Oct 112011

Associated Press Food Editor JM (Jason) Hirsch.

Many publications and media companies subscribe to the Associated Press (AP), which sends them food stories.

AP produces stories that appear in thousands of newspapers and the websites of television stations, new media companies, and radio stations. J.M. (Jason) Hirsch is the company’s food editor. And the good news is that he assigns food stories regularly to freelance writers.

Hirsch is no slouch himself when it comes to writing about food, having authored High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and writing the occasional feature for AP. He’s also the author of two blogs: Lunchbox Blues, documenting the meal he makes each day for his 7-year old son; and Off the Beaten Aisle, a blog for the Food Network that he writes as part of his job at AP.

I interviewed Hirsch about his job and opportunities for freelance writers at AP:

Q. How did you become AP’s Food Editor?

A. I was a reporter specializing in crime and juvenile issues. I loved to cook and began taking an interest in food writing. I started doing a column on vegetarian food. Then AP decided food was a big issue around 2000, and it became time for a dedicated food writer. I was given a lot of freedom to pursue great stories, and food became a bigger beat.

When my predecessor retired seven years ago, I was asked to take over as the food editor. Now I have writers across the country who cover food.

Q. What are you in charge of producing each week?

A. We produce a weekly package of stories that covers all facets of food, plus news and trends (independent of cooking) in business, science, pop culture, and celebrity. We also do a batch of recipes and related stories. I try to have well-rounded coverage that’s ahead of the curve. It’s a very competitive beat.

I try to have at least one to two stories a day, six to 12 stories a week. It could be a short seasonal item with a recipe, or a 2000-word story about a hot chef or trend.

Q. What percentage of stories do you assign to freelancers?

A. About two-thirds. Most recipes are generated in-house by two chefs who work for me. We never use unsolicited recipes. Most of the recipes that are not ours are from named chefs or cookbook authors, such as in a book review where we would excerpt a recipe, or when we run a special series, such as “The 20 Burgers of Summer.”

Q. What kind of stories are best for freelancers?

A. A lot of trend stories. One to three trend stories a week. Sometimes it’s a profile of a fascinating person, like Dorie Greenspan. That was 1400 words. Or a profile of Jacques Pepin, where the writer cooked with him. It was a challenge, where the writer had to tell us something new. Michele Kayal captured his personality, what he’s like today.

Q. How do you define a trend story?

A. A trend story is something that’s emerging in the food world. Baking is not emerging, but artisan butter might be. That story was 500 to 600 words, an ideal length. But if the material merits longer, we’re happy to go longer.

The first three letters of news are NEW. Not just interesting, but emerging.

Q. What if I see a trend in my neighborhood?

A. A trend story must be national. But not everything of national interest is a national story. Sometimes interesting is enough. Get on Google and find out if it’s happening everywhere. If not, why is it happening where you are, and what makes that interesting?

For example, we did an article on a Beard award-winning program in Seattle that recruits homeless kids and teaches them to cook. It was a local program but made a compelling story because of what they do.

Q. How much do you pay for these stories?

A. $300 per feature. Some writers have turned me down, but my hands are tied.

Q. Do you rely on the same freelancers, or do others break in?

A. I tend to go to the same pool of writers because they have proven themselves as reliable. I’m looking for journalists first, foodies second: people with a solid news background who understand how to gather and distill information, and how to present it in a format that makes sense to a reader in a tight and clear way. I find that people who consider themselves Writers (with a capital W) don’t quite have all those skills.

Q. How many pitches do you get in a week?

A. Surprisingly, not that many, maybe five or fewer.

Q. What do you look for in a pitch?

A. People who understand the subject matter and have really researched what has already been written. Sometimes we have written the same story a year or two years ago. You have to have a fresh angle. Tell me why AP really needs this story.

I like short pitches, three to four graphs. If I want more I’ll respond. No attachments. Pitch me at jm.hirsch@comcast.net.

You can also follow Hirsch on twitter at http://twitter.com/jm_hirsch.

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  47 Responses to “Like to Write Trend Stories? Pitch AP's Hirsch”

  1. Super helpful as usual, Dianne. Clearly he’s smart, but he’s easy on the eyes too.

  2. Four graphs (I’d say that’s roughly 200 words) to pitch a feature (about 2,000 words) for $300. No wonder he gets so few pitches a week and some writers turn him down.

