From pitch to publication — producing a NYT story

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been writing for The New York Times since the 1990s, when I started out writing 300-word book reviews on arcane topics like a history of the Kurds.

As a generalist, I’ve since written for almost every section of the paper: real estate, culture, business, Metropolitan, health, styles, essays, sports.

The one place you never ever want to be published in is their corrections box! Luckily it’s happened to me only three times, with more than 100 bylines there.

I know that being published there is a dream for some writers, so here’s a peek inside how I produced my latest for them, about prenuptial agreements.

I pitched two ideas to the editor (you need to know who exactly to pitch! I learned this by reading Twitter, where he announced his new position and shared his email address.)

He immediately wanted one of them.

We had a phone conversation Feb. 16 to discuss what he wanted from the story, angle and length. I was off!

Then…gulp…it was time to find sources, not so easy when getting people to discuss their finances in a global newspaper with millions of readers.

I found a lawyer in Iowa to get started, to get a general idea of the story’s parameters. Once grounded, I found a New York lawyer — through their PR gatekeeper — who led me to a local woman who became a key source, albeit a fearful one I tried to reassure. I have a lot of respect for anyone who agrees to speak on the record, especially to the Times, and how anxiety-provoking it can be. I explained carefully the goal of my story — to help others — and we negotiated what felt OK to print, and what did not.

The Times does not allow freelancers to use fake names or unnamed sources, nor for sources to read copy pre-publication.

One of the many moving parts — the hidden bit — of reporting any story is finding and persuading sources to even speak to a reporter. People can be really jumpy and sometimes I explain in detail how the process will go to alleviate their concerns.

I get it! I’ve been interviewed enough times I know how scary it is to lose control of your own story.

But the gatekeeper to the NYC lawyer was also initially quite resistant to a Times story, arguing that the paper only caters to the wealthy. Well, fair comment, but I told them my story was designed more to protect people, especially women, from getting screwed in a divorce, which I’ve seen plenty of, and it’s not pretty.

We went back and forth a bit, and she agreed to put me in touch with the lawyer she works with.

I interviewed the lawyer and her client (3 sources now) and through a pal in Los Angeles, found a lawyer there to add more insights and who connected me to a young gay Asian couple who were terrific to speak to; we did an hour Zoom.

Now we’re up to six sources…more to come!

The final one (in addition to me) was a financial writer, a woman.

Then it was time, finally, to write.

The actual writing, typically, is not difficult for me as, by then, I always have a clear idea what I want to say and in what order; my assigned word count was 1,500 to 2,000, enough real estate to tell this complicated story properly.

But I also know an editor will have, always, their own ideas and lots of questions.

I was a little nervous, as this was my first story for a new-to-me editor and I always hope to start off on the right foot.

For my first revision, I changed my lede (the first line, key to hooking the reader) and it stayed unchanged to publication; I choose them really carefully, and am fiercely protective of my ledes, relieved when the Times (and the FT) have liked them enough to keep them and praise them.

The editor immediately trimmed it a bit (no biggie) and had some smart questions I needed to answer to clarify and better explain some things. One real challenge of including your own story is that it’s obviously so familiar to you, but not to your editors and certainly not to your readers. It was also, to be honest, emotionally difficult for me to revisit a painful period of my life and a brief marriage.

The editor warned me the story would be read by several additional editors, (best to know this ahead of time) but each edit at the Times means you, the writer, get a “playback” which is our chance to make sure it still reads well, hasn’t been changed in a way that (unlikely!) is now inaccurate.

It’s very helpful to see, in every playback, what changes they make (with strikethroughs, etc) whether in sentence structure or wording; I don’t find it intrusive but see my copy getting tighter and stronger. The guts of the story, and my voice, remain, and that’s important to me as well.

Every new editor who reads the story can also make their own cuts or changes and adds their questions, then sends their version, so one can easily receive two or three or more different playbacks, each of which you need to read — and once a story is skedded for iminent publication, hang on!

My adrenaline is up.

You’re on a speeding train now, with the Times editorial machinery moving at its own internal pace, your copy moving from one editor to the next — so you need to be ready to give them whatever they need, asap. No pressure!

