Monday, July 15, 2013

So you want to do on story on "Urban Exploration."

Both I, and most people engaged in this hobby with a reasonably popular website or any kind of media presence, have been the subject of numerous requests from journalists. The majority (I would even say vast majority) of which every one of us eventually rejects, if not outright ignores.

If you want to be one of those people who are not ignored, there is really only one secret: approach people as collaborators, not as subjects.

Most media requests I, and most Urban Explorers get, read somewhat like this:
“Hi, I’m a writer/videographer/photographer/reporter for xyz publication. I think what you do is really cool. I’d love to do a story on you where I tag-along/video/photograph you “in action” on your adventures. Want to meet for coffee to discuss more?”

This is a pitch for story subjects. Now, I know from your perspective, Mr. or Ms. Journalist, this is a perfectly reasonable thing. And it generally would be reasonable if you were to use this pitch to, for instance, do a story on an airline mechanic, or gourmet chef, or long-distance runner training for the Olympics. Your thoughts are “this person does this cool thing. I’m just asking to following along, which doesn’t cost them anything. And everyone likes to see themselves in the papers or on TV – it’s good exposure.”

But this is not how it works with Urban Explorers for several different reasons. Specifically:

1) What we do is much riskier, both for us and for you

I, personally, hate being anyone but the dumbest and least capable person on any particular excursion – my theory is that I know my limits and what I can do, so as such I’m the limiting factor and don’t have to worry about anyone else (it’s a very selfish thing, I know). If you’re along, there’s about a 99% chance that you’re the limiting factor. This is maybe fine if it’s that aforementioned profile on Olympic long-distance runners, where what eventually ends up happening is that you tire out and get left in the dust while the subject completes her run. It’s less fine if involves you getting your left arm torn off by the subway because you don’t know how to clear up properly.

2) What you want to report on us doing is illegal.

As such, what you think of as the value you are offering us – exposure – is not always of value to us. In fact, it’s often of negative value. Not everybody likes or wants to see themselves in print or on TV in general, and this is exponentially true if the things they are seen doing in the papers or on TV can have negative consequences on their reputations, employment, or personal liberty.

3) We are all, to a person, writers, photographers, and/or videographers ourselves.

This isn’t necessarily bad news – it means that you have a great and valuable potential collaborator in the story you want to do. 

However, instead of a potential collaborator, journalists set up paradigms in which we’re instead direct competitors to them – and direct competitors in a vastly better position than they are. This is a very dumb position to put yourself in. Since most Urban Explorers (not me though) are photographers, let’s use that example.

Let’s say you’re a photographer whose main gig is rock shows. Maybe you’re good, maybe you’re not-so-good, maybe you’ve got tons of experience, maybe you’re just starting out. It doesn’t really matter.

Think of how you would respond if somebody pitched you a story about following you around to rock shows - not as you the rock show photographer, but just as someone who happened to like rock shows and generally had a good seat. And then, instead of offering to run your photos in the story, wanted to bring a different photographer with no experience or investment in shooting rock shows whatsoever, who would be the one to sell their photos for the story. Now think of how you would respond if additionally, instead of offering to set up access to different shows you didn’t have access to - shows where you might be able to work out a future arrangement with the bands or, heck, to at least relax and enjoy the show - you were supposed to be the one to handle all access and logistics to your shows that you had worked to get access to. And not just for the reporter, but also for the other photographer: who is selling their photos in direct competition to yours. Anytime you ask to follow an Urban Explorer around with a different photographer, this is what you are asking them to do.

4) What you are asking us to tag along on is not our everyday experience (by the way, you’re all welcome to tag along on my career as an urban planner and affordable housing advocate all you want).

What you’re asking is for us to manufacture a specific experience for you that is very difficult to manufacture. I assume you aren’t interested in doing a story on waiting at a subway station for two hours for workers to leave and then eventually going home to bed. This is a much more likely scenario than an amazing urban adventure. Perhaps one out of five (at most) excursions I go on is even worthy of a blog post, much less an actual story.

5) What you are asking from us has a lot of value.