    • Amy, What is the going rate elsewhere for similar features?

      Dianne, very helpful post, thanks!

    • Sigh. You noticed that.

    • Hey Amy,

      With all due respect — and you know me well enough to know I’m not one to justify lowly pay for writers — I’m not sure you’re right on this one.

      In my experience, and that of other professional reporters I know, 300 bucks is in the ballpark for newspaper rates for a story, and that’s where most AP copy lands.

      Of course, a 2,000 word feature in a national mag of note can earn you $2-4K or more. And writers are free to try their luck in those markets too. But the, ah, editorial process for mag writing and newspaper stories is wildly different.

      Again, based on experience, you earn every penny writing for monthly glossies, regardless of the fee.

      • I have a sense you’ll earn every penny when writing for Hirsch as well! Good to have this reality check from someone in the biz. Thanks Sarah.

        • Diane — For what it’s worth (and to clarify) — I would discourage anyone from pitching me what they think is a 2,000 word story. A couple reasons, not the least of which is that few writers can sustain a story for 2,000 words without overwriting it. Also, most newspapers do not have room for stories of that length. Regardless of what one thinks of our rate, the typical feature for me is closer to 800 words.

          • That makes a lot of sense, and 800 words seems like a much more reasonable word count for an AP story vs. a magazine feature. It makes the fee sound better as well.

  3. Great interview Dianne.
    I think if you were a budding journalist/food writer and wanted to get exposure, this would be an excellent place to start. Thank you for sharing!

  4. As I recall, the AP contract grabs all rights with little respect for the writer. Maybe they have changed their contract but it is definitely worth addressing/considering.

  5. Only very recently, I stumbled across your space and I have to thank you for the wonderful information that you share with your readers.

  6. Very useful information. Good to know the characteristics they are looking for. Thanks Dianne!

  7. He’ll get a lot more pitches after this, $300 or not! Thanks again, Diane, for arming us with such helpful and timely information.

    • Sure. That’s my job, or at least my job as I perceive it. But it is sad about the money, particularly if you want to do a longer profile.

  8. Good read. Nice to see he will let some ground level people in at a non-ground level. Good info to know. Thanks for interviewing him.

    • Thanks. I’m not sure what you mean by ground level people, but being a reporter himself, and working for a news-based organization, he’s most interested in hearing from fellow reporters.

      • Ground level meaning anyone who isn’t an actual reporter, at least yet anyways, but still could make a difference and get their point across properly. I understand he may make an exception, as he said, but mainly is looking for articles by professionals. I personally probably wouldn’t submit, but you never know. I’ll likely leave it for the seasoned reporters as I like to read articles with substance. Thanks.

  9. Yet another wonderful post, Dianne. You must know that your blog is the first thing I read every Wednesday morning. Thanks.

  10. What if you are an entrepreneur who has a cool story – definitely a new angle on avocados (Heritage avocados – like heirloom tomatoes, but with avocados) – but you’re not a writer? Can you still pitch? Should you try and find a writer ? What?

    • You need to find a freelance writer who is interested in your story. Or send Hirsch a press release. They’re usually not as effective, but it’s a standard procedure.

      • Brenda — Dianne is right — a press release is the way to go. But I am intrigued by the idea of heritage avocados. This is something I doubt most people have heard of. Please reach out to me via e-mail. I would never let a source do a story for me, but I might assign a writer to do one for me on it.

        J.M. Hirsch

  11. Dianne,

    Once again I compliment you on this informative post. I connected via email with J.M. (Jason) Hirsch just before he attended TECHmunch in Boston this past summer. He spoke at this first networking “foodie” event in Boston and I was unable to attend. We both enjoy healthy home cooking and blog about it. I was pleasantly surprised how approachable J.M. Hirsch was. I definitely took the time to research his food blog and his books.

    The Souper

    • That’s how I found him. I somehow got onto a site that mentioned speakers at Techmunch on the subject of food writing. Glad to hear that he was approachable. I got the sense that he loves blogging and it has opened a lot of doors for him.

      • Dianne,

        Yes, TECHmunch is a wonderful “foodie” networking event that is held all over the country. I found it helpful to follow presentations and speakers via Twitter using the hashtag #techmunch so I actually followed Hirsch’s presentation among others. Hoping to attend an event in person next time.

