Inside the scoops | Sustainability questions
We're getting the story behind the story with four freelancers this month.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: sustainability. We’ve barely covered this topic on TTW — partly because we’re not quite sure how, as it’s such a huge and changing subject matter — but now we’re teaming up with Travelfish founder and Couchfish writer Stuart McDonald to bring you a genuinely useful and thought-provoking series on sustainable tourism and all its foibles. To make this the most useful series it can be, we want your questions. If you’ve got burning questions about sustainability in travel — no matter how simple or complex — chuck them in this Google Form and Stuart will endeavour to throw you a bone in April.
I wonder how they got that gig?
This is a question I’ve asked myself so many times over the last decade. I’ll be leafing through a magazine reading features on the new food scene in some European city, or a story about searching for some elusive wildlife in the deserts of Namibia, and I’ll gaze at the byline and wonder, how did they get this commission? Or I’ll scroll through Twitter when I’m supposed to be sleeping and see that yet another colleague has been whisked off to Antarctica or the Galapagos or the Maldives. It’s partly fuelled by professional envy — of course I wish I was searching for pangolins in African national parks or tweeting smugly from a daybed by the Indian Ocean — but it’s also born of genuine curiosity.
I often wonder about the inception of those ideas that turn into features in the newspapers and magazines, and I wonder how the writer turns it from an idea and into a commissioned story — is it by way of cold pitching, is it because they’ve got a great relationship with one particular editor, or did they get assigned the story? Who knows? Well, now you do, because this month we’ve grilled four freelancers about one of their recent stories. We’ve asked all the juicy stuff, from where the idea originated to how many editors they pitched and how much they got paid. We hope you find this window into another freelancer’s world an insightful read…
This is the first of four inside-the-scoop stories this March. Don’t miss the rest and become a paid subscriber now
The story behind the story: Summer Rylander goes self-funded in Alaska
Summer Rylander is a freelance journalist based in Germany, writing on food, culture and conversation. She’s been freelance writing for years on-and-off, but has been full-time freelance since January 2021. She’s from the USA, so tends to pitch US and UK publications and has bylines in Adventure.com, Nat Geo Traveller Food, Essentialist, Travel + Leisure, Reader’s Digest UK and lots more.
In September 2021 she took a trip to visit her parents in their new home in Fairbanks, Alaska, and — as many of us do — managed to turn it into a work trip with a little research. She managed to get a commission from Travel & Leisure and the piece was published in the Dec 2021/Jan 2022 issue.
Here, we find out how it all came about and how much she made…
First, a little more about you — how much of your income comes from travel writing?
"So, this is kind of a grey area. The most reliable chunk of my income currently comes from writing commerce pieces for two major food websites (Food & Wine and Serious Eats). These usually take the form of explainers, product test results, gift guides, and roundups like “the 7 best beer glasses.” This is obviously not travel writing, but there can be some crossover with experts I’ve met through travel providing relevant quotes and since food is one of my travel beats, I don’t feel like I’m shifting gears too drastically when I open a doc to write kitchen commerce.
“For more context, my biggest anchor client used to be a real estate website and I’ll still accept the occasional one-off assignment from them—that does feel like whiplash! Most importantly, commerce writing pays well and I’m offered several assignments each month with no pitching. For a product roundup that takes me about two hours to complete, I’ll usually earn $700 (£580) and I’ll have 4-6 of those each month from Food & Wine, plus 2-3 varying assignments from Serious Eats that generally pay $400-550 (£330-455). These earnings allow me to do things that support my travel writing—like staying in pricey London for a week over IMM.”
What’s the piece you’re telling us about and who was it for?
I wrote a short piece for print Travel + Leisure called “Beyond the Borealis,” which highlighted four craft spirits distilleries in Fairbanks, Alaska. The story appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of the magazine.
Where did the idea come from?
My parents moved to Fairbanks several years ago and I hadn’t yet been for a visit. As I planned my trip in late September 2021, I decided to see if I could also turn it into a work trip. I reached out to the tourism board and we had a call to chat about ideas, and that’s when I learned about the craft beer and spirits scene—the latter of which I found especially interesting.
How did you pitch it? Can we see your pitch? (Screenshot or copy and paste is fine here)
In June 2021 I pitched an editor who oversees the magazine’s Discoveries section (Travel + Leisure has a comprehensive pitching page here, btw). I kind of cringe re-reading the pitch now because it’s just so long! But in the spirit of sharing, here it is:
I have pitch for your Discoveries section, and I know you're busy so I'll get right into it:
A 'Spirited' Journey Through Alaska's Golden Heart
Fairbanks may be best-known for Northern Lights and dog sledding, but this former gold rush city is quietly becoming a hotspot for handcrafted spirits. My piece 600-word piece will introduce Travel + Leisure readers to Fairbanks as a distillery destination by highlighting these four producers:
Hoarfrost. Toivo Luick (Alaskan-born) and his wife, Natalya Medvedeva (from Moscow), make their prize-winning vodkas by hand with Alaskan barley. Every step of their process is completed in-house, from grinding the barley to sealing each bottle. Hoarfrost Premium Crystal is their flagship vodka, while Hoarfrost Premium Brilliant is their top-level sipping vodka and a gold medal recipient of 2019's Fifty Best Domestic Vodkas competition.
