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.
During the past 18 months I’ve been having lots of conversations about rethinking media. A month ago while speaking with several Conde Nast employees I used an example from Apollo 13 as my thesis for what media has to do today. In honor of Apple’s Tablet iPad, I thought I would share my entire thought processes in one, one minute clip.
The Apple iSlate, otherwise known as the-only-possible-thing-on-the-planet-that-can-save-media, is supposed to be released next week by Apple and the media is scrambling to be ready. But what are you doing to get your own brand in place to take on this new technology?
Not sure? Consider the following:
- If Apple does in fact release the iSlate, magazines and media companies will be turning to advertisers in droves to fill their new digital properties. This means ads will need to be placed next to interactive content and possibly be interactive themselves. Is your brand ready to be interactive and have multiple campaigns?
- If you’re brands video is placed next to a Sports Illustrated video recap of last night’s NBA game, how will your video quality compare to the high definition video SI is using? Flip camera’s worked great last year, but now as mobile displays are able to distribute video in full hd will your ad take advantage of that?
- Advertising, or rather good advertising today, is all about storytelling and providing viewers with a story. With interactive ads, brands can now highlight personalities, product demonstrations, real-world situations and story lines that support their message and engage the viewer. Outdoor brands and travel brands have a strong advantage here. Who wouldn’t want to see yesterday’s snow conditions, check out interactive trail maps, and view 360-degree photos of hotel rooms when deciding if they were going to book a trip that weekend to their favorite resort?
- Are you still thinking one-way? Or are you using your ads to encourage conversation and participation? Advertising is no longer about putting out a message and expecting it to stick. We all know this, but for some reason advertisers are still approaching ads as if they were ads and not their own branded content. Most magazines have little to no online budget, so ads can take advantage of this and use various mediums to create their own content targeted specifically at iSlate users. For instance, if your brand was a rafting company, approaching your advertisement as a narrative travel story following a select number of guests, engages the viewer more than just a bunch of b-roll video with crappy copyright-free music. If you are thinking like a journalist, your brands advertisements will stick out. Big time.
There are many more ways brands can set themselves up for the iSlate and mobile advertising, but by far the largest step needs to be action. Like podcasting and iPhone Apps, the early adopters were able to grab market share quickly and stay ahead of the game by innovating along the way. So instead of wringing your hands, start small and build from there. Brands that do will succeed and I believe will stand out sometimes even more than the editorial content they are next to.
Yes, I know you are probably editing the title. Good. That means you’ll laugh at this I hope.
Step 1: Call your mother or most supportive person in your life. Fish for a complement and write it down on a sticky note. Make sure to place said sticky note on your computer screen or printed out article. Refer to said sticky note whenever feeling down.
Step 2: Put on some classical music, but non of that take-over-the-world stuff. Think I-love-my-life-and-just-got-married. Flutes and harps are great for this.
Step 3: If you’re a drinker, put the bottle away. You will need this for when you’re done. If you’re not a drinker, grab a beer. The shock of hops will help subside the red ink flowing over your work.
Step 4: Read the editors comments — if there are any — about how you are on the right track. This will help immensely when reading “rewrite,” and “lame, please do not include.”
Step 5: Look at sticky note and begin.
Name the movie and I’ll give you props. (Have a feeling most won’t be able to nail it.) But the line stands true this week as I prepare to head down to Guadalajara, Mexico for the Society of American Travel Writers annual conference. I’ll be speaking again this year on multimedia and will also be launching my new company Plus Ten Media. It’s going to prove to be quite the trip I’m sure, but like all things, I’ve come to realize I won’t now it’s full power for many years to come.
I get about seven to ten emails a week from writers looking for advice on how to start out a freelancing career. Most of the letters are well thought out, show they have read my work, and display a passion for writing beyond just a byline. My goal is to answer everyone with at least a short response within 48 hours, and if their letter requires a more detailed response within two weeks.
After writing a few hundred people back I thought it would be good to put some of the advice in a blog post. As I always tell the folks who email me, take my words of advice as just another person’s opinions. I can’t stand on my soapbox and tell you they will work every time, but I can tell you it’s what has worked for me and it possibly might just work for you.
* Read: I can’t stress this enough. Read every day. Make sure to read multiple mediums — books, newspapers, magazines, online, blogs, etc. — and take notes on things you like and things you don’t. When reading also make sure to look at how the medium displays the text and how an online article reads differently from say a New Yorker feature. When pitching publications it is imperative to understand how they chose to communicate with their readers. This might sound obvious at first, but editors complain all the time about the lack of freelancers who take the time to really understand the publication they are pitching. One tip is to look at the publications media guide for advertisers and look at their readership demographics. If you are pitching say Woman’s Adventure, it would be good to incorporate in your pitch the article supports the fact women make up 80% of all travel decisions for families. This not only displays that you know the publication, but it proves to the editor that the article you are pitching will enhance their readers’ lives in some way.