        The Souper

        • Please correct me if I am wrong, but I only recently heard about TechMunch and went onto the website describing the sessions at the one held in Boston and it seemed to me to be almost totally focused on building traffic and making money and not a lot on content or content quality. I have also heard this from others who attended. Would love your opinion! Thanks!

          • Hi Jamie,

            Re: TECHmunch, Boston There were many presentations to attend and lots of networking opportunities. Some were focused on writing posts to attract more traffic to your website, some were about how to make money from blogging. Some presentations were about food photography. As I did not personally attend, I was able to view online the presentations that interested me and the ones that I felt were helpful to usein my food blogging.
            I do not know if there are different presentations for other cities. Perhaps the TECHmunch website offers that info.

            The Souper

  12. Hrsch/AP/trend writing interview is so useful. Will post at the FaceBook site for
    Symposium for Professional Food Writers, Dianne.
    Toni Allegra

  13. Once more such helpful information. Thank you SO MUCH for informing, sharing and educating. In regards to low pay: Every article paid or otherwise is an opportunity for me to build my platform and let more folks see what I can do as a writer. Thanks to you I’m working harder to keep my blog current.

    • Well thank you. The pay is not low if you write 600 words — $.50 per word is considered pretty good, and that hasn’t changed since I started assigning articles (30 years, sadly.) It just doesn’t seem so good if you write 2000.

      Best of luck on your blog, whoever you are. Link points to a general WordPress site.

  14. I also recently found this blog and I am really enjoying all of the different perspectives and tips for writers. I only dabble in food blogging as a hobby for now, but it’s interesting to see what I might be getting myself into if I were to increase my level of investment . Thank you for sharing!

    On a side note, I’d also be interested to see how much the AP is paid for these stories which they pay $300 for.

    • You’re welcome, Meghan. Glad you’re enjoying the site. Re how much AP is paid, I believe their customers pay a subscription for various packages of information. I’m sure it’s pretty steep, as AP delivers a ton of copy.

      • AP is a membership/subscription service. Our fees are based on numerous factors, including the circulation of the subscriber. Because I am on the editorial side, I don’t get involved in that business end of things. But as you correctly stated, members pay a fee for levels of service, most of which involve constant flows of hundreds if not thousands of stories, photos, graphics and videos a day. Subscribers do not pay us by the story.

  15. Thanks for sharing this. It makes me hopeful for side opportunities of my own that trend stories are a big area. It actually relates quite closely to my day job (which is a lot about looking at consumer behavior as it relates to the food category and identifying consumer and business trends). Maybe there is hope for me after all.

  16. Great interview Dianne! I really enjoyed reading this article!

  17. Great post Dianne. Sounds less tricky than one might have imagined before reading it.

  18. My guess is that after this post he’ll be getting much more than 5 pitches in a week! Love your site, Dianne. I’ve been a silent lurker for a while now, and I figure it’s time I told you so! You always have such incredible, genuinely helpful and informative content. Thank you!

  19. I’m a few days late on this one, just catching up with my Google Reader, but I’ll chime in anyway. :)

    Interesting to see the perspectives on this one re: the pay. Obviously, you get what you pay for and AP isn’t going to get a well-known writer like Amy of “Cooking With Amy” for $300. However, to someone who gets paid $50 for 500-600 word articles in AOL’s Patch.com (and you have to provide them with photos, too!!), $300 is a definite step up. I don’t see a problem with a 200-word pitch, especially to an editor you’ve never worked with.

    One big part of the problem with pay, and why places like Patch can pay so little, is that for every freelancer trying to make a living, there are 100 wannabees/ young kids/ retirees/ aspiring bloggers /stay at home moms who will do the same for free or next to nothing just to see their name in a publication, or who don’t need the money and just want to write “for fun”. My husband is a professional photographer and he struggles with the same thing. I have noticed that in my local Patch, they are now using a lot more “bloggers” (i.e. people who submit editorial content for free). I write for one local web publication that pays only $150 for a 1,000-1,200 word feature (down from $200 last year). I continue to write for them because my editor is great, I get a lot of leeway and can write about subjects that really interest me, but it rankles to be paid so little,especially knowing what the going rate is for other publications.

    • Noelle, if $300 is a step up, I hope you will pitch AP. I’ve written many times about wannabees and people who who write for fun versus pay. It’s an ongoing problem. All you can do is keep moving forward by paying your dues and moving up to more prestigious publications/websites that pay better, as you gain more experience.

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