Mother Jones is known for its hard-hitting investigations, like Shane Bauer’s 35,000-word undercover account of working as a private prison guard in Louisiana, which won a National Magazine Award for reporting last year.
That doesn’t mean editors at the San Francisco-based magazine, which was also honored as Magazine of the Year in 2017, only want to publish pieces about criminal justice. “Shane’s amazing story has led to a boomlet of pitches about the topic,” says managing editor Ian Gordon. “It’s not a bad problem to have, but we have a lot of people on staff that like writing about it.”
Gordon would love to see more ideas about subjects people don’t always associate with the Mother Jones name: culture, technology, sports. He’s looking for more queries for profiles and essays. And a little humor goes a long way: “We write so much about bad actors that we’re always looking for people to bring some levity to leaven the mix,” he says.
Below, Gordon shares his tips about pitching Mother Jones, which was named after a 20th-century labor organizer. We also discuss Michael Sokolove’s (very long) pitch for his story “What Does It Take to Convict a Cop?” about the police shooting of Walter Scott. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe stories that are right for Mother Jones?
Everything we do is in the public interest. We write about national politics, environmental issues, corporate wrongdoing in all forms, crime and justice, human rights, political influence and power in different spheres. Deep reporting is the hallmark of what we do, whether that’s unearthing data or documents others don’t have, getting access to people or just being a bulldog and reporting the hell out of something. We’re looking for what magazine editors everywhere want: stories that are compelling narratives, have characters and aren’t exactly what you’d expect.
How much freelance work does MoJo take?
Unlike a lot of publications these days, we’ve really committed to having full-time reporters. We’re also taking advantage of our great fellowship program and promoting people up the ranks. We don’t do much freelance stuff on the web, since our staffers do a lot of that work.
That said, we take quite a bit of freelance for the magazine, including the front-of-book section, the feature well, the culture section and even the health and wellness column. The magazine comes out six times a year, and each issue has five or six features. Because we have a full staff of reporters writing about stuff in the news, the pitch should demonstrate why it’s worth using a freelancer. Sometimes the person has a good perspective, has connections we don’t have or is an expert in some way.
Do you commission international freelance pieces?
We do, but it has to be the right piece and in some way reference discussions we’re having in the U.S. If someone doesn’t have funding from a fellowship, it’s harder to send them abroad. Part of the reality of being a nonprofit shop is that we don’t have a ton of money to send people all over the world.
What are the most common pitching mistakes you see?
We often see stories that are missing a character. Or it’s a really good anecdote or interesting case, but it doesn’t necessarily connect to larger themes or trends. It’s hard to say yes to a pitch that’s just about one bad actor. For something to carry 4,000 words, it needs to have real weight and consequences. Often that means the story needs to be broadened out a bit: Is this part of a larger problem? Are there statistics? How does it go beyond this one anecdote? We also get a lot of pitches that are equally as long or twice as long as the story would be. If you’re pitching a 1,000-word front-of-book piece, you probably shouldn’t write 1,800 words.
To pitch a feature, you have to do quite a bit of pre-reporting, and that’s a calculation that’s complicated for a freelancer. But it’s a risk for editors to assign stories with a limited freelance budget, so they have to feel confident the reporter can do what he or she is proposing. That’s often based on the pitch: Are they showing the reporting and writing chops to do it? Is the pitch written in the way the story would be? If a pitch feels flat at 1,000 words, what’s the motivation to give someone another 4,000?
Especially if you’re less experienced, it’s important to explain why you’re the person to do this story. Is it that you have great access? You have a trove of documents? You have special knowledge of the subject? That helps sell the editor on the risk. A reporting plan is also an important part of any pitch: “I’m going to go here and see this, interview these people, FOIA these documents.” Anticipate the questions that the editors are going to ask. That shows maturity and the ability to think through a project.
Walk me through how the pitching process works at MoJo.
A freelancer can go to our staff page, read editors’ bios to learn what they’re interested in and email them directly. When there’s a pitch we’re interested in, we usually go back and forth with the person a couple of times. Then we put all the pitches in a Google Doc and discuss them in a story meeting that happens every six weeks. In each meeting, we have about five to 10 freelance pitches out of 15 to 20 total. Then we go back to the writer and say what we’re thinking: an enthusiastic yes, sorry but no, or we have a lot of questions we want you to answer first.
How much does the magazine pay?
Generally $1.50 to $2 a word. Occasionally less, usually based on the writer’s experience.
What’s your take on simultaneous submissions?
