Friday, 12 September 2008

#12 – Work experience at a travel magazine/ newspaper section

Or the only time that working for free is worth it.

Working for free CAN be worth it
I explained in the previous post why working for free is a complete waste of time and can actually have a negative impact on your career prospects. And now I’m going to contradict myself. There is one instance where working for free IS worth it.

Work experience or internships
If ever you are offered the opportunity to do some work experience (or an internship, for our American cousins) at a travel magazine or newspaper travel section, jump at the chance. For a wannabe travel writer, it’s one of the best educations you can get.

Editing in Australia
One major reason that I succeeded in becoming a full time freelance travel journalist is that I have editorial experience. I spent four years editing the British Balls! backpacker magazine in Australia. Granted, that’s as unprestigious as you can get, but it did allow me to experience life on the other side of the fence.

The extra miles
Once you’ve been an editor, you know the things freelancers do that you shouldn’t replicate. They’re the things that annoy you, make life harder and give you more work to do. On the flip side, you also know what little things you appreciate, those little extra miles that make your job a lot easier.

National newspaper travel section
When I returned to the UK in 2006 to go freelance full-time, I got to experience this on a larger scale. One of the national newspaper travel sections was on the lookout for a new member of its in-house team. The editor has seen something that she had liked in one or two of the pieces I sent on spec, and asked if I’d like to do a couple of days at the paper to see how things worked out.

Comments about regular contributors
I must have made a reasonably unconvincing impression, as I never got the job. I’m glad I didn’t now, but that couple of days taught me an awful lot. It’s the little things like the comments the team made about regular contributors – their strengths and weaknesses – that gave me a great idea of what such a publication is after.

Balance of stories, right pictures and the totty count
The other thing that struck me was how small a part in the process writing the actual story is. Far more went into getting the right balance of stories, thinking up the right headlines and subheadings, finding the right pictures and checking the facts. There was also an informal ‘totty count’ – photos of good-looking people, especially on the cover, attract eyeballs it seems.

Invaluable lessons
I was actually paid for those two days, but it would have been worth doing even without payment. The lessons learned were invaluable.
In simple terms, making life as easy as possible for the editor means they’re far more likely to give you work in the future.

What makes a publication tick?
But the little nuances were far more important than that – it’s about learning what makes a publication tick, what sort of audience they’re aiming for, which sections they find hardest to fill and what they want from a contributor.
In other words, in such an occasion, you may be working for free, but the value you’ll get from it can be immense.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Hi David
Thanks for your informative - and very generous - blog. The spec/commission issue is probably one of my biggest headaches. Having been both editor and writer, I began my freelancing with spec stories, admittedly to newspapers that knew me and my work. And I knew what they wanted.
However, moving into magazines has been a whole new experience: some will ONLY accept ideas (I suspect to build in a 'work for hire' angle, since you can't copyright ideas) and these are often the biggies like inflight/in-hotel mags. A very pleasant editor responded to my spec story and lo-res image contact sheet saying that under no circumstances would he accept 'packages'. I can pitch the same idea, (in an arse-about face way) but he would dictate angles, length, etc. Yet another editor got really stroppy when I sent an idea - framed as an overview plus intro - as advised from the Travelwriters forum). How, she asked, could I expect her to make a decision on an idea?
As it turns out I've since written for her magazine, but now I know her particular foibles (which also extend to sending, by snailmail, a CD of digital text and pix + print-outs/contact sheet, hard copy of text, separate cover sheet with headline, synopsis, intro, length). I would never in my wildest dreams have thought this was necessary before acceptance, but there you go.
So again this makes the point: freelancers need to research not only their stories, but their markets too - and expect the unexpected.
All the best,