Just shy of three years into my freelance journalism career I’ve learned a handful of things I wish I’d understood before I quit my PR job. Most are the basics — get an accountant, paying quarterly taxes is expensive, the check is always in the mail — but then there are the big ones. The type of lessons that make or break a career if you can’t adapt quickly.
This past week while at the Society of American Travel Writers Editors Council I got a chance to work on one of the biggest of these lessons: Understanding leverage, who holds it, and how to use the little leverage you have to increase your overall value.
While it’s not appropriate to go into details about the conversations I had with editors from USA Today, Denver Post, Travel and Leisure to name a few, it is fair to say that leverage in the travel industry is increasingly becoming one-sided. What I reconfirmed was what I already knew: as a freelance writer my leverage is based on how little I can charge and how quickly I can turn it around. The fact that I can produce HD video, print-level photography, or a variety of other multimedia elements isn’t enough to catapult me past if I can work on spec or for .10 cents a word.
This brings up a major roadblock: Do I play in this space and accept the skewed reality? Or do I look where everyone else is going and walk the other way? It is no secret that travel writing is a career filled with dreams of free extended trips on the Riviera and gourmet dinners with no checks, and while some of that does happen, the harsh reality of the travel writer lifestyle is usually broken relationships, catastrophic health insurance and a lifetime of renting.
If I look the other way, however, I’m looking into a world dominated by rich content complete with a high production value, strong narrative and a budget beyond $300 for a five-minute video. The reality of this lifestyle leads me to bankruptcy in six months.
Over the weekend at the beginning of my presentation on video I told the group of editors my job is to look where everyone is going and walk the other way, while still continuing to build my career in the traditional sense. There were some raised eyebrows and a few chuckles. Of course it could have been because they aren’t used to hearing a 27-year-old presenter say something like that, but I have to think it’s because they wish their job gave them the leverage to do the same thing.
Which is where we find the answer to who holds the leverage in travel journalism. Right now it’s not the editors, not the writers, not the PR pros who can’t offer free trips to a large segment of their target base, but instead it’s upper-level management who are looking at balance sheets and ROI models. And until these individuals are able to break away from projections and quarterly profits, the leverage of pushing boundaries and moving forward with larger brands will continue to be sluggish and frustrating for many parties. Which is why I’m still playing the game by pitching traditional outlets, but also why I’m looking as far away from their business model as possible and trying to figure out how I fit into the great unknown. I just hope bankruptcy never comes.
This blog is pretty much dead, but every once in a while I find something I can’t ignore and need to put down. This past weekend while at the Society of American Travel Writers Editors Council in Portland, Oregon I got the chance to answer one of my most pressing personal development questions: Should I still continue to write for newspapers even though most times I lose money?
The answer is yes.
As a younger writer with the desire to move forward I’m still honing my voice. My transitions, flow, grammar and style are yet to be perfected. And while many writers even at the height of their career will say the same thing, the changing landscape of media means fewer and fewer editors out there to tighten work, rearrange, and pull out the narrative hidden among endless metaphors and descriptions.
So far I’ve been lucky enough to be edited by experienced line editors from Backpacker Magazine, Bicycling Magazine, The Denver Post and San Francisco Chronicle just to name a few. They haven’t been always fun experiences — the endless edits, tweaks and major changes sometimes leave my stomach in knots — but they have made me a stronger writer and improved my writing in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had only written online.
Over the past three years I’ve seen a division between my friends in traditional media and online media in regards to their writing ability and how fast they progress. Many of my online friends are excellent writers, but could become great writers if only a little help were offered to them.
This is why I won’t stop pitching print outlets even though I can’t take a press trip or write the article quick enough to make a solid hourly wage. I want to become a stronger writer. I want to learn how to craft a story in a limited amount of space for a targeted readership. I want to be told I can do things better and then shown how. Even if it means I don’t go to the coffee shop every morning.
This is why I won’t give up. Even if it means a thousand rejection letters before an assignment.
Few shots from our Sunday funday to the good ol’ ballpark.
Still not sure how I feel about writing iPad, but whatever, it’s just a name. Here’s a few observations from my end. Nothing revolutionary — there is already way to much published about the darn thing — but nevertheless:
- In no way is this the savior of media. It’s a cool idea, cool concept, has some cool features, but $500 bucks for a device that can’t be dropped, smashed, chewed on (folks with animals and toddlers) and spilled on. (Think morning coffee and the NYT’s and a sudden bark from the dog and you jump up just to tip if over…….)
- When working on applications with text make sure to ask the developer to devise an action to have the text fit directly to the screen. Playing with NYT’s columns was cumbersome (note: this was the online version) and at times frustrating to size the font just right. If there was a way to tap or execute a series of taps to autofill that would be sweet.
- Photos look fantastic. I might just buy one of these for the next wedding I shoot. Download the photos en route to the reception and let people see them at the tables. (Need to figure out the spilling and theft deal), but it’ll make more than one head spin.
- It’s a great portfolio device. Going on a trip through NY to shop your work with editors? Bring this, it’s a goldmine in this application.
- Word processing on first glance was a bit cumbersome. Without a mouse and apple key to activate keyboard shortcuts, it’s going to take some time to nail down. Probably just a few weeks, or days, or days, whatever, but it’s not looking to be something you’ll want to use to produce fine edits on a longish piece.
- It’s definitely a game changer. The fourth screen. The slate that does everything. But it’s a long way off I think. Price deduction, third party apps, third party accessories and price deduction are the keys I think. Family of four? You’re out 2k. Ouch.
- Forget anything travel oriented with this and produce education applications. This is a goldmine for students. Think K-12 with a college set happening afterwords. First group to nail a killer app for J-schools is going to make a bundle. (That is if said J-schools have deans who understand that Apple is not a fruit)
- It’s heavyish. I need to workout.
Overall: This thing didn’t exist six months ago. The iPhone is only three years old. iPods at first were shunned. Apple is onto something here. The early adopters will create a cool and sexy hipster vibe that will flood the creative New York world with iPad toting artists just ready to show off their work. Those who can afford one will boast about it’s awesome game-changing power and create those like me who don’t need one into thinking it’s keeping me back. If you’re looking to get ahead of the curve in app design and understanding how content can be repurposed it’s a solid investment, but as I thought when I was playing with one: It’s not about creating content for one device in our field. It’s about telling a compelling story. If the story is there, the device will follow.
It’s been a rough month. One that has found me mostly looking downward as I scramble for a leg up. And then tonight — with two days left to go — I took a moment to look up and found the sky awash in color. As I paused to take in the view it hit me: No matter how hard things get, sometimes all you can do is look up and fall in love with the sky all over again.
Last week while watching 60 Minutes I found it amazing that Bloom box founder K.R. Sridhar was able to describe his new power block in less than five steps. When asked what was in the block, Sridhar explained the insanely complex process as if it was a child’s toy with paint-by-numbers instructions. Sure the majority of the block’s technology was omitted, but the high-level concepts were not.
Though not a literal transcript of Sridhar’s explanation here is a CBS excerpt about how the Bloom box is created:
He said he bakes sand and cuts it into little squares that are turned into a ceramic. Then he coats it with green and black “inks” that he developed.
Sridhar told Stahl there is a secret formula. “And you take that and you apply that. You paint that on either side of this white ceramic to get a green layer and a black layer. And…that’s it.”
Sridhar told Stahl the finished product, a skinny fuel cell, would generate power.
I’d highly recommend watching the piece if you have time. The box is phenomenal and so is Sridhar.