It’s a bit of a tricky position to put an editor in. If someone told us they were going to submit a pitch to two places, I’d say, “Can you give us a couple of days, and we’ll let you know?” If we’re interested, we might make a decision outside of our normal process. But if the editor getting the pitch isn’t totally sold on it, we’d just let it go because we know we can’t turn things around that quickly. I’d prefer someone to just pitch it to us or pitch it somewhere else if they want and then come back if it’s not accepted.
How long should writers expect to wait to hear from you? How often are you OK with them following up?
I’m very sympathetic to freelance writers and conscious of their time. I’m pretty good about getting back to people in a couple of days. But sometimes you are just putting out fires all day, and responding to a freelancer does fall lower on the priority list, which is regrettable. I’ve heard Jason Fagone talk about moving on after 48 hours. I don’t begrudge anyone that attitude, as long as you’re upfront with editors at the start. Unfortunately, with the long lead time of a bimonthly magazine, our process is slower. If I get a pitch the day after a story meeting, the next one isn’t for six weeks. I try to update writers right after the meeting. If you want to follow up after two days, great. After five days, fine. Editors need a kick in the ass. We’re adults — we can handle it.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.This pitch is extremely long. Did it need to be this extensive? What length generally works best? I know it’s long, but it was a good pitch and a good story. Is this going to get us lots of 2,000-word pitches? I hope not. In this case, the writer was planning to write a book about the topic and had written a proposal. It’s like the extreme version of the reporting you can do ahead of time. I know Jennifer Kahn has written about the five-paragraph pitch. In general, that’s a great idea, but I would say if the pitch is good, it doesn’t have to be just one page. If you write an 800-word pitch for a feature, we’ll probably ask a ton of questions. Was the writer a known quantity? The editor who assigned this story, Mike Mechanic, had been in touch with him for a while.
Walter Scott’s cell phone bill was current. In that small but not unimportant aspect of life, he was on solid ground. He had checked in with his elderly parents, called and texted friends. Easter was around the corner. He would wear his good suit, match it with a crisply ironed shirt and a colorful tie. Scott, at fifty years old, was a forklift driver, a dominos aficionado, an extrovert with a buttery voice who sang soul music at social gatherings and spirituals on Sunday mornings at his church. He was an Everyman, but a distinctly black Everyman. Every time he made a mistake, he paid a price. As a young man, he served in the Coast Guard before being discharged for a drug-related offense. He had four children from two past relationships. He lost some years to drinking, drifted between jobs, sobered up and earned a two-year degree at a technical college, where he sang America’s national anthem at his commencement ceremony. This is more or less verbatim how the published piece begins. When does it work to open with a detailed scene that could be the story lede? This has the sensibility of a magazine story right away. It has good cadence and rhythm, and you can tell he’s done his homework. An anecdotal lede works when it helps set the tone and situate you in time and place, when the scene is directly related to a theme of the piece, or when you really need it to establish what the piece is about and be on the same terms about facts. If you are going to write a scene, make sure it’s very tight. If you’re writing a six-paragraph pitch, it shouldn’t take up three.
On the morning of April 4, 2015, Scott was behind the wheel of a 1990 Mercedes sedan which he had agreed to purchase from a neighbor, though the paperwork was not yet squared away. He was less than a mile from the home he shared with his girlfriend and her two children in North Charleston, South Carolina—his hometown and neighboring Charleston’s poor cousin. Tourists don’t come to North Charleston and most wouldn’t know it even exists. A little farther to the east, out in the water, was Sullivan’s Island, America’s primary slave port, now a vacation paradise dotted with million-dollar homes, where survivors of the Middle Passage were deloused and quarantined before being sold off to their plantation masters. Why was weaving in this historical note effective? It shows that he’s thinking about this piece in a broader way. He’s thinking about what these places mean and how they can be characters in the story to a certain extent. In many pitches, the place just fades away, and there’s no sense that where this happened even matters. But where this happened did matter.
A police patrol car pulled up behind Scott, lights flashing. He made an immediate right turn, then came to a stop in the parking lot of an auto parts store and watched through the rearview mirror as an officer, dressed just in shirt sleeves on a warm spring day, slowly walked toward him. Patrolman Michael Slager, thirty-three years old, had his hands on his hips—the right one close to his gun. “The reason for the stop is your brake light is out,” he said through the driver’s side window.
It was the classic DWB (driving while black) rationale for a car stop, but Scott already knew he had a problem bigger than his brake light being out. (If that were even the case.) There was a warrant for his arrest dating back to 2013 for failure to pay child support. He was a cornered man. Paying support, and his failure and at times inability to pay it, had been the burden of his adult life. In 2000, his former wife wrote to a judge, “My husband bears no responsibility for his family.” These details signal that the writer didn’t have an agenda. He was going to give us the full story — both of these guys had faults, and they came together in this tragic moment.