I always ask — what time do you need this back from me?

And why I always warn sources when I first interview them to be ready to reply very quickly to more questions once this process is in motion.

So by 4:30 Thursday afternoon I was reading the third playback — with 14 more questions; none overwhelming, with two needing my quick calls to sources for clarification.

I also had to make sure a few times the story’s photo caption was correct because one of the sources had changed her surname since I began work on the story, so I alerted a few editors to that. The photos also matter!

Accuracy in every syllable matters.

By 7:30 p.m. my story was in the hands of the final editor — who helped me finesse an attribution; if the source got back to me after 10:30 pm ET, I should (!) alert a Times editor in Seoul.

Talk about a global newsroom!

The piece went live yesterday at 5 a.m. Eastern and got nice “above the fold” placement on the Times’ homepage.

It will also appear in print tomorrow.

So, almost two months from pitch to publication, it also got a great illustration and photo, and some very nice feedback from editors and readers.


On to the next…

19 thoughts on “From pitch to publication — producing a NYT story

  1. sthrendyle

    Do you track your hours spent on a story like this? (Complicated to do, for sure). Well done and certainly helpful advice, especially (unfortunately) for women,
    many of whom professionally have better prospects than men do). Two months is eight weeks, 56 days (“yes, I can take your call on a weekend if it’s most convenient for you.”) with maybe 3 hrs per day spent on it. For sake of argument, rounded to 120 hours – though hopefully half of that, seasoned pro that you are. Fee (assuming at least $1/word – it IS a newspaper, not Vanity Fair) $1800 / 60 hrs = $30/hr. Ballpark…or not?

    1. It didn’t require 3 hours a day every day. I had to find 7 sources, do some email wrangling to get them and sked them. Each interview was likely an hour (so 7 hours), plus maybe an hour total for various emails and replies (now 8 hours), plus writing time (maybe 3 hours), now 11 hours…plus revision/edit time…maybe 3 more hours…14 hours, maybe? I won’t name my fee here, but it’s decent and certainly not $30/hour. I’m highly efficient and know how to find good sources quickly. It’s the only way to make this work profitable.

    2. I never track my hours in any methodical way. I know what I want to make hourly and I know their edit process is likely the most time-intensive — so I budget my reporting\/writing time accordingly. I know how to be ruthlessly efficient but do a great job.

  2. David Holzman

    Very interesting, and Kudos for writing a story that’s designed to help people–esp women–avoid getting screwed in divorce.

    Do they pay decently? My recollection from writing a story for them two decades ago, is that they didn’t. And, my story never made it in because some NYT writer wrote my story–something my editor, whose name you’d recognize if I could remember it–did not know someone else was writing it. (It was a profile of a very interesting researcher.) And instead of my getting paid (I’d written it before I found out about the other writer) they paid me only half of what they were going to pay me. BAD EXPERIENCE! I never bothered to try to write for them again.

  3. Robert Lerose

    A well-reported NYT story, Caitlin, that seamlessly balances the personal and the practical. Your own first-person participation deepened the emotional intensity and upped the strength of the story, in my eyes. I think this is another worthy addition to your legacy. I appreciate the behind-the-scenes coverage. You gave us an angle–the nuts and bolts, so to speak–that is hard to come by. I may have said it before, but I’ll say it again: If you ever wrote a Caitlin Kelly book on journalism/reporting/editing, I’d buy the first copy. The only other piece that I would have liked to see in the blog post is your pitch letter.

    1. Thanks! Jose and I are still trying to sell our book on freelancing…we’ll see if we can find a new agent.

      I would share the pitch letter more privately but not going to give it ALL away!!

    1. Thanks….I’ve been doing this so long, I do have a good sense.

      I think the story I filed had maybe 1600 words (can’t remember) and 8 sources. Anything shorter than that would have been difficult to report as deeply. Of course, with a 1,000 word story you do less reporting…but this one needed more space.

    2. Absolutely!

      I’ve been doing this for a long long time, so I know if 1200 or 1500 words if enough or we really need up to 2000. It’s always their call, though and if 2,000 words at a per word rate gets cut — I can lose $500 and all the time I spent. VERY annoying.

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