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