Scott had been to jail in the past for failure to pay support, which caused him to lose jobs and made the sum he owed ever larger and harder to pay. He was $18,104 in arrears. If he went back to jail, his bosses at the warehouse would find a new forklift driver and the job might not be waiting for him when he got out, even if he was behind bars just a day or two. He handed over his license and told the officer he planned to complete the purchase of the car in a couple of days.
“So you don’t have any paperwork in the glove box? No registration, no insurance?”
“No sir, I’m sorry about that.”
“Ok, but you’re buying the car?”
“Alright, I’ll be right back with you.” Do you like when pitches include dialogue? Getting that in is smart. It’s a question of doing some homework, and it shows that he has a sense that magazine stories need dialogue and people interacting.
What happened next was that Walter Scott got out of the car and fled, and Slager ran him down and and Tasered him. When Scott staggered to his feet and ran again, Slager did not give chase, even for one step, even though Scott did not look like a man who could run very fast or for very long. Instead, the officer unholstered his .45-caliber Glock with his right hand, took a stance, and put his left hand underneath to steady the weapon. The form was perfect. It looked like a training video. The only thing wrong was that he was taking aim at the back of an unarmed man.
Slager squeezed off eight quick shots, and Scott fell by the side of a tree. The officer walked 20 unhurried steps until he reached Scott’s motionless body, at which point he arranged Scott’s arms behind his back and handcuffed a dead or dying man. The Walter Scott shooting, and the subject of police shootings generally, was covered widely. What made this pitch stand out despite that? Everything has been done. There’s no such thing as a brand-new story. The level of pre-reporting and the writing in the pitch sold it. A pitch should help the editor say, “This is what this story could look like in the best-case scenario. This is how he’s going to complicate the story we think we all know.” He had obvious curiosity about the two men involved, had done some of the work and was able to connect it to larger thematic issues.
*******************How do you feel about section breaks in a pitch? It’s pretty unusual, and I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it. But in some ways it’s helpful here: He basically showed us he had the top section of the story figured out and now steps back to give us context and the bigger picture.
I include the details above because they so vividly raise the question: What kind of person hunts downs down another human being in this manner? Pumps multiple bullets into him, casually approaches to inspect the carnage and seems in no hurry to summon medical help? Where did he come from? What made him want to become a cop? How did he get the job and what was his training? I’ve heard one shouldn’t ask questions in pitches but rather provide answers. What do you think? It does aggravate editors when pitches end up being a bunch of questions that aren’t answered or can’t be answered. A pitch is not the place for rhetorical questions. If it’s more of a thematic question, what’s the thought process? If it’s a reporting question, answer it or tell us how you’re going to figure it out. He didn’t need to include the questions, but he did answer them.
Each of the contested police shootings of black men by white officers over the last two years is a collision of two lives, two life histories. It is a first and final meeting of two men who would seem to have no other point of intersection. What transpires between them can seem like an accident of fate — wrong place, wrong time — or fate itself. Predestined by societal forces and racial currents and confirmed by the inarguable nature of cell phone video.
Like all law enforcement officers, Michael Slager represented the ideals of order and stability, but on a personal level he had spent a considerable portion of his life drifting from place to place trying to find a purpose and somewhere to belong. The community where he became a cop was not one he had any ties to, and he was not the type to leave a footprint. After his move to South Carolina, he started out living in one house — on a treeless lot in a new subdivision — then bought a different one in a similar-looking subdivision without his old neighbors knowing where he went. For whatever reason, they seemed to think he had moved for a job on the West Coast. He didn’t coach Little League teams, sing at church or have fraternal hobbies like golf or bowling. If there was any tribe he belonged to, it was martial in nature. Uniforms, guns, authority. The writer doesn’t really cite any sources. Are you looking for that? It depends on what the story is. There’s no harm in citing sources, and we definitely get pitches where it’s not clear where things are coming from. When you’re talking about data, make clear where it’s coming from so we know it would stand up to our rigorous fact checking. If you’ve interviewed people, make that clear — that’s showing your pre-reporting.
