When Open Government And Big Data Collide

Big Data
Not long ago, journalists who sought to dive deep into government data usually started their investigation with a trip to the local library. Interested in information that government officials want to keep secret? Americans needed to pass laws to make publicly owned data public.

Two forces have combined to blow the doors open on government data: technology and the fast-growing amount of information it collects, generates, and disseminates.  (The Obama administration has helped.) Data that might have once been combed through by hand is increasingly being combined into public databases and journalists, researchers and even businesspeople are making use of it.

Here’s our guide to getting the most out of this age of transparency.

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The smart advice on how to be a travel writer: think close to home

Kingsport Church CircleFreelancers who dream of writing about travel are lured by the dream of having big-name publications such as Travel + Leisure paying them to take multi-week vacations to exotic locales where they’ll bask in lavish accommodations. If this you, and you’re serious about becoming a travel writer, you’ll soon feel the smack of reality on your forehead: your chances of scoring such plum assignments are pretty much nil. But just because you’re not Rick Steves or Arthur Frommer doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful freelancer who writes about travel as part of a broader portfolio. Here’s a smart way to go about becoming a travel writer: start local.

Are you absorbed by how the Amish cope with the 21st Century or the process of preparing the spongy Ethiopian injera bread you tasted in Chicago or Toronto? Readers elsewhere may well be fascinated by quirky features associated with your hometown. If you live in or near a traditional travel destination, and even if you don’t, your chances of scoring decent travel writing assignments – and being paid for them – are better than you may think.

‘Being there’ is two-thirds of travel writing

If you’re located in a major metropolitan area, you’re in luck. Chicago has a rich architectural history, spectacular lakefront, and lively summer festival season, all of which provide inspiration for travel stories. But dig deeper than typical tourist attractions for your story ideas and you’ll have editors’ ears. The key is giving readers a sense of being immersed in a location, explains WeekAway content editor Eleni Chappen. (Editor’s note: WeekAway is an Ebyline partner.)

“Talk to at least one local to get their perspective on an area,” suggests Chappen. “Blurring the lines between travel and the local experience is happening more and more in the travel industry, and that perspective is something travelers crave now. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to step out of the tourist’s path.”

Adam Rugel, co-founder and CEO of Open Places, agrees. “Describe that one dish in a restaurant that is really special, or that one trail in a park that is really special,” he advises. “Write about things that you can’t do anywhere else.”Downtown Chicago Street Scene

Travel editors: there really is no place like home

If you’re located in “flyover country,” don’t despair. Small towns often boast offbeat and off-the-beaten-track attractions that can provide inspiration for unique travel stories.

“We have a site dedicated to the South Shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana,” says WeekAway’s Chappen. “Not everyone would call this a conventional destination, but it has attractions like the Indiana Dunes National Seashore, which make for a great summer day-trip from Chicago. Now, a person from California is probably not looking to fly here for a week’s vacation, but it’s certainly a viable destination for a Chicago couple looking for something to do on the weekend.”

“Anything can be interesting, whether it’s a traditional vacation spot or someplace that you would never think to travel to,” Rugel agrees.

As a local, you can write about gems that visitors or travel writing veterans parachuting in for a day would otherwise miss. One example: the central business district of Kingsport, Tenn., a city of about 50,000, features buildings that date from the early 1900s. Church Circle District, a prominent feature of downtown Kingsport, is home to four historic church buildings and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but nowhere to be found in many tourist guides for the region. That lack of publicity is one feature that travel editors, inundated with pitches for destinations they’ve published on many times and to which everyone’s been, often crave.

Getting published? Look off the beaten track again.

Unless you’re already known to editors, you’re probably wasting your time pitching major travel publications, warns Tim Leffel, a travel writer and editor and author of Travel Writing 2.0: Earning Money from Your Travels in the New Media Landscape.

“It’s easier to break into trade publications, regional magazines, and those that run some travel articles but aren’t really travel magazines,” Leffel says “Spending some time perusing titles at a good newsstand or library helps, as does using a service like the Wooden Horse Database that supplies contact information for lots of publications you didn’t even know existed. Online is where the clear growth is.”

Knowing your potential audience also makes pitching and writing local and regional travel stories easier, Chappen advises.