Fairbanks Distilling Company. From a historic building in downtown Fairbanks, owner-distiller Patrick Levy produces small batches of his ultra-smooth, potato-based vodka called 68 Below. Levy's distillery is the aftermath of his realization that cultivating a vineyard in Fairbanks would not be a viable pursuit, so he turned instead to vodka production. Made exclusively with Alaskan-grown ingredients, 68 Below is certified "Made in Alaska."
Ursa Major. This family-run distillery not only produces their signature Long Winter vodka, they also make Summer Harvest gin, Fairbanks Sourdough rum, and a classic Akavit. Each spirit is handcrafted and small-batch. Ursa Major regularly collaborates with local food trucks to create a "chill hang" atmosphere in the summer months with ample outdoor seating.
Arctic Harvest. Located just outside of Fairbanks in nearby North Pole, this distillery sits on a 350-acre farm where every ingredient of their signature spirits is grown and harvested. The idea for Arctic Harvest was born from a barn full of barley and a passion for well-crafted spirits, and their range includes Solstice Shine moonshine whiskey, Moonlit Winter malt whiskey, AK Northern Light whiskey, and Frozen Farmer Vodka.
Each distillery offers tours and tastings to interested visitors, so they're perfect for incorporating into any beverage enthusiast's Fairbanks getaway. (There are local breweries, too!)
I am traveling to Fairbanks in early September to visit family and I'll be touring these distilleries while I'm there. I'm in contact with Explore Fairbanks, the official tourism bureau, and they're prepared to assist with visuals and further insights into Fairbanks' food and beverage scene. I've written a print travel feature for Culture, and I've contributed to Travel + Leisure digital, The Kitchn, Smart Mouth, and more. I also have a drinks piece scheduled to publish on Food & Wine's digital platform next week and I'm happy to follow up with that link if you'd like to see a topic-related clip.
Are you interested in this story?
Thank you for your time!
How many editors did you pitch?
This T+L editor was the first. I honestly don’t remember how or why I decided to pitch a print editor for this particular story; I guess I just decided to go for it?
Your trip was self-funded, so how did it work? Did you pitch before the trip or after? Was it a holiday that turned into a story, or did you pitch it with the intention to self-fund?
I travelled in September 2021, so my June 2021 pitch was before the trip. This is usually not how US publications work, but since it was always going to be a self-funded trip that I was definitely taking whether I got any commissions or not, I didn’t see anything to lose. The editor replied quickly with interest but said it might be closer to winter before she could confirm, I said that was fine and we agreed to touch base again in September. She ended up coming back to me in August and asked if I could file a few weeks later—which meant I had to write the story before my trip after all.
How did you do the research? What were your costs on the ground like? Do you know how much you spent?
I set up Zoom calls with someone from each of the distilleries and gathered info to write the piece. It was filed and edited by the time I travelled, but I still visited each distillery while I was in Fairbanks because that had always been my plan. This was all during COVID times so there had been some changes to dates and we flew to Vancouver, BC to visit friends before continuing on to Fairbanks, but I think flights came out to about €1900 (£1700) total for both my husband and I. We stayed at my parents’ house so we didn’t have accommodation costs.
What was the editing process like? Did they come back with lots of edits or was it a simple send-and-publish situation?
It was all very straightforward. I filed, they said it looked solid and would let me know of any questions. There were no questions and the next time I saw the story it was a PDF for a final check before going to print.
What did you get paid?
I invoiced in early September and was paid 60 days later.
Did you get any other commissions from the same trip? If so, please provide names of publications, fees you received and links to the stories.
Yes! Family aside, going to Fairbanks really did pay off with some nice bylines. My Travel + Leisure story was paid at $2 (£1.66) per word for 400 words. I also pitched a story to Condé Nast Traveler (US) digital on how to see the northern lights in Fairbanks, which the editor asked if I could write instead as a guide to seeing the lights in Alaska as a whole—this paid $0.50 (£0.41) per word for 800 words. A year later, CNT reached out to ask if I wanted to update the story (changing at least 30% of the copy) for a fee of $250 (£205). Finally, I got a “5 things we love about Fairbanks” commission from AAA Via which paid $1 (£0.83) per word for 800 words.
Was it worth it financially?
All told, I’ve earned $2250 (£1860) from commissions about Fairbanks. Considering I was going to make the trip either way, I’d say it was worth it!
Tweet of the week
Who to follow
Melissa Yeager is a senior editor at Lonely Planet and has recently been commissioning. Follow her for more call-outs to bolster your bylines.
Industry must-reads, awards & more
Cathy Adams at The Times has written an all-encompassing guide for hoteliers on what we actually want and it is spot on.
The Nat Geo Masterclasses are back and they start TONIGHT — sign up to travel writing and photography seminars here.
The Visit USA Awards are open for your American stories, and the Visit England Excellence Award for content is open, too.
This is the first of March’s series on the Story Behind the Story. Know someone who might find this interesting? Share Talking Travel Writing so they can subscribe and get access to all past and future newsletters.
Of course her markets are top tier, but putting that aside for a moment - that whole model of conflating the personal/leisure trip with a supposedly working trip has never worked for me. I'm one of those who like distinct boundaries - so, I'm there to relax, and I don't mind how much I spend on transport/food/getting around, or I'm there to work, and I have to emerge in the black even with some expenses.
Thank you. TravMedia Ive come across but just couldn't recall the name. Gorkana is new to me. Thats very helpful - and so swift a response!