Slager’s childhood in a comfortable New Jersey town came apart in his teens when a business venture of his father’s failed and his parents divorced. He moved in with his father in Florida, where he received some academic tutoring and his father ended up involved with the tutor — whom he would soon marry, then divorce. After about a year, Michael Slager moved back in with his mother and two sisters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. He was shy to the point of withdrawn. He liked helping his mother with chores. He volunteered with a local ambulance service and took courses in first aid and emergency medical care. Why was it effective to go into Slager’s background? It’s one of the things that made this pitch interesting to us. There are a lot of stories that humanize and bring richness of detail to the victim, and few stories that bring that to both the victim and officer. He was very thoughtful about how he did this. He wasn’t glorifying Slager in any way. He did a great job reporting out his history and laying that bare on the page.
After high school he worked as a waiter, and then, like Walter Scott, enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he served six years without apparent distinction. In fact, it’s possible that he ran afoul of rules, just like Scott. Slager was honorably discharged after six years at the same rank he entered — a rarity, and an indication either that he never received a promotion or, perhaps, was busted back down to his initial rank of “unrated fireman” after a disciplinary lapse. It feels like he’s basically writing a chunk of the story. Does that get annoying to editors with limited time? There’s no one answer. It would be annoying if it was aimless and had no real polish. Getting a long pitch that’s not well-reported and well-crafted is annoying. This didn’t feel like that at all; it felt like a preview to a story.
We have had an extended season of highly questionable (at best) and highly publicized killings of black men by police. I’m not setting out to write a story that lectures on how awful this is. We already know that. One hundred and fifty years since the end of the Civil War, and nearly eight years since the election of the nation’s first black president, America breeds white grievance and aggression at the same rate, or perhaps a greater rate, than it creates opportunity for those left behind or newly arrived. This is part of the larger story I want to tell, but I’ll find my way there through immersive reporting into the slaying of Walter Scott and a full exploration of all that his life and death connects to. Here’s where he’s predicting the editor’s question: Why now? Why is this a good case to focus on? It’s not only about what’s going on in the world at the time, but also that there’s a case coming up and it’s an obvious place for him to go report.
I want to tell the story of this police shooting, and to an extent, all of them, by examining the lives of the two men involved. Walter Scott had some obvious strengths, most notably, a deep humanity that caused his loved ones to forgive or at least abide his many weaknesses and failings. Michael Slager is not a victim, and I would never portray him as such, but he is someone who demands our understanding. He is a distinct product of America: disconnected, a loner, a military vet, an armed white man empowered to patrol unfamiliar black streets. A third character is the man who captured the shooting on his cell phone: Feidin Santana, a barber and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, where he developed both a healthy fear and a distrust of authority. He saw the confrontation unfolding on a scrubby expanse of open ground and was afraid at first to document it, but would later come to believe that God put him there for a reason—to serve as a witness, a stand-in for us all.
Slager was quickly disavowed by his own police union, another rarity. He is being represented by a renowned Charleston lawyer, one who also represents some of the families whose kin were murdered at the Emanuel African Methodist Church three months after Scott was gunned down. The two trials — Slager’s and that of church shooter Dylann Roof — may overlap in Charleston, in late October.
Here is how I propose to do this story. I would attend the trial. I know it will be covered by the national media, but not mined for material in the way I would go about it. I want to do a deep dive into Slager’s persona and past, through whatever comes out in trial (and if he is convicted, through his pre-sentencing reports) as well as through interviews with his friends and family. I’d have to spend time in Charleston as well as in New Jersey, and possibly Florida, where Slager’s father lives. He didn’t seem to have access beyond other reporters covering the trial. What made you confident he’d do something original? He’s very specific about, “Here’s how I propose to do this story.” He lays out a plan, which is really smart. He’s anticipating what we would ask.
Some of what I hope to discover is part of the missing piece of these police shootings: They offer relatively unskilled and uneducated men — the Charleston force required a high school diploma or GED — steady wages along with decent benefits and pensions. Who becomes a cop in the Fergusons and North Charlestons of America? If they are white, and they usually are, what are they bringing to the job? What disappointments, what resentments, what fears, what human qualities that might possibly equip them to effectively and humanely carry out their duties? This was something different and smart about his approach. He gets at the fact that these people are not highly educated or compensated, and that these jobs are difficult, unpleasant and often dangerous.
This story requires deep reporting as well as a high degree of thinking and writing. I’d be eager to take it on. Was this self-assured phrasing effective or off-putting? I feel like that’s a line that works maybe when you’re more experienced and have a rapport with the editor. Depending on who you are, it might sound weird. A lot of writers who pitch me are definitely far less experienced and don’t write cover stories for The New York Times Magazine all the time. There are lots of different ways to connect with an editor. Persistence is one way. Great writing is another way. Great reporting and scene-setting is another way. Editors want to work with great writers who think differently than them and are skilled reporters and craftspeople. As Jennifer Sahn said, we’re just looking for magical moment.