Journalism, On Writing, Publishing

The Line Where Story Starts

I can’t remember now what particular flavor of mind wandering lead my browser to The Angry Therapist a few years ago, but once it did, I was captivated. Maybe it’s because I’m usually captivated by anyone articulate and brazen with a Tumblr account, maybe it’s because the therapists I’ve met look nothing like John Kim and would never describe themselves as angry. Maybe it’s because he baits me by including clips of my favorite Rolling Stones songs and lines from “500 Days of Summer.” There was something raw and nostalgic to me about the way that John (“the Angry Therapist”) blogged about the tough stuff of life — like reading a blogroll from my high school LiveJournal or Xanga days. Only John is a grownup in Los Angeles, hoping to make a living by building an online brand in order to build a client base of patients.

Mostly, I just couldn’t decide whether The Angry Therapist’s innovative mix of cognitive behavioral theory and oversharey-internet culture was going to be a zeitgeist-shifting revival of talk therapy or whether it would lead to its downfall. Is John a sorta-emo simpleton with good business sense or is he about to start the honest to goodness therapy revolution? The connection he had to his online community (his “patients”) felt visceral to me. I swear, if he becomes the Asian Oprah of the Internet, you heard it here first.  And I’ve been to therapy. And, lord knows, I’ve been to the internets. So these were questions I wanted answers to. Like any good journalist, I did what I had to do and wrote a story pitch:

 I’d like to write a feature story about a Los Angeles therapist who has built a thriving online brand in order to build a client base. The story would explore what its popularity says about the potential for changing theway we think about talk therapy: Is an online brand that’s about to take off — John Kim, its creator, recently won a $250,000 grant to expand his business —  and the self-promotion that comes along with it, really an effective therapeutic tool? Or can a brand like The Angry Therapist give talk therapy an image tune up, particularly among its mostly millennial audience?

The pitch had gone through several iterations and had a longer version ready to go at request.  It had been edited and given the stamp of approval by my advisor at the writing program (the invaluable Cathy Alter). I sent the pitch in to this new, hip startup online magazine edited by a bunch of hip, creative people around my age. Mostly, I just wasn’t sure where else it would fit. I don’t live in Los Angeles, where John is based. Psychology Today? Slate? Nothing seemed quite right. Tomorrow rejected the pitch (it happens). Then, last month, New York Times Magazine ran this story by Lori Gottlieb, who I’ll call a prolific chic-lit non-fiction writer, the one who wrote that controversial book about why ladies should “settle” to land a man and make babies. But, multitalented woman she is, she’s also a psychotherapist. In “What Brand Is Your Therapist” Gottlieb talks about the pressure for psychotherapists to have “personal brands,” and discusses the very same ideas at the heart of my story pitch (and lots of other interesting ideas I hadn’t thought of, too):

According to the A.P.A., therapists had to start paying attention to what the marketplace demanded or we risked our livelihoods. It wasn’t long before I learned that an entirely new specialized industry had cropped up: branding consultants for therapists.

Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’! But what makes John unique, as I mentioned in my longer pitch, is that he started his online blog and brand first and let the patients follow. Having spoken with him (via Google Hangouts), I’d also like to believe John is just “of the internet era.”  He didn’t start doing this solely because it was “what the marketplace demanded,” but because it was what felt natural to him. But as John’s brand grows — he’s won grants to expand and hired a team of therapists and marketers — I wonder whether he’ll run into some of the same quandaries that left Gottlieb feeling like she was compromising the integrity of her practice in the name of branding.

I’m not convinced that there’s not another story to be had here. If anything, reading Gottlieb’s piece in the Times Sunday magazine confirmed that indeed, I may have been onto something. Hey, maybe I have good ideas!? But with that story (and several others just on the concept of online therapy) out there, it’d be a challenge to pitch and shape.  When pitching and finding feature stories, where’s the line between “been done before” and “cool new twist”? Where’s the line between “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” (which no good editor really wants) and “Oh, this is a story“?

Ideas? Anyone else struggle with this in their pitches?