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All for Place-Based Journalism
Photo credit: Francisco Collazo.
Once the Managing Editor of Matador Network, Julie Schwietert Collazo has taken her freelance writing career and done something incredible; she has turned travel writing into something important and meaningful in a time when most travel articles are written for the single purpose of entertainment; she has become an expert in place-based journalism. Between writing investigative articles on the disappearance of children in Mexico and crafting profiles of popular artists in Puerto Rico and raising three children with her husband/photographer/partner in crime, it’s remarkable that Julie has hours left in the day for herself. Yet, she tackles projects like journalism workshops and website launches with enthusiasm. Julie will be hosting an exciting workshop on the art of turning travel writing into place-based journalism at the New York Travel Fest on April 18th and 19th.
We were able to catch a few minutes with Julie (while she was riding in a cab on the way to the airport) and ask her a few questions that have been on our minds.
Why did you decide to shift your freelance focus to place-based journalism?
I sort of got started in this field as a traditional travel writer but quickly learned that it was really hard to find outlets that wanted to pay for articles that talked about real issues. They were only interested in whitewashed articles that only had good things to say about destinations. One of my primary issues with travel writing and one of the reasons I have moved away from travel writing to more place-based journalism, which I will be talking about this year at Trav Fest, is that it is very superficial. It’s not informed by the socio-cultural dynamics of a place. It doesn’t show the whole picture, the drug problems alongside the artwork, the corruption alongside the beautiful beaches. So, I started moving into a more journalistic field with beats in Mexico and Puerto Rico (I have lived in both countries and have visited them a lot).
For the New York Travel Festival, you'll be teaching a workshop. Can you give us a preview of what it will be about?
I was very honored when Roni contacted me earlier this year and said, “Somebody asked for you to present at Trav Fest this year and they specifically said they were interested in you talking about travel journalism or place-based journalism.” So, I’m going to be talking about the best ways to shift away from travel writing to travel journalism and also how to bring more depth to your travel writing - and how to make a living while doing that.
I also want to look at the other outlets that are doing this kind of work: what are their respective strengths and limitations and what tools are there now to get the work done and to get it published. I’m really interested in introducing these tools that writers can use and I want to talk about how they can aid in telling multi-layered stories.
Speaking of tools for writers, I saw that you are holding a workshop about reporting in Cuba. What will that be about?
That workshop, How to Report on Cuba Responsibly, is coming up soon [April 27th, 9am - 4pm at the CUNY, New York] and it actually came from a Facebook rant of mine after reading yet another article about Cuba that neglected the Cuban perspective. It is designed for professional journalists and journalism students who have beats in Cuba. My friend and colleague Conner Gorry and I will be answering questions like, “How do I find a fixer?,” and “Where can I go in Cuba for five days and get a good story on drugs and prostitution,” - that answer by the way, is nowhere. It takes years and dedication to get intell like that. Connor and I will mostly be giving people the tools to do the work, from logistical planning, to finding technology hotspots to upload media, to understanding and working around the ingrained American bias on Cuba.
[A webinar of this workshop will be available soon. Stay tuned. Details will be posted here.]
Caption: Julie interviewing a musicologist in Cuba. Credit: Brayan Collazo.
What other projects are you working on now?
Well, I have three kids, so there are always projects revolving around them. But I also freelance for a lot of different publications and a lot of different types of publications. Some of them are online and some are print, some are more politically focused and others are straight up travel destination focused. Within these, I cover everything from art to science to political movements in Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Right now, a big project I’m working on is a new website with Christine Gilbert [a National Geographic Traveler of the Year] that is a food anthropology website. It is called Cultures and Cuisines and it will be launching May 1st. The idea is to be as inclusive and representative as possible. There are a million food websites and travel websites, but our goal is to fill a gap in both areas which is featuring long form pieces that are written by people who know the place and the culture and its people and its food very well. We’re not interested in press trips or last minute pieces; we are interested in working with people who are subject matter experts and story tellers, but not necessarily writers. Through all of my projects, I have constantly looked for ways to turn people, that have previously been represented as subjects in stories, into tellers of their own stories. That’s one of the goals of this site.
When did you know you wanted to be a freelance writer?
That’s a interesting story. My undergraduate degree is from Emory in English and Women’s Studies. I always thought I would be an English professor and writer, but that changed my senior year. I was working on my thesis for Women’s Studies and - I do not know why I chose this topic - but I was looking at the topic of women who had ovarian, cervical or breast cancer and who were participating in an art therapy group. I was looking at how the art therapy helped them both clinically and emotionally and socially. I was blown away by the effect that this had on them, and I thought, I want to do this with writing.
I eventually ended up with Housing Works in New York, which is an organization for people with HIV and AIDS. It was one of the first places in New York to have a full creative arts therapy team and I became a poetry therapist. So, I got my masters degree and became a psychotherapist and became the assistant director of a program in town. And then, a year later, I decided that while I loved the stories of my patients, I didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy, and I quit. I had no idea what I was going to do.
Long story short, my future husband and I decided to move to Puerto Rico, just because. While I was there, I became a tour director and told Puerto Rico’s story to visitors. Even with that, I needed another job, so I found Matador Network and became the managing editor there.
After a while, I felt like I really wanted to explore more of the places that I had grown to love. I wanted their stories to be told in the United States in a much richer way than they were being told. And so, that’s what really marked my transition. I’ve been really fortunate to have amazing colleagues and friends who have opened doors for me and I feel I am really moving in the right direction.
Join Julie Schwietert Collazo on April 18th and 19th at the New York Travel Festival and learn how to transform travel writing into something more.
Use these discount codes to buy tickets for the event:
ITM15 = This gets you $5 off weekend traveler tickets.
ITMIND = This takes $25 off Weekend Industry tickets.
Visit http://nytravfest.com/tickets to book today!