“Try to create an ideal profile of those who are most likely to travel to your area. Are they singles in their twenties or families with young children? Do they want the luxury spa or are they the rustic, outdoors type?” she explains. “I’m an optimist and think that any area can be attractive, but not every area is attractive equally to everyone.”

You may even find it easier to get published writing about local attractions than writers pitching stories about world famous travel destinations, says Leffel.

“Everyone wants to go to France or Italy and write about it. Not so many people want to write about Missouri or Idaho,” Leffel explains. “There are plenty of angles in Missouri or Idaho though and good pitches to the right places—including regional publications–can have a high rate of success.”

 Photos by Audrey Henderson

New Year’s do-over: Freelancer resolutions you should stick to

You rang in 2013 with writerly enthusiasm and determination. This was going to be the year that you would go after big, bold assignments for top-tier publications. Now that January and February are behind you it’s time to be honest with yourself: you haven’t made much headway. Like quitting smoking or hitting the gym, becoming a better writer better is easier to think about than do. Setting attainable but still-lofty goals is half the battle so we asked several top writers for the New Year’s do-over resolutions all freelancers can, and should, pledge to fulfill by 2014.


Resolve to Write Better Pitches

“Freelancers send in pitches that are way too long,” says Seth Stevenson (www.sethstevenson.com), an author and journalist who writes regularly for Slate as well as big-name magazines and newspapers. “Boil your pitch down to two paragraphs that show you understand why that publication’s readers would be interested. Show [the editor] that you could have written 30 pages; show that there is depth behind the pitch. Make the pitch so good that they won’t be able to say no.”

“Study the publications that you want to write for religiously. Read the places that you want to work so that you know the publications better than the editors,” advises veteran freelancer David Hochman (www.davidhochman.com), who has written for Food and Wine, The New York Times and Town and Country, among others. “Surprise editors with pitches that are so on target that they have to accept them.”

“Consider what those ‘top level’ clients need, and demonstrate that you have those skills,” says Kelly James-Enger (dollarsanddeadlines.blogspot.com), author of several books including Ready, Aim, Specialize! and Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success.


Resolve to Expand Your Market

“There are a lot of companies that aren’t creating great content that brings people back to their websites or that position them as thought leaders,” freelancer and Forbes contributor Mark Fidelman (blogs.forbes.com/markfidelman) explains. “Approach those companies and ask for positions as bloggers or to write white papers.”

“As a freelancer, you never reach the end. You’re always striving to tackle new markets, new challenges, new ways to make money,” James-Enger says. “A lot of the work I do today is ghostwriting for health, nutrition and fitness experts. I already had experience with publishing books with traditional publishers, but I also did some [print-on-demand] and e-books so I could help clients determine which path might be right for them. Being able to add consulting, not just ghostwriting, to my skills has helped me get higher-paying gigs from clients.”

“There’s not one book contract or one magazine story or one newspaper byline that’s going to make you feel like you’ve arrived, because even after you get those things, you’re on to the next thing and people are saying well, what’s next and you’re only as good as your last byline,” Hochman adds. “So, it’s about setting yourself up with multiple projects that feel like you’re moving forward.”


Resolve to Write What (Only) You Know

“Find the one story that only you can tell that that sells on its own merits,” says Hochman.

“Pitch an idea you’re uniquely qualified to write—something you already have some experience or knowledge of,” echoes James-Enger.

“Read and read and read all the time and hunt that great idea. It’s all about that great idea,” says Slate’s Stevenson. “The good news is that if you have a great idea, you can get editors to give you a chance to develop it. Editors are always happy to look at new talent.”


Resolve to Improve Your Craft as a Writer

Start a blog or a Tumblr to supplement your pursuit of paid writing assignments. Assemble a catalogue of your best work, and then approach editors with pitch ideas along with links to your online portfolio, Stevenson suggests. “Find publications that will accept your work and make it shine. Really go over the top to make it sparkling and amazing.”

“You have to get really good at writing. You have to get to the point that you create an emotional connection with people,” Fidelman says. “Find engaging writers, then take what matches your style to write your own work.”

“Get off Facebook,” Hochman pleads. “Writer after writer uses it as a time suck. The ‘shifting cost,’ the lag between shifting away from Facebook back to productive work is time lost.”