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How one reporter re-purposed her broadcast, online work for a new audience Date: 10/02/15


Joanne Silberner

By Joanne Silberner

In 2013, I completed a heavily reported series of radio stories and web posts on cancer in developing countries.

In 2014, Robert Lott, deputy editor of the health policy journal Health Affairs, sent me a note asking if I’d be willing to do a version for his journal. It would be easy, he said – just update the reporting.

It wasn’t exactly easy, but re-working the stories was fun, and remunerative. I’m going to tell you about the experience, and give a little how-to.

The initial stories were based on a trip to Haiti, India and Uganda financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which is generous about providing travel money for underreported stories around the world. I wrote radio and online pieces for PRI’s “The World.” Cancer was a topic that stuck in my heart after the initial stories were done. First, because I’d recently been treated for breast cancer myself, but also because it had been hard to see people in less-advantaged countries dying when they didn’t have to.

I wanted to return to the topic, so when Health Affairs contacted me, I paid attention. Lott, as some of you know, took part in the 2015 Freelance PitchFest at Health Journalism 2015.

I’m one of the most insecure freelancers I know, so it was very nice to have someone ask me to do a story instead of me having to ask. Plus, he set a fair price for what I thought would mostly be rewriting: $3,000 for 2,000 words.

Now all I had to do was take the best parts of each of the stories, stitch them together and top it all off with an updated lede.

Ha! You know the story – one interview leads to another. I ended up doing 11 additional interviews and reading about a dozen more articles. In all, it probably took me 15 to 20 additional hours (minus the procrastination, of course).  I can’t recall how long it took to write the piece, but I do remember this was one of those rare occasions in which I actually enjoyed the writing, maybe because by this point I knew the topic so well. It was also fun working with Lott. He’s an attentive and positive editor.

The writing was somewhat different from what I’d done for “The World,” mostly because I could assume a highly educated audience already very interested in health topics; in Lott’s words: “government and health industry leaders; health care advocates; scholars of health, health care and health policy wonks and academics; and others concerned with health and health care issues in the United States and worldwide.”

With a focus on print and a different audience, I didn’t feel like I was plagiarizing myself.

Now for my tips:

If you’re thinking about pitching to Health Affairs, check the journal’s futures page for upcoming subjects, or pick a topic that looks like it might be of interest. As with any pitch, check first to see if the journal has done your story. Access to the journal comes free with AHCJ membership. Check it out.

Pitches go to Lott (rlott@projecthope.org). Entry Point, the section I wrote for, is a journalistic treatment of a current health issue, with reporting, analysis and discussion. About half are written by freelancers. In an early email to me, Lott described it like this: “We’re pretty flexible when it comes to the tone of the piece, but our goal is to make the topic accessible to people who may be interested in the topic but are less likely to read our more traditional academic articles.”

Lott also handles “Health Policy Briefs,” which are just what they sound like. They’re 2,000- to 3,000-word pieces that are more analysis than straight journalism, and explore competing arguments on a health policy issue. And while Entry Points are edited by Lott and also go past the eyes of higher-ups on the masthead, Health Policy Briefs are sent out to experts in the field for review. Pitches are welcome, but few are chosen.

Pay is generally $1 to $1.50 a word, depending on your experience. You can try bargaining, Lott said, but “don’t be surprised if we keep a hard line.”

Health Affairs also takes commentary and analysis for its blog, although without pay. “They offer significant visibility,” Lott said. “The blog gets about 300,000 page views per month.” Loathe as I am to write for free, I could see this for authors wanting to promote a book.

Be aware that the journal is serious about its proprietary rights. You have to sign over entire copyright, and you can’t distribute your published article for free. If you have a webpage, you can display a brief excerpt and the journal will provide a free link to your story. But the free link is only for your website; you can’t post it on Twitter or Facebook.

Was updating some old reporting worth it? Yes – in no small part because it was a topic I really enjoyed reporting. Would I do it again? Yes, but next time around I’ll be mindful that I’m not just signing up to put lipstick on an old story.

Joanne Silberner (@jsilberner) is a freelance reporter and artist-in-residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. For 18 years, she covered health issues for NPR.