We all get a lot of people (not just journalists) constantly asking us to “take them on an adventure.” We’ve all spent a lot of time and energy making our own adventures, and, more importantly, learning how to make our own adventures. This knowledge and expertise has a certain amount of value to us, value that you’re asking for.

But even beyond this personal value, these excursion are also very easily monetized: there is a potential financial value to taking people to interesting and non-easily accessible locations, that there is not for most “let me follow you around” journalism stories. Be conscious of that value. You’re de facto asking for at least a location scout or tour guide (and this is not even getting into the times you ask for photos or video footage). The places that I can take journalists for a quick & easy “Urban Exploration” story are the same place I can charge a $500 day rate to people looking to do documentaries on “Mole People,” or “the Decaying Beauty of our Industrial Heritage.” Even interesting and noteworthy urban places that don’t even involve trespassing I can easily make $50/hour-and-up as a tour guiding for.

Now, I’m not saying that we’re all looking for top dollar in every scenario for these things (although some of us are) – any smart tour guide will let a journalist tag along for free on their tours, for instance. But that’s because they’re hoping the coverage will lead to more business. If you want the same paradigm with Urban Explorers, then you’re going to have to offer them exposure for something they are trying to sell. This might be a book (me), photos (most other people), even legal tours or location scouting services (see above) but it is rarely, if ever, illegal nocturnal adventures.

So what’s the answer? There is no single answer. Different people want different things. Some want exposure, some want money, some want a platform, some want access. Some people would be ecstatic just to see their photos credited in print in whatever publication you’re writing for, others are going to want to charge you more than your entire story budget for one picture. Some are going to want to be the central character of the narrative, others are going to want to be referred to by pseudonyms in passing, if at all. Some people are going to want to take you places you can barely get it together to follow without peeing yourself, but not even show their face; others (me right now) are happy to pontificate for hours on camera, as long as we don’t so much as cross a strip of yellow tape.

And some people, (me again) are going to want to try and leverage your journalistic credentials to get to an interesting place legally. My response to almost all of these requests is to give a list of interesting, generally off-limits places that I want to see in New York, and offer to work with the journalist on a story if they can secure legal, or otherwise not-too-stressful, access to some of these places (which could end up as part of the story or not, I don’t really care), which I feel like is a pretty fair tradeoff.

But again: the bottom line is that people are interested in being collaborators, not subjects. And this is doubly true if you are asking things of them that you would ask of collaborators (location scouting, video footage, story ideas), not subjects. Which means you’re going to have to start thinking about:

a) potentially sharing money.
b) potentially sharing credit and creative control of the story.
c) potentially compromising on the vision of your story.
d) thinking of what you can offer, not just what you want.

I know this isn’t fun or standard for journalists. But every major story done on Urban Exploration for at least the last 7 years has followed this blueprint, and they followed it for a reason: it's the only way to get a story done.

I also know there are ethical consideration in paying subjects, or allowing them to dictate the story direction beyond what they say on or off the record. Some of these ethical considerations can be worked around (one of the most common is to have the main subject refer other photographers they know to work the story), and some maybe can’t. But still – if you want to get anywhere, you need to be trying to creatively find that ground where you feel comfortable ethically, but are still working in a collaborative manner.

So my suggestion is simple. Instead of the pitch outlined at the beginning of this post, write something like this:

“Hi, I’m a writer/videographer/photographer/reporter for xyz publication. I think what you do is really cool. I’d love to collaborate with you or have you consult on a story about Urban Exploration. As part of this, I am looking for some “in action” photos/videos/reportage on Urban Exploration. What would you be looking for in this kind of collaboration? Want to meet for coffee to discuss more?”

Now, I’m not saying it’ll work. But your chances of not getting ignored are much, much better. And hey, look on the bright side – you could be trying to pitch graffiti writers.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article. I pretty much agree with everything you've said here. After my most recent shit experience, I think I'm done with photojournalists. They literally fabricate lies to gain access to your life and later justify their actions to make them feel better about themselves.

    On the more practical side of things, I feel contracts are important for explorers as to not give up all creative control.