When Open Government And Big Data Collide

Big Data

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 Circle

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

#Journo100 Finalist: Masada Siegel and the power of positive journalism

Courtesy of Masada Siegel

To highlight the wide diversity of journalism innovation projects proposed by our 100% Journalism finalists, we’re running short Q & As with our ten finalists. 

When the twin towers fell on September 11th, 2001, Masada Siegel watched in horror from a CNN newsroom in Manhattan. Then, after two years of covering the fallout from the terrorist attacks, Siegel decided it was time to move on from traditional journalism.
Since then, her writing and reporting has focused on telling what she calls positive stories about the good that’s taking place in the world. Covering everything from skydiving to Alaskan moose country to vice presidential motorcades, Siegel has freelanced for The New York Times, Reuters, CBS, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and The San Francisco Chronicle to name a few. As one of the finalists in the 100% Journalism Challenge, Siegel wants to hire freelancers from around the world to seek out positive stories for inclusion in an anthology and  eventual website.

The following is an excerpt from Ebyline’s interview with Siegel, edited for clarity.

Tell us about positive journalism and your #journo100 project proposal.

I’ll say that I’ve covered some really tragic, horrible stories and I really do believe that you have to see past it because you can wander through the journalism media world and become completely jaded and unhappy. After I covered September 11th for two years I found myself really looking at things in a negative way. And I was tired. I was tired emotionally. I was tired with everything so I basically, for a variety of reasons, just quit my life. I quit journalism, took my savings and went backpacking to Australia and New Zealand because I had never been and I felt I had seen pretty much the worst that I’d ever want to see and I wanted to fill my head with beautiful places and beautiful thoughts. I wanted to see the other side.

After quitting, why did you return to journalism?

I think if you’re a journalist or a freelance writer, you can’t escape it. It’s part of who you are. I always say: I didn’t choose to write, writing chose me. You’re really making no money and so you have to be passionate about it, you have to love what you do, you have to feel that you’re getting something out of it. And I know as a journalist I feel like I’m learning every single day, whether as a freelancer I’m learning on the business end how to market myself and sell my stories… and on the other side I get to interview amazing fabulous people who have changed the world, and at this point it’s usually people who have changed the world in a more positive way.

How do you envision using freelancers for this project?

I could see a book with, I don’t know, 10 to 15 stories. I would love stories about someone interviewing the Dalai Lama, or something that happened to the next-door neighbor that was just really meaningful. I envisioned doing some of the writing myself and hiring other people to do the writing as well.

Who do you think will benefit from your coverage of this topic?

Everybody. I think I have a wide audience. I think [there are] a lot of people who have gone through a rough number of years, whether it’s financially or whether it’s, you know,  we’ve had wars going on and we’ve had soldiers overseas. I think a positive book, looking at things on the bright side can help everybody whether it’s the 13-year-old kid or the 90-year-old grandparents. I just think the more positive inspiration you have around you or in a book of other people’s experiences, the better off we all are.

Being a Writer versus Writing

being a writer

“I wish I had your life!” I hear it as I run into a friend on my way to a media dinner. They imagine a glamorous life of being wined and dined.

I usually reply “And I wish I had your paycheck.” No one I know in a “real” job gets paid as little as most any freelance writers I know.

Most people I know also have health insurance, sick days, and someone else to turn to when things go South. Every freelancer I know is just a little crispy around the edges, and their friends and family never understand why. They imagine a life free of cubicles, florescent lighting, and jerky bosses.

But now, the jerky boss is me. And the lighting, when it needs to be replaced, gets replaced by me. And if there’s a problem with the printer, or my computer decides to start eating dates on my calendar and duplicating entries in my contact log, guess who gets to de-bug and troubleshooting? Me.

So the business of being a freelance writer is basically a business just like fill-in-the-blank. Most writers are self-employed and work from home. What this requires is enormous, really inhuman, amounts of discipline. It requires tenacity exceeding that of a terrier with a favorite knotted sock in its teeth. It demands persistence rivaling that of your mother when she was trying to get you to mow the lawn or pick up your room.

The writer’s life makes the work of Sisyphus look like child’s play. We are never done. Never off the clock. And even when a job is done, there’s that damn pipeline to tend to. Nothing is more terrifying than an empty pipeline.

In the end, we muddle through. Most of us because, on balance, it is a still the life we prefer.

It is worth remembering that the glass is both half empty AND half full.

  • Empty: You hate being your own IT guy. 
  • Full: You are learning things that will make you more self-sufficient. You can control how long you spend, when you spend the time on many of these tasks, and you can schedule regular maintenance. You can also choose to barter or set a goal to hire help. If you hate it that much make it into a goal that will motivate you to grow your business!
  • Empty: You’re miserable at sales, marketing and invoicing clients.
  • Full: You can take a class or trade some skills with someone who is a whiz at these things. Do a new marketing one-sheet for a friend who can set you up in Freshbooks, for example.
  • Empty: You never have time to take that class you want to take, to get better at photography, or learn some coding.
  • Full: You, no one else, controls your training and development plan. Schedule it like you would going to the gym or a client meeting. Find and join a professional association. Take an Adult Ed class.
  • Empty: You find the business end of being a writer interferes with writing.
  • Full: You must find a way to do the writing. Early in the morning, late at night, lunch breaks from your day job. Just be sure to do the work, get better, and remind yourself how lucky you are to be doing what you love.

