Bryan Appleyard’s recent UK Times profile of Steve Jobs and Apple is a thing of beauty.
The 4,300-word profile explains in great detail Jobs’ “narcissistic personality” and the incredible, almost mafia-esque code of silence surrounding product development at a company that’s led the world in technology innovation from the Mac to the iPod to the iPhone.
The story also appears months after the Wall Street Journal was first to report on Jobs’ liver transplant, an event that Apple never publicly discussed despite persistent rumors of the Jobs’ continuing poor health.
Which begs the question: is it better to have a story first or wait and come out with the best?
In this case, Appleyard and the Times opted to be best, or at least the most in-depth, a bet that paid off with a piece filled with nuance that takes time and reflection to get. It’s also got the kind of quotes that make you think, how did he get people to say that on the record?
Which route should freelancers take?
The answer depends on the kind of writing business you want to cultivate and that depends in part on the type of writing you’re good at.
If you’re getting into freelancing after leaving a daily newspaper or just like the thrill of the hunt, you’ve probably got a well-developed news sense and lots of contacts, making it natural to pursue writing jobs that let you go after breaking news. If you prefer to dig deeper into a subject or let the ramifications of the day’s news simmer into a longer stew of a thought piece, you’d be better off writing features and profiles.
Whether you pursue first v. best also depends on the publications you work for or aspire to work for.
If you cover the celebrity beat for TMZ, Gawker or another tabloid you’re earn high praise, tons of traffic and the career props and money that come with them if you’re first with the news that, say, Michael Jackson’s died. Ditto if you write for TechCrunch, Mashable, Politico or any other publication that breaks industry news.
Those qualities aren’t as important to other publications like The New Yorker, Good Housekeeping or Outside, which due to their editorial philosophy or article lead time for the print versions of their publications, prefer to present readers with the long view.
Then there are markets that run both breaking news and features.
Some writers are better at one, some at the other. Some straddle the fence, doing one or the other depending on which client they’re working for that week. I’m in this camp, and it’s not always easy, especially if I’m doing one kind of story for one publication at the same time I’m doing the other for a second.
I’m working on something right now that falls into the category of later but better, or so I hope. When the piece is online, I’ll post a link so you can see how I did.
What’s the focus of your writing business – being first or being best?