by Monte Stewart
Jennifer Bain was a travel editor at The Toronto Star before she took a buyout in April. She is currently freelancing as a travel writer and completing a master of fine arts degree in creative non-fiction.
In this Q&A, she discusses some of her experiences as a freelance writer and travel section editor and provides tips on how freelancers can get travel stories published.
What are editors looking for in travel story pitches?
Every editor and every publication is different. There’s no one answer fits all. Analyze every publication and learn every editor’s quirks. But the starting point: Why this story, why now, why you. I’m big on transparency. I attach a resume and links to recent clips. I say where I am based, when I travelled or expect to travel, and whether the trip was self-funded or a press trip that I have a spot on or need an assignment to secure a spot on. You’d be shocked at how many people ignore these basics.
What makes a good travel story?
Every story needs characters. It needs real people and quotes and colour and detail.
How did you get started in travel writing?
I’ve been a journalist since 1990 and did a travel story on Wyoming while I was at the Edmonton Sun as a crime/court reporter in the early 1990s because the travel editor needed someone who liked to horseback ride. I was reassigned from food editor to travel editor at the Toronto Star in 2015 because I wanted a change and [management] wanted a new editor.
What about travel writing appeals to you?
I love telling stories. I love journalism because every day is different. I love travel writing because every day is extremely different.
Why did you leave the Star?
I had a great run for almost 19 years, mostly as the food editor and then as travel editor. I turned 50 in December. I got into grad school to start a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction this August. I’ll be spending the next two years writing a travel book. The company was offering buyouts and I grabbed one. It was the right time to make a big life change.
Who are you freelancing for now?
Since I started freelancing in April, I’ve had travel stories published in the Globe & Mail, Ensemble Vacations magazine, TodaysParent.com, and Daily Beast Travel. I have assignments in progress with Bold magazine, Trivago, WestJet Magazine, Canadian Traveller and YLW Connect (Kelowna Airport’s mag).
How are you finding life on the other side, so to speak, as a freelancer?
My priority right now is starting grad school and writing a travel book, which might be about fishing or might be about Fogo Island (in Newfoundland and Labrador). I’m only dabbling in freelance, so I find the pitching a fun challenge and am grateful for every assignment I land and every trip I get to take.
I saw your blog post (on www.ocanadiana.com) in which you said you set a goal of writing five freelance travel stories this year, but you have received 11 assignments. How did you surpass your goal?
I pitch like crazy. I was lucky because I knew a handful of editors and was able to send casual emails saying that I was freelancing and giving them a list of where I was travelling in case they wanted pitches on any of those destinations.
I started 2018 with a series of self-funded research trips for my travel book and I collected extra story material along the way. I have notebooks full of stories – and photos to go with them – at the ready for editors who are looking for pitches from writers who have already completed their travels. Many publications don’t want the hassle of assigning out trips and prefer to be pitched once writers have returned. I have mixed in a handful of assigned FAM [paid for] media trips as well. There are people who only travel if it’s a FAM. And there are people who avoid FAMs and only travel on their own dime. I’m trying to find a balance.
What’s your view on the state of travel coverage now in Canadian newspapers and magazines compared to when you began writing and editing travel stories?
Newspapers are ramping down travel coverage, magazines are probably holding steady, and there seem to be unlimited online publications.
What challenges will freelancers face going forward?
With writers, bloggers and influencers all chasing travel assignments, and chasing destinations for press trips, supply and demand is a huge issue.
What’s your advice to someone who is trying to break into travel writing?
Start by writing about your city, region or province. Pitch those stories hyper-locally and around the world. Or make your own [website] and build your own following.
What’s your advice to some veteran travel writers who have become disenchanted with current conditions? Some writers have complained that media outlets expect writers to provide stories for free.
Travel writing is a tough, crowded niche. I know just a couple of freelancers making a living from it. Most people pay their bills with more lucrative writing – corporate, government, university, etc. I’m seeing average rates of $300 to $500 per story. There are places that only take free copy. I was pitched endless free stories when I was a travel editor and said no to all of them, as it was against our policy. So offering free content is no guarantee you’ll be published.
What do writers need to hold out for when it comes to payment, resale rights and so on?
Be sure to nail down in writing your story length, deadline and fee before you start writing and before you file or pay the consequences. Every publication is different in terms of freelance agreements, contracts, exclusivity, rights, payment timing and kill fees. If you get a contract, read it – and remember what it says.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed. You can find Jennifer Bain on Twitter at @thesaucylady.
Monte Stewart is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver. He covers sports, business and other topics for wire services, newspapers, magazines and online media outlets in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. You can find him on Twitter at @MonteStewart.
POSTED IN: Features