* Pick up the phone and ask questions. The first thing I did when I wanted to be a travel writer was email just about every writer and editor who wrote for my favorite publications. I would send them a note asking for advice, thoughts on how to break into the industry, and any contacts they could introduce me to. The feedback was overwhelming. One writer, Kate Siber out of Durango, Colorado, recently passed my name along to an editor who previously didn’t return my emails. I hadn’t talked with Kate for nearly a year and was glad I took the time to approach her the right way. There is a catch however, and it comes with taking the time to research the writer/editor and knowing what to ask without wasting their time. Make sure to know how they can provide value to you and what questions to ask in order to get the information you need. Simply saying, “Hi so and so, I’m a new writer looking to get into magazines and was wondering if you had any advice?” Will make you look like an idiot. For some great advice on how to contact a senior-level writer check out this post by Todd Defren who owns one of the most forward-thinking PR firms.
* Write down a list of goals and post them on your bathroom mirror. The list should include goals that could take years and goals that could be met in a week. Getting into the New York Times is hard, and though it can happen fast for some, it’s the little steps that lead to a big byline. Make sure to map out your path and reward yourself when you reach important milestones. In the freelance world there is no performance interviews with bosses, just yourself.
* Listen to what industry leaders are saying, but don’t let it make you become negative. I subscribe to Media Bistro’s daily morning newsletter and each day I start off with a sobering dose of reality: magazines are getting shut down, newspapers are disappearing, senior editors are jobless, the Internet is going to ruin us all. The news is discouraging and constantly makes any freelance writer question their decision to write. But it is also empowering. It shows that an industry so familiar with itself just a few years ago is broken and confused. There is unlimited opportunity right now for freelance writers; it just might not come with a huge paycheck or standard byline. So before reading all the negative news remind yourself: first there was word of mouth, then paper, then the printing press, then radio, then TV, and now the Internet and you know what? People are still writing and telling stories.
* Take a business class and understand what ROI, clickthrough, CPM, and unique visitor mean. Pitching an editor now requires some business understanding of how the industry works, and by setting yourself up to understand the back end of writing, you will be more successful in determining where to allocate your time. This does not mean you have to take advertising classes and cross over to the “dark side,” as editors may say, but it is important to understand what a publisher is thinking when deciding how much money to spend on an average issue or website.
Finally the most important thing you can do is write. Write every day. Write when you don’t want to. Write about things you like and things you hate. And when you’re done writing remember to listen. Because once you write everyday you will need something to write about and listening is an art too many people have forgot. And listening is truly the key to success in any business.
Good luck and remember we are all in this together. Yes freelancing is competitive and tough to get these days, but that does not mean taking the time to help one another is wasting your time or taking opportunity away. It is building relationships, advancing the industry, and ultimately will pay off tenfold.
When I told my ninth grade teacher I wanted to be a writer she advised me to write what I knew about and to write every day. She even gave me a journal and asked me to fill it up by the end of the school year. I started out strong, but soon found myself skipping a few days here and there, and before I knew it, I was going an entire month without penning one wordd. At the end of the year she asked to see my journal and I was embarrassed. I had failed miserably.
Now 13 years later I’m still struggling to follow her advice. I try to write every day, but sometimes I get busy and push my writing aside. If you are a budding writer or a seasoned author take a second and check out this clip from John Grisham on writing. The advice is priceless, even if you have heard it a thousand times.
- Thanks to APhotoEditor
I remember during my first week as a PR professional I learned one of our clients CEO’s never wrote his own quotes. Instead an account manager crafted a quote to fit the press release or statement and had him refine it. Sometimes the quotes would get refined ten or twelve times. I was confused. “It’s just the way the industry works,” the manager told me. I still didn’t get it.
And then something happened: I lost my innocence. In hindsight I should have lost it years before then, but for some reason I never did. Lately there has been some debate about ghostwriting and what happens when it enters professional journals. Just today the New York Times ran a front-page story on pharmaceutical companies paying ghostwriters to push therapy. The writing appeared in scientific papers and was published between 1998 and 2005. The incidence is disturbing, but I feel should not produce an outrage. Why? Because it happens all the time and as society we just look the other way.
Two years ago while conducting a press briefing for an upcoming book, the author told me she was ghostwriting the piece for an industry expert. I asked her how the process worked and she said she researched and wrote the book while he scanned it and signed it off. In the end he got all the credit while she went on to ghostwrite the next piece. She of course was fine with this I should point out.
I would be a fool to say ghostwriting is bad. In fact, I know several writers who make their living writing for other people. I’ve even done it once or twice myself when it comes to corporate copy or website filler. But I still have a hard time with it. Our names are supposed to signify what we did, not someone else, so I have to question now when I read something or hear something: is this person really saying this or did it come from some hidden shadow typing away?
- New York Times Medical Papers by Ghostwriters Pushed Therapy