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Pitches That Worked: Texas Highways

Spotting a food trend early helped this freelancer land an assignment

By Donya Blaze - August 23, 2012
All media outlets love a trend if they can report on it before the inevitable saturation point. Freelancer Jennifer Nalewicki did just that after noticing that gardens were sprouting up in unusual areas in big cities. Armed with ample research to prove the phenomenon was more than just a fad, Nalewicki penned a compelling query that won over the editors at Texas Highways and led to an assignment for the pub's July 2012 issue.


What the Writer Did

Jennifer Nalewicki: I came up with the idea after seeing the documentary "Truck Farm," about a filmmaker/farmer who transformed the bed of his grandmother's pickup truck into a mobile farm. When I went to the Truck Farm website, I noticed that there's a truck in Dallas, which is where I used to live. I soon realized that I had visited another odd garden a year earlier during a PR event: a former football field that's now a working farm on the Paul Quinn College campus. By this point I knew I had something, but to solidify my idea I wanted to find one more place to profile. After searching the Web, I discovered that two hotels had rooftop gardens. I pitched the idea to a couple other regional and travel magazines, but never heard back. I've written for Texas Highways in the past and am familiar with its content, so I knew this story would be a good fit.

Why the Editor Bit

Lori Moffatt, senior editor: Not only was the idea extremely original, but it addressed a need in the magazine: food stories with a fresh angle. Jennifer has written for the magazine before and also helped out with fact-checking and research, so we knew she was capable of pulling the story together. We also considered the travel expenses involved, as we do with all pieces. Since expenses would be minimal on our end, we greenlighted the piece. In short, Jennifer thought of a lively, original concept that fit the magazine's mission and needs; communicated it clearly and concisely to us; and demonstrated that her abilities fit the topic.

The concept was already well conceived, and the pitch demonstrated that she knew both the magazine's style and readership. Because Texas Highways is a travel magazine, its important for writers to illustrate how sites are open to the public, which Jennifer did. It's also helpful for planning purposes when writers suggest a time frame for running the piece, which Jennifer did. And, of course, she double-checked spelling and made the query easy to read with proper punctuation and paragraph breaks -- an obvious courtesy which oddly, many writers overlook now that most correspondence is done by email.

The Pitch

Dear Jill:

I saw a documentary the other day called "Truck Farm," about a filmmaker/farmer named Ian Cheney, who, upon moving to Brooklyn in 2009, discovered that finding a plot of soil in the concrete jungle was impossible. So he transformed the bed of his grandfather's 1986 Dodge Ram Pickup Truck into a portable garden. Here's the Texas angle: [1] This truck-farming movement has swept the nation, with a fleet of 25 trucks dotting the landscape, including a rusty red pickup owned by Marilyn and Donelle Simmons in the DFW area. Right now, the duo pays weekly visits to the Dallas Farmers Market where they sell their bounty of cantaloupe, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes. [2] They also travel the Metroplex educating locals about conservation. Which got me thinking, how many other quirky urban farms/gardens (open to the public of course!) are in the DFW area? So far, I've come up with a few:

1. Hotel Rooftop -- When Kyle Wilson, sous chef at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, isn't whipping up plates of hickory-smoked salmon served with butternut squash succotash, [3] he's tending to the peppers, rosemary, and other indigenous plants growing in one of the hotel's two rooftop gardens. He incorporates much of the garden's yield into dishes served at Cast Iron, Omni's on-site southern-style restaurant, as a way to be eco-conscience while sharing locally grown food with guests.

2. Football Field -- When Paul Quinn College, a liberal arts school just south of Dallas, eliminated its football team to save money, an enterprising group of students turned the field into a farm where they grow cucumbers, squash, watermelons, and other produce for the school's cafeteria. The farm is part of PepsiCo's Food for Good program, which teaches students about agriculture and enterprise.

3. Freeway Overpass -- Soon downtown and uptown Dallas will be interconnected by a 5.2-acre swath of greenery that soars above the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. The greenspace (anticipated completion date: 2012) will include a botanical garden and children's garden, both blanketed in native flora. [4]

4. Truck Farm -- With the recent release of the documentary "Truck Farm," gardeners across the nation are converting their pickup trucks into four-wheeled farms. In the DFW area, Marilyn and Donelle Simmons turned their rusty red pickup into a roving garden. The duo pays weekly visits to the Dallas Farmers Market to sell their bounty of cantaloupe, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes. They also travel the Metroplex schooling locals on conservation.

I can see this running in Texas Highways' Taste section sometime in the spring or summer of 2012 to coincide with gardening season. [5] I visited the Paul Quinn football field farm earlier this year during a media event and could easily scope out the others. [6]

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to your feedback!

Best,

Jennifer Nalewicki

What happened next

Jennifer Nalewicki: Probably the most difficult part of the process was narrowing down which farms to cover. We wound up cutting one, a freeway overpass, because the completion dates kept shifting, and Lori wanted to make sure that all of the places I had covered would be open to the public by July 2012, the issue run date. It was also challenging, because I was writing the story in the winter and she had to coordinate with the photo editor to send a photographer. Not much is in bloom in January!

Lori Moffatt: We also communicated early in the process about photography needs, and Jennifer provided a short "photo wants list," complete with names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of her contacts at each site. That courtesy made the photography process very smooth and also proved helpful later on during fact-checking. After Jennifer submitted the story -- on deadline, to the word count requested -- we asked for one minor revision, primarily to clarify public access and offer more details about how the traveling public can see, visit and experience the sites. Jennifer was very accommodating and willing to rework the piece as requested and delivered an excellent revision by the requested deadline. During production, Jennifer made herself available for editing and fact-checking questions.

The finished story ran in a department called "Taste," which focuses on food and restaurant-related destinations, festivals and trends. Because of Jennifer's early attention to photography, we had excellent photos; and because of Jennifer's fresh idea -- along with her talents in research, interviewing, writing, and collaboration -- we wound up with a very compelling and original piece. We are looking forward to our next project together.

Key Components of the Pitch

(1). With "here's the Texas angle," Nalewicki lets the reader know that she will prove how and why the idea works for Texas Highways, specifically. Back to pitch

(2). How do you convince an editor that you can handle a meaty piece? By doing some of the legwork in advance. Nalewicki outlined the extent of the farming craze in the Dallas area and included details about one couple's truck farm which "demonstrated that her abilities fit the topic," said Moffatt. Back to pitch

(3). The writing in your pitch is a good indicator of the voice you'll use in the finished article, so make it the best you can. Rather than saying the chef simply "cooked," Nalewicki writes that he's "whipping up plates of hickory-smoked salmon served with butternut squash succotash," which is much more enjoyable to read. Back to pitch

(4). Now, she proves that she's ahead of the curve by pointing out an upcoming garden, as well. Most print mags work at least a few months out, so showing that your topic will be timely once the issue hits newsstands can work in your favor. Back to pitch

(5). "It's also helpful for planning purposes when writers suggest a time frame for running the piece, which Jennifer did," said Moffatt. Doing so helps the editors envision what your finished piece will look like in their publication which, in turn, helps them sell their own boss on the idea. Back to pitch

(6). Sometimes, the key to successful freelancing is plain old likeability. "I just try to be as cooperative and reliable as I can be," veteran writer Anthony DeCurtis once told us about working with editors. Nalewicki does the same in stating that she is willing to do further research for the assignment if necessary. Back to pitch


Donya Blaze is managing editor at mediabistro.com.



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