The food writing world is always competitive, with the traditional editorial market shrinking and growing poorer every day. Yet, for a certain kind of writer, this space offers a buffet of opportunity — with room at the table for more.
Audarshia Townsend, a veteran lifestyle journalist, Chicago city expert and editor of glossy branded quarterly Restaurant, Inc., is of the more optimistic mindset. In fact, she says that for the resourceful, adaptable creative, potential opportunities are increasing.
“As consumer publications dwindle and go out of business, there’s going to be more and more branded content. That’s the beauty of it for media professionals,” she says.
Townsend is a hiring editor who’s also been a freelancer, a contributor on retainer, an on-camera personality, a digital self-publisher and various other titles, working with brands from Mastercard to Playboy to NBC. She now holds an editor position for a custom publication (i.e. brand-funded publication): Restaurant, Inc is the foodservice trade publication of Reinhart Foodservice. She also appears regularly on WGN Morning News as a Chicago restaurant expert, and has regular bylines in chicagosbestrestaurant.com
While switching hats from features writer to copywriter to branded digital content writer to podcast producer takes some mental dexterity, and sometimes confuses traditional long-form journalists, Townsend believes that experience and adaptability are the two most important qualities for success.
Learn how freelancers can win juicy food writing gigs:
What are the basic qualifications you look for in a writer for your magazine?
The type of people I’m looking to write for me need to have some kind of experience writing about food, but that could be anything from the business of food to the local dining scene in their city. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to have a foothold in the industry. You should have your own contacts and sources, know about the scene, and have your own type of expertise.
I’m not looking for influencers or bloggers. I don’t want to find myself teaching Journalism 101.
People with extensive editorial experience, food scholars or people with a background in food criticism often have some ingrained resistance to working with brands. How do they overcome that?
You need to be flexible, period. If you want to work in this branded content industry, there are going to be shoutouts of brands. There are going to be times where I ask for a recipe and you want to use one of your sources. I may say fine, but I also need you to use one of our chef’s recipes, because that’s just the way it works.
But keep in mind, it’s not like you’re losing credibility. Our experts are legitimate experts. We hire the very best chefs. Their recipes are tested.
(And branded content is not the same as ad copy…)
When I wrote content for Mastercard, I was told, you don’t ever have to mention Mastercard, just make sure all the featured venues accept Mastercard.
So clearly, you believe it’s possible to do editorial food writing and branded content at the same time. What’s your best advice for staying ethical?
Be transparent, disclose upfront if there’s a potential conflict, and if you have business relationships with companies, check