The media landscape is shifting. Layoffs, cutbacks and uncertainty about the future have cast a shadow over much of the industry. In our new series, “Bylined: Women in Journalism,” we talk to notable women working in journalism to find out how to survive (and thrive) in the current climate. For this installment, we chatted with freelance travel and lifestyle writer, Emma Yardley.
SDTC: What was your trajectory to get where you’re at now?
EY: I have a BA (Honours) in International Development and Spanish from Queen’s University and a post-grad BJ (Bachelor of Journalism with Distinction) from the University of King’s College in Halifax.
What was the best piece of career advice given to you?
In 2001, I was living in Nicaragua doing research for my honours thesis and became friends with a seventy-year-old Pennsylvania man who had been the travel editor at a large daily in Philadelphia for forty years (he’d also been a CIA language expert during the Cold War…but that’s another story).
When I mentioned I’d love to be a travel writer one day, he turned to me, fixed me with his steely blue eyes and said, “Don’t. Go to law school, become an environmental lawyer and fix this messed up world of ours instead.” Law wasn’t for me, but I still pass on his advice to this day: If you want to be a writer, there are many different ways to be one without making it a career.
What has changed in the industry over the last five years?
During my first week as the assistant fashion editor at Canadian Living (my first journalism job in Toronto) in 2009, all the Transcontinental employees were called up to an empty floor of the Nestlé building and told by a row of executives that they were closing down a handful of magazines and websites in Montreal, putting hundreds of people out of work, and there would be layoffs in Toronto too. Sadly, that set the tone for the times — I’ve since witnessed and experienced countless rounds of layoffs at the country’s biggest newspapers, magazines and websites.
Why did you initially want to get into journalism?
I actually wanted to get into fashion, and writing seemed liked the best way to do that. I’m from a small town in B.C. so there weren’t any fashion designers to study under or stylists to assist, but we did have a community newspaper. I got a job proofreading the classified section and pitched fashion pieces whenever they’d listen to me. But when a series of my style stories won a provincial award, I received an employee scholarship and sent myself to j-school.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a writer?
As a freelancer, it’s the constant juggling of deadlines, story pitches, PR emails, conference calls and, you know, actually writing. I’d say 25 per cent of my time is spent writing and the rest is getting myself to a place where I’m able to write. So, make sure your organization skills are on point!
What do you enjoy most?
When I’ve finished transcribing all my interviews, when my photos are labelled and ready to go, and I can finally sit down and write a piece, without fail there will be a moment when I’m typing away and think, “Holy shit, I forgot how much I actually love this writing thing!”
Are you afraid for the future of the industry?
Yes (see question 3), because print is dying and no one seems to know what to do about it, while online is expanding but no one seems to know how to make enough money at it.
…Or excited about how it’s changing?
Also, yes, because everything is being thrown at the wall to see what sticks, which means I get to try a lot of different storytelling techniques, from digital newspaper stories to Instagram takeovers…and that suits my try-anything personality perfectly.
Any tips for young women getting started in this field?
In our industry, you hear a lot of “Say yes to everything!”, which I do think is great advice if you’re at your first internship and it’s your job to do anything that’s asked of you. But my follow-up advice is actually to learn how to say no, or at least learn how to negotiate. Your skills (and time) are valuable, so make sure you get paid for them.
What has been the best memory from your career thus far?
I had just left my beloved post as the online editor at The Kit, and was on my honeymoon in Stockholm. Before leaving, I had knocked on the door of Toronto Star‘s (then) travel editor and pitched him four Scandinavian travel stories — he took three. And there I was, popping in and out of Swedish clothing shops, interviewing designers and taking photos for my first real newspaper travel/fashion story. It was that moment when I realized going freelance was going to be okay — in fact, more than okay, it was going to take me shopping at the original Cos store in Sweden.
How can we ask better questions of our sources?
I always read as much as I can about the person or topic beforehand. I like to have an idea of the direction of my story will go (i.e., thesis statement) so I can create questions that will hopefully produce usable quotes. I’ll have a list of must-hit questions but really it’s about actively listening to a person and asking follow-up questions. And always end with a “Is there anything else you think our readers should know?” type of question.
What makes a great pitch?
Look at the stories already appearing in your target publication or website and make sure your story would look at home beside them. If you’ve never written for this editor before, include a link or PDF of a past piece; I need to make sure I’m not going to have to rewrite your work. Also, keep in mind editors have to consider budget, page space and editing resources before saying yes to a piece — it may not be you, it may be them.
More people get their news now via Facebook. And Facebook’s algorithms control a lot of the user experience in determining what gets seen. Does this affect what you write?
Luckily, I work with some pretty stellar editors who know the almighty algorithm is not the same as producing well-balanced content. When a story does perform well online, sure, we all celebrate but it doesn’t directly dictate what we write.
Emma Yardley is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer who splits her time between B.C., Toronto and various international airport lounges. She has a weekly travel column in Toronto Star and posts multiple times a week on HGTV.ca. She’s worked as fashion and beauty editor at Canadian Living, Metro Canada, Sweetspot.ca and The Kit, and has published regular fashion, beauty and decor features in Toronto Star, The Kit, Huffington Post, The StyleList Canada, CBC, iVillage, Slice, Vitamin Daily, The Grid, Toronto Sun and Metro News.