This Is Why Your Freelance Stories Don’t Get Published

What happens when newspapers duplicate (or “borrow”) freelancers’ stories? The Chicago Reader asked that last week when the paper found a freelancer who had written a story on a big city issue: that convicted city employees were still getting paid salaries. Yet despite this pretty big scoop, freelancer Michael Volpe couldn’t get any story to bite.

Last fall Volpe e-mailed his story to the Reader mailbox, which is a little like slipping it under the door. He didn’t get a reply. An editor at the Southtown Star said Volpe’s story happened outside his paper’s coverage area—but what about the Sun-Times? The Sun-Times said it didn’t buy stories from freelancers. Steve Rhodes at the Beachwood Reporter website told Volpe his story had holes that needed to be filled. Volpe argued the point, and Rhodes told him, “Your story does not meet our standards. Goodbye.”

Then the Sun-Times wrote its own story on the same issue.

On January 10, two top investigative reporters at the Sun-Times, Chris Fusco and Tim Novak, published what in Volpe’s eyes was his story. Theirs began, “Chicago, the city that works, is also the city that keeps on paying city employees long after they’re convicted of corruption.”

Volpe fired off an e-mail to Fusco and Novak. “I liked the story,” he said, “but I liked it even more when I wrote it myself.”

“We never saw your story,” Novak wrote back.

“Nobody alerted us to your story in the course of our reporting,” Fusco replied.

“Maybe,” Volpe responded, “but it does appear to be the exact same and I beat you to it by a few months.”

“Kudos to you,” answered Novak.

The Reader acknowledged that the Sun-Times story was a little “clearer, calmer, more focused and more comprehensive” but did point out that, well, the meat of the piece was the same.

Volpe said that the experience taught him that “The media is really no different than any other business. It’s not what you know but who you know. Simply having an important story isn’t enough. You have to know the right people and more importantly, the right people need to know you.”

And that might have been that…if Beachwood Reporter editor Steve Rhodes had not stepped in to clarify his remarks in the piece’s comment section. And that’s where it gets interesting…

Michael, you accurately quote from an e-mail I sent to Michael Volpe, but I would just like to note that this was the last in a series of e-mails I sent after Volpe continually refused my editing suggestions and refused to answer crucial questions that were necessary to turn his unreasoned screed into a story worthy of publication. I tried my best to work with Volpe but he was, frankly, just too much of a pain in the ass to waste any more time with than I did. I’d be happy to share the whole of our correspondence with you, which Volpe apparently did not do, including my editing notes on his original manuscript. Finally, Volpe continues to send me childish e-mails of the “told you so” variety that in fact told me nothing. Given that and being familiar with the work of Fusco and Novak over the years, I doubt very much that they “stole” the man’s story – or even saw it.

And that, friends, is why your freelance stories don’t get published. It’s a two-way street and refusing to work with an editor and acting bad enough that said editor will call you a “pain in the ass” on a public Internet site (don’t worry, they’re all calling you that in private) is not going to win you any friends…or assignments.