In an era of 24/7 media coverage, it’s not easy to get a scoop. But it’s far from impossible.
I did it with my Google story that ran in The New York Times four days ago. It was the paper’s 5th. most emailed and 5th. most viewed story for many hours.
Forbes.com picked it up and got 1,000 more views within hours.
So how did I get this story as mine alone — and how can you, an equally ambitious writer, do something similar?
It started, randomly, when I attended an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat in July 2011, a birthday gift from my Buddhist husband, which I wrote about for Marie Claire magazine.
One of the visiting teachers there was an extraordinary woman who I saw at once might be both a kindred spirit — albeit 20 years my senior — and a terrific magazine story in her own right. I asked for a private meeting with her, which was the one time we were allowed to speak.
She told me she’d been working with Google to help engineers develop their emotional intelligence. Boom! That’s a story.
I stayed in touch with her over the fall when she mentioned Meng, (the subject of my Times piece and a Google engineer), was writing a book and was someone well worth media attention. Story value confirmed.
I then reached out to his publisher and to Meng himself, letting him know that I knew personally two people he admires and has worked with. Done. The story was mine, he said.
Not so fast. Months of negotiation ensued between me, his publisher, the book publicist and the Times. Months.
I also faced major surgery and recovered enough just in time to fly to Mountain View to report the story with enough time to write and and edit it.
Google isn’t known for being a chatty sort of place, so getting access to half a dozen employees and two days on campus required some arm-twisting as well. I spent two intense days on-site, conducted more interviews by phone, wrote it and went through at least six revisions as the story passed through various editorial hands and questions.
Here are some things I did that could help you snag and lock down a great story of your own:
Take a risk!
I didn’t even want to attend the Buddhist retreat for many reasons and went into it very reluctantly. But I went and learned a lot and met some truly amazing new people there.
Put yourself out there
I was nervous asking for a private meeting with this woman. What if she didn’t say yes? What if she didn’t like me or my ideas? You don’t know until you try.
What is the story? Can you sum up in one tight sentence?
An experienced reporter sniffs a great story right away. Even if you’re on staff, you’ll have to persuade your editor to let you write it. If you’re freelance, as I am, you’re asking for a big space and the budget to send you far away to get the goods. You’ve got to pitch it persuasively.
Without it, you can’t get a scoop.
Passion for your idea
If you’re not super-psyched to do the piece, how can you persuade your editor?
A clear understanding who you need to interview and what you’ll ask them
You may have very little time in which to get your reporting done.
Persistence and tenacity
It took many months of calls and emails to get this story nailed down. I have more than 100 emails in one folder alone from my contact at Meng’s book publisher.
A terrific editor
You need someone to green-light your idea and make sure it gets the art, photos and play it deserves as it competes for space with all the other stories on that site/newspaper/magazine.
A clear idea of the scope of the story
How many words will it really need to be well-told? Do you have to travel? How cheaply can you do that? How are the key players in this narrative and will each of them speak to you? How much time will all that require — and do you have it or can you get it?
I don’t write about tech. I don’t cover Google. I’d never written a story quite like this one. But I understand, and deeply value, mindfulness and meditation. That was enough to launch me. I’d figure the rest out as I went.
And I did!