By Karen Kefauver
“How do I know that a writer is not just trying to go on a free trip?” The question came up frequently at marketing and media seminars at the 2006 ATTA summit in Seattle. While tour operators and visitor bureaus seek media coverage to highlight their trips and destinations and attract new customers, they had concerns about spending their valuable resources on press trips for freelance writers who might not produce any results.
As the field of adventure travel continues to expand, more businesses are vying for coverage in a media world that is rapidly shifting. As global media expands to embrace new technology that enables audio, video and web logs (blogs) communication in addition to traditional print and photographs, there are more freelance writers than ever, though not all of the same caliber. How can you find the best ones for your needs and tap their talents?
Based on my decade as a freelance writer covering adventure travel and from input from other travel pros, here are answers to five frequently asked questions (FAQs) that can help you build positive relationships and avoid pitfalls with freelance writers. Part II of this series will address how to work with freelance writers to develop a successful press trip.
1. What is a freelance writer and how do they work?
Freelance writers are generally self-employed and contract with a variety of publications to write stories. In contrast, “staff writers,” and editors usually work full-time as employees of a single publication. A freelance writer may contribute often to one or more publication, but is not considered an employee of that publication. Producing a story requires a freelance writer to conduct thorough research, take meticulous notes and then write engaging and accurate text on a deadline. The writer turns the story over to an editor, who will often make changes to that story, sometimes major alterations and other times minor edits. Ideally, an editor will engage the writer in that process before the final result appears. Sometimes the publication date of a story may change and that is beyond the control of the writer. Since a writer is essentially a contractor, he/she never can exercise ultimate control of the publication date; writers have been known to wait years to have a certain story published, especially a travel story that is not time sensitive. And there are occasions when an editor decides not run a story at all, thus “killing” it.
2. How can I tell if a freelance writer is reliable?
Check the writer’s portfolio and ask for references from editors if you have questions. Most professional writers have websites that showcase samples of their work. In evaluating writers, look at what publications they write for, the size of the circulation of the publication and make sure they have written something within the past year. Also, take the time to read a story or two and see if you like his or her writing style. Another sign of a working writer is active memberships in reputable travel writing organizations (ones that require their writers have met certain milestones in their careers). You may also want to consider if a writer has a background in writing, such as a degree in journalism or English or perhaps a former staff job at a newspaper or magazine.
3. Where can I find6 a freelance writer?
Identify who writes the stories that you enjoy reading in magazines, newspapers and online and then contact the author. Often under the author’s name in a newspaper or at the end of a magazine story, there will be an indication if that writer is a staff writer or “contributor” which often means freelance. Look for contact information, such as an email or website for a writer and follow up with a phone call or email to introduce yourself and your company. Also, check out writer databases for professional journalist organizations like www.mediabistro.com, asja.org and satw.org.
4. What are some of the challenges and rewards I will face working with freelance writers as opposed to staff writers?
Freelance writers typically have small budgets since they may not have access to a corporate expense account like some writers at larger publications. For a tour operator, that may mean incurring additional expenses to help the freelancer make the trip – airfare or other transport costs to the destination in addition to the scheduled itinerary. While an investment in a freelancer may be more costly at times, the rewards can be great.
“Freelancers can offer the tour operator, tourist board or public relations company more than just one outlet,” explained veteran writer Ginny Prior, an outdoor and adventure travel writer who recently traveled to Lapland. “I’ve often placed stories on a single destination in several publications and on radio. When I was in Alaska, for example, I did a magazine feature, a newspaper article and four radio shows. If I’d been an editor on staff, I’d have done only one piece — for my employer,” said Prior, (www.ginnyprior.com).
For publicist Skip King, who represents the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. (GPTMC) as well as Moonlight Basin in Big Sky, Montana, freelance writers are easier to deal with than editors. “For one thing, editors move around a lot; freelancers tend to stay put,” said King. “For another, freelancers extend the publicist’s (and, by extension, the client’s) reach. Plus, interest a freelancer in a story and you can end up with an almost double-team approach to a given outlet or story. The key is to identify the freelancers who will 1.) be interested in a given type of story, and 2.) have the chops to tell that story well.”
5. How do I know that a writer is not just trying to go on a free trip?”
“No host is interested in providing a free vacation for a casual freelancer,” said Skip King (www.reputationstrategies.com), echoing what many ATTA members expressed. “However, some latitude must be given to top-tier writers; those people who byline regularly in widely-read publications rarely scam trips (they don’t have the time to do so). Even if nothing comes out of a given trip immediately, what they learn will generally appear down the road, in one form or another. And remember, the best writers aren’t interested in the same story everyone else is doing. But they may use the trip to gather the basic background that spurs a later story – one that will blow you away.”
Karen Kefauver is a freelance adventure travel and endurance sports writer based in Santa Cruz, CA. She is a competitive cyclist and enjoys getting off the beaten track in her global travels. Visit her website at www.karenkefauver.com to read her latest feature stories.