The Top Five Factors I Use When Deciding on an Interesting Feature to Chase

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When people hear how I make a living, firstly they’re surprised at the diversity of it. Right after that they start asking questions. They’re often quite interested and then, in a well meaning way, say, “My pal has a great car / house / aircraft / insert as required. You should get it into a magazine.”

I’m never, ever dismissive of these well meaning contacts. Very often the conversation leads to some fascinating introductions. But I have in place a little mental checklist I run as we chat about this friend. Not that I’m being dismissive and only looking to cash in on subjects, but there’s a difference between an engaging chat between friends and the factual business of creating an interesting feature to a professional standard, one worthy of publication. So here are a few things on my mental checklist that I consider before creating a pitch to editors and producers.

Original Porsche factory documentation
What’s the story? Some cars have a fascinating hidden history….

1. Has it been published before? While this isn’t the Kiss of Death for a feature, it certainly reduces the appeal significantly, especially an automotive one. If the story has been published before, what was the previous article about? Have things changed in the subject significantly since? EG car value, car development or a property’s restoration? Is the target audience the same and can we bring something fresh to that story that hasn’t been covered before?

2. Who will be interested in running with this? I don’t pitch stories to multiple editors at a time. They really don’t apereciate being put into a Dutch Auction and while some photogs and writers may do this, are they really so stupid as to think that editors don’t talk to each other? So I consider who I know out there who’s antennae might be tweaked by this and who’s editorial stance and readership will most benefit from this story?

If I cannot think of anyone who’d go with it, or if it just doesn’t fit the timeline right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t fly. This idea might go into my Evernote ‘tickler’ file to be considered later.

3. What’s the story? There are many, many great cars / homes / aircraft / locations out there. Their owners think that they deserve to be in print. Indeed, I know of tuner car builders who’ve spent huge sums, the objective being a magazine article featuring their car. Odd, but it happens.

But just having a beautiful car, for example, presented perfectly won’t get you in print. For me, 90% of the time, it’s about the people. With classic cars, it’s a combination of the people and the history. Don’t believe me? Everyone loves a barn find story. It tugs at your heart strings and you can imagine the excitement of opening that dusty door, a shaft of sunlight illuminating something that hasn’t been seen in decades. It’s the sort of thing we can imagine happening to us. The subject car will be in pretty grim condition, but that’s not the point. It’s about the people, the history. The story.

4. Is it cost effective? While it may be a wonderful story, how much is this going to cost to produce? Travel costs, location fees and other things all eat into budgets which are constantly under pressure these days.

Am I writing, shooting or both? This obviously has an effect on production costs. While I was a full time photographer for many years, today, I often find myself directing another photographer / cameraman and concentrating on the logistics of getting all of that content captured for editing later.

Sometimes, you've just got to get out there and do it. On a cargo ship heading for Sweden....
Sometimes, you’ve just got to get out there and do it. on a cargo ship heading for Sweden….

5. Is it one of those ‘gut instinct’ stories I just have to do? Sometimes, I see a story and cannot think who might be interested, but I still feel it’s a fascinating subject. If that happens, I sometimes just have to say, ‘screw it, lets go’. If I can justify the costs, or can find a way to ‘work for free’, then my gut instinct wins over and I just do it. When I get that feeling, a unique combination of intrigue, curiosity and excitement, I just know that somewhere there will be someone else who will feel the same way and if I wait, I’ll regret it later.

It’s not a foolproof system, but it’s served me well over this last decade. While the platforms we have for publishing interesting features has changed massively over this last decade, the same core values are as important as ever. Whether we’re creating a print feature, a blog article or an online video, what’s the unique aspect of the story?

Author: Neill Watson

Neill Watson is a professional writer, photographer and driver coach. He is the founder and editor of Historic Racer and the popular Car Photographer blog. Learn more about him and connect with him on the social media channel of your choice using the symbols below or sign up for Neill's regular email newsletter.

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