Editor’s note: Ms. Appleton moved on to Afar and then the Cathay Pacific magazines after this interview went up, but we’re leaving it as is because it’s filled with great advice.
This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Appleton, digital editor for Travel + Leisure. Kate, with a background in journalism, has worked for the likes of BudgetTravel.com and NYMag.com, in addition to her current position, and has some excellent things to say about the proper way to pitch editors (tip: they want catchy headlines!). In our interview, she talks about how she got started in the journalism industry, what advice she has for writers who want to step up their freelancing cred, and where she thinks the industry is headed.
What led you to your current position as a senior digital editor for Travel + Leisure?
After a year abroad in Florence, Italy, I came back to college (reluctantly) as an Italian and English double major looking for a new direction. I’d had some experience in book publishing and briefly considered going after an Italian PhD, but it was a journalism course that got me excited. Our final assignment was to write a magazine-style profile of someone who had a job we admired, and I chose a seasoned travel editor at The Washington Post. Her experiences sold me on finding a journalism job, and I got my start at NYMag.com, where I wrote restaurant and bar reviews, developed seasonal features, and edited content tailored to visitors to New York, my hometown. I liked the nimble pace and opportunities that came with working online, but wanted to focus more on travel. I joined Budget Travel’s website at its launch and became involved in many aspects of the site, developing expertise as an travel editor as well as a network of contacts, writing clips, and familiarity with the challenges of web-print integration, all of which helped lead to my current role at TravelandLeisure.com.
Ideally, how should a freelancer approach you for an assignment and what gets your attention?
Browse the right column of TravelandLeisure.com/toc to get familiar with our slideshows—and do a site search to see what we may have covered that’s related to your pitch. Freelancers should email me and present pitches as headlines, with a few brief examples for each. I’d rather get 5 succinct, catchy headline ideas than one pitch that runs on for several paragraphs.
It helps if you include a line or two about your background and any specialties you may have. As an editor, I’m looking to match a story with the most appropriate writer—whether it’s an evocative destination-driven piece, a newsy industry piece, or one that calls for a little snark—and knowing your strengths and writing style will help you stand out among the crowd. I also appreciate it when writers give an indication of how they might report the slideshow (a relevant data set or expert to interview, for example); don’t think the slideshow format is a license for a slapdash approach.
In your view, what separates the writers who keep getting repeat assignments from the ones who don’t?
Reliability. I turn again and again to the writers who submit polished copy on time, without factual errors, and are flexible and professional. Editors don’t like surprises, so if a problem arises while researching a story or you won’t be able to make a deadline, it’s easier all around if you speak up right away. While we have a short-term editorial calendar, priorities do shift, causing the time frame for editing/revising an assignment to shrink or expand. You’ll set yourself apart if I can count on you to reply speedily and follow directions.
How many queries do you receive on a daily or weekly basis and how many are totally off-base?
I get as many as a dozen queries weekly, and most won’t work out. Sometimes they’re off-base for TravelandLeisure.com, in terms of scope or format, even after I’ve sent pitching guidelines and examples. We’ve got years of slideshow archives, so it also happens that a writer’s idea is on target, but we’ve already covered it or a competitor has recently published something too similar. Sometimes the writer doesn’t sell the idea effectively, or the idea is just not quite right in that moment but could be a few months later. This is a subjective process, which is why the better you understand the publication’s sensibilities—and can establish a rapport with the staff—the better your chances.
What kinds of stories get you excited? What have you published that you were really proud of?
I’m looking for stories that will entice readers even if they have no immediate travel plans. So while I want to inform and include service information, I’m primarily interested in travel stories that will entertain, whether by showcasing beautiful, inspiring places, or by conveying some element of novelty or controversy. I get excited about story pitches that meet those criteria and writing that strikes the right note (not too clichéd, not recklessly sensational). I like stories that put a fresh spin on a favorite travel topic that’s been done a million times or that add an extra takeaway for readers. When we published a slideshow on beautiful college campuses, I’m sure many readers kept clicking because they were caught up by the photos and wanted to see whether their school was included. But for those paying closer attention, we noted a specific photo-op spot and an activity to seek out by each campus. I’m also pleased when we can draw from industry data in compelling ways, tap into timely events, or pick up on trends, such as a look at how certain geeky hotels are embracing technology or the revival of some great American main streets. Humor is tough to pull off, so bonus points go to writers who can be witty and take a tongue-and-cheek tone (see the world’s least romantic places and America’s best cities for hipsters).
If a near and dear friend with no credits to his/her name wanted to become a travel writer this year, what would you advise (other than, “don’t do it”)?
Think about whether you’re cut out for the freelance life—staff jobs at travel publications mostly focus on editing—and what “travel writer” means to you. (There are other jobs that call for more actual travel.) Get into the habit of writing and read others’ work to develop your skills; follow writers and publications you like on social media and develop your own presence, so you can join the conversation and network. Look online for travel sites/blogs/start-ups eager for content and think about your particular niche and strengths. If you take a vacation, try to get clips out of it. Prep beforehand; take notes, look for telling details, take photos of everything—street names, ticket stubs, meals—to help you remember later; chat with locals on the ground as well as PR reps; and pitch away, thinking beyond a play-by-play of your trip or narrative. Some particular thing you experienced at the airport, in a neighborhood, or hotel could inspire an idea for a broader slideshow or a short trend piece. View your hometown as a travel destination, too, and brainstorm ideas for stories that can be researched and written from home. And if you’re passionate about a certain destination and can make the logistics work, consider moving there. Being on the ground gives you an immediate legitimacy when it comes to pitching newsy items and, with some luck and savvy, you could end up the go-to source on that place for editors like me back in the office.
At the time of this interview, Kate Appleton was a senior digital editor for TravelandLeisure.com, where she oversaw the online calendar (editing several assignments each month) and collaborated on new editorial products. She worked previously for BudgetTravel.com, where she edited slideshows, travel deals, the e-mail newsletter, wrote a few magazine features, and appeared in a video on how to order coffee like a Roman (shot at Tazza d’Oro). She has also been an editor at NYMag.com and received a journalism master’s degree from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @ksappleton.
Interview conducted in August, 2012 by Kristin Mock. Updated in 2019 by Tim Leffel.