ASK US WEDNESDAY: “My story was killed. How do I handle the case studies?”

by Rachel Smith
25 September 2019

I have a question. When a story gets dropped by the editor, it’s totally beyond your control, yet you have to explain the situation to the case studies you interviewed and deal with their disappointment (and sometimes, their anger). As freelancers, we don’t work for the publication, yet from the perspective of the case studies we interview, we are the ‘face’ of that publication. Do you have any tips for maintaining professionalism in this situation, even though it wasn’t your decision to drop the story (and you may not even really understand why it isn’t running)? Often case studies have invested time and energy into talking to us, so it can be a really tricky situation. T

Oh wow, your question brought back memories. I once had a high profile weekly mag kill a story of mine because they felt an outfit the case study had worn in another story was too similar to the one she was wearing in their double-page spread. Can you imagine? My mind boggled having to make that phone call to the case study, who’d taken the time to talk to me AND do a photo shoot. She was awesome about it, understood the decision was totally out of my hands and just laughed it off. Still, I was mortified (and a bit pissed off as I would’ve liked it in my portfolio).

I can only imagine what it’s like for journos who have interviewed case studies in really tragic or sensitive situations, only to find the story has been killed just as it’s going to print. This is especially upsetting if you have spent a LOT of time trying to convince someone to speak to you, get them over the line and then have to explain that no, the story won’t be running after all. Gah – just so embarrassing.

Publications more likely to kill a story

So, I do think a story is more likely to be killed at some titles than others – like newspapers (because everything is timely and events will always bump old stuff) and celebrity/gossip magazines because sometimes they even buy stories to prevent their own in-house people from being trumped by a rival. Glossy mags don’t do it very often and neither do custom publications. And there are always editors who are disorganised and tend to have lots of stories in the ‘to be run’ pile that will never see the light of day.

So, I think in situations like this, you need to do the following.

1. Educate your case study from the outset.

Let them know how it works; that the title has the final say on the story and that you’re a freelancer who has a relationship with that magazine or outlet, but little to no power over their editorial decisions. It’s really important to make it clear from the outset that you can never guarantee (as a freelancer, at least) that a story will run. As an aside it’s also important to stress this to PRs who might have helped you source the case study. Experienced PRs will handle that fine and understand but newbie PRs can sometimes over-promise to the end client.

2. Find out what’s going on.

Is it just a delay with the story, or has it been definitely killed for some reason? Can they GIVE you a reason? Sometimes they will; it might be that they’ve over-commissioned and can’t schedule it, the title is changing direction or someone above the editor has killed it for some reason. Sometimes they’ll just say, ‘Sorry but this has been killed, that’s all I can tell you’. Still, finding out what you can and keeping your case study in the loop if you can may help to diffuse the situation and any bad feeling.

3. Negotiate with the editor.

If that publication can’t run it, ask if there’s a chance for it to run on the publication’s online platform, which is sometimes a good option (especially if the editor has paid you in full for the story). If not, ask if you can place it elsewhere. This is the best case scenario both for you and your case study (if they’re open to it running elsewhere). Plus, a decent editor will hopefully offer this, especially if they’ve only paid you a kill fee.

4. Apologise to your case study.

If the story has definitely been killed, just be sensitive to how the case study might be feeling – chances are, they were invested and looking forward to the story getting a run; apologising and saying you’ll do your best to place it elsewhere (if you can) may help and show the case study you’re doing everything you can to make sure their time wasn’t wasted. I’d also stress this is a big disappointment for you too as you were looking forward to telling the person’s story.

Have you had to deal with a disappointed case study after a story was killed? What’s your advice for our letter writer?

Rachel Smith

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