Today, I spoke to Brad Tuttle, who is a contributing editor at Budget Travel, and author of How Newark Became Newark. As a freelance writer, he has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, Newsday, and American History, among other publications. In this interview, Brad talks about how he got started in the media world, freelancing versus working for a company, and more.
How did you get started in the media world?
I started off as a stringer for my local newspaper. I was a year out of college, living with my parents and heading off to a day job in NYC that I wasn’t crazy about. I never worked on the school newspaper or anything — not in college, not even in high school. After getting in touch with the local weekly in my area, I began covering school board meetings and small-town stuff. I got a few clips this way, and learned the basics of reporting and writing on the go. But I knew I wanted to be more of a “writer,” and for me that meant magazine-type writing. With that as a goal, I landed an internship at a progressive magazine called City Limits, which led to me getting a full-time job at a newspaper (writing full-time seemed to make the most sense, career-wise), which in turn helped me to get into the Columbia School of Journalism. It was — and continues to be — a rambling ride, with one gig leading to another.
Is it better to be a freelance writer now or work for a media company?
For me personally, right now I prefer freelance for a lot of reasons. Though benefits and all would be nice, freelance is where the most opportunities are nowadays, and I’m busier than I’ve ever been (fingers crossed). At some point, I’d be interested in trading the freelance life in for a regular job with benefits and stability, but those jobs just aren’t around in the numbers they used to be — and no one I know in the media world would describe their position as “stable.”
One of the reasons I enjoy being a writer is that it gives me an excuse to be curious and nosy about stuff that interests me. As odd as it may seem, many journalists (myself included) aren’t naturally outgoing social butterfly types, but the work gives you the excuse to ask questions and indulge interests that you might not have otherwise pursued. So to answer the question, I like to write about whatever interests me, and whatever topics have pertinence in my life. Ever since I studied abroad in college (in Italy), I’ve been fascinated with travel, and remain so.
Everybody is interested in money, but I’ve become especially obsessed with the topic since the recession hit, I lost my full-time job when Wondertime, the magazine where I was a senior editor, folded, and I suddenly found myself with three kids and no steady income. I find it’s really difficult to cover a topic you’re not interested in — but luckily, I’m a pretty curious guy, and I love storytelling. If you’re good at this, you’ll realize there’s a story to be told even when you’re dealing with a topic that seems completely boring.
In what ways have you marketed yourself to get new freelance gigs?
Occasionally, I “put myself out there” and pitch stories to publications I’ve never worked with, but mostly, I’ve found that work begets work. The vast majority of my gigs and assignments are the result of contacts I’ve made in the industry. For me, the way to get work is by doing good work — by proving yourself as a pro again and again and again. At some point, if you’re good, the editors will be coming to you.
What are you looking to do in the future? Another book?
Oh lord only knows. Right now, I’m happy to be working steadily. I really enjoy the immediacy and interactive nature of the web, though I’m constantly worried that we (meaning me and all bloggers) are sacrificing quality for the sake of quantity and immediacy. I’d be interested in writing another book, but that kind of project requires a huge commitment I’m not ready for at the moment. I’ll wait for an idea that really grabs me — that I simply HAVE to write. As I mentioned above, it’s difficult to cover a topic you’re not interested in, and the bar is way higher when it comes to writing a book. My advice would be: Unless you’re obsessed with both the topic and with writing books, you shouldn’t bother writing a book. Who wants to read 100,000 words from somebody who is only sorta-kinda interested in the topic?
Brad Tuttle is a contributing editor at Budget Travel, where he was a staffer for six years. His most recent full-time gig was as a senior editor at the Disney-owned parenting magazine Wondertime, one of the many print outlets that kicked the bucket in early 2009. As a freelance writer, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Newsday, and American History, among other publications. He is the author of two books: The Ellis Island Collection: Artifacts from the Immigrant Experience (Chronicle Books, 2004), and a gritty narrative history of urban America entitled How Newark Became Newark: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American City (Rutgers University Press, 2009). He lives in Massachusetts with his wife Jessica and their three sons, and he desperately hangs onto every dollar that comes his way. Read more about him at bradrtuttle.com.