Remember, we can mostly make our own hours, we have easy commutes. We can take a walk on a nice afternoon without asking permission. We get to work in jammies or yoga pants if it pleases. Try doing that in a “real job.”

Resources for writers:

UrbanMuse – Ebyline’s own Susan Johnston publishes this site and newsletter that every writer should build into their weekly reading. I dare you to read it once and not come away with three new ideas or leads.

Workbar – in Boston we have a shared, drop-in workspace. You may find that getting away from your own house, office or desk in a professional space enables you to focus in a certain way that doesn’t happen often enough in your own space.

Beyond the Margins – A site by and for writers where you will find tons of great information and inspiration.

Will Write for Food - Especially for food writers, but applicable to more. There are exercises and it casts an honest light on the business. Dianne Jacob also has a blog that often surprises with the depth and breadth of info.

Grub Street - the original writers’ workshop. Drop in and formal classes. Or try BCAE or other adult ed organizations. You may be able to audit a class somewhere, too. Look around, ask.

Inked-In – a site for creatives. Writers, painters, playwrights.

And, for a laugh:

The Oatmeal - “Why working from home is both awesome and horrible.” (and many other things.)

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

John Soares on Finding a Freelance Niche


John Soares has been a professional freelance writer since the early 1990s. He started as an outdoors writer before expanding into his main niche: freelance writing for higher education companies. He writes the Productive Writers blog, and he’s the author of two e-books on freelance writing, including Writing College Textbook Supplements, second edition, and two trade paperbacks on hiking in northern California.

Ebyline asked Soares about breaking into textbook supplement writing, publishing his own e-books, and more.

Your bio mentions that you’ve been a full-time freelancer since 1994. How has the industry changed during that time and how have you adapted?

By far the biggest change has been the rise of the Internet and its impact on freelance writers. When I first started freelance writing in the very early 1990s, hardly anyone used e-mail or was really even aware of the Internet. Now, of course, most freelance writers have websites and use e-mail to pitch ideas to editors, and almost all work is created and transmitted electronically. We also find many markets through websites and online searches. Back in the day we used Writer’s Market, scoured the magazine stands, and sent queries and clips through snail mail.

I’d imagine you’ve had a lot of different writing gigs over the course of your freelance career. What was your most unusual one?

The most unusual one and the most fun one was a feature article I wrote in 1997 for an outdoors magazine. I was living on the island of Kauai in Hawaii at the time, and the piece covered two adventure outings on the Big Island. The first involved hiking several miles over rough volcanic rock to gain a close-up view of molten lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean. On the second I did a night-dive with a giant manta ray. That was especially cool! The tour operator took us to a shallow part of a bay and turned on a very bright underwater light. A manta with a seven-foot wingspan soon arrived; we were in the water with him and he swam in and around us for a long time.

You have an interesting niche: writing textbook supplements. How did you get into that line of work?

Iíve always loved learning — I was one of those kids in school who got teased for being “smart.” I did well in college and went on to get a master’s degree in political science from the University of California, Davis. Soon after, I was teaching polisci courses at Butte College in Chico, California, but at the same time I was also writing hiking guidebooks and outdoors articles. As an instructor, I was given an instructor’s manual, a set of test questions, and other teaching materials by the publishers of the textbooks I used. One day a book representative came to school to pitch to the faculty, and I asked her who wrote those instructor’s manuals, test questions, and the like. She said, “people like you.” She put me in touch with the right editor at her company, and that summer I wrote 1,600 questions for a new American government textbook. From there I contacted more book reps and editors and my freelance writing career really took off.

You’ve created two ebooks. What was the most challenging part of the process and how did you work through it?

I’ve written two mainstream hiking guidebooks on northern California for The Mountaineers, so I’m comfortable with outlining a book, doing all the research for it, and then writing and editing it. However, The Mountaineers took care of all the design elements of my hiking books. For me, the biggest challenge with creating e-books was choosing fonts and font sizes, laying out the e-books, and selecting someone to design the covers. Selling e-books is in many ways far easier than selling print books because there’s no physical product to print, store, and ship, and buyers can find the e-books multiple ways on the Internet.

Any closing thoughts on freelancing in 2011 and beyond?

Freelance writers need to be smart about how they channel their efforts. Too many writers settle for low-paying markets, many of which don’t even pay minimum wage. It’s best for freelancers to specialize in one or more niches that will pay them well, and then do a good job selling themselves in those niches. Thatís what I’ve done, and that’s been the path to a decent annual income for many writers.