow called ratio analysis. It’s a basic principle for understanding whether your business is thriving over time or headed for financial trouble.
Over the years, I’ve sold it to an online business magazine, a national print business magazine, an association newsletter, the small-business blog of a major website — even the Facebook fan page of a major telecommunications giant! I’ve earned several thousand dollars from the idea over time.
And here’s more advice from Ann Friedman:
Write every piece three times. And I don’t mean three drafts. I mean you should be pitching and writing every idea, with three similar but not identical angles, for three different outlets.
The key is to always find something new to say about your story.
My pieces “Do the Hustle: The Year I Spent as a Touring Musician” and “I Tried to Be a YouTube Star and All I Got Were These Horrifically Embarrassing Videos” both deal with my time spent as an independent musician. However, the two pieces are very different, and they give the reader two different insights: “Do The Hustle”explains how my music career helped me prepare for my freelance writing career, while “I Tried to Be a YouTube Star” explains that you can fail at something by being good but not great.
If there’s ever any question about whether two pieces are going to be too similar, or whether a contract with one publication might prevent me from writing on the same topic for other publications, I talk to my editors. I ask questions. I get very specific about what I’m going to write and how it’s going to be similar or different to pieces I write for other publications. Once, an editor turned down a pitch because she thought I’d already thoroughly covered that topic in previous pieces, and I’d much rather hear that in advance.
Adapting material for multiple publications is a smart way to squeeze more value out of your efforts. But for this situation, it’s always better to ask for permission, not for forgiveness.
Nicole Dieker hopes to write many more articles on the topic of “how to be a freelancer,” starting with this column. Send your Ask A Freelancer questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.Image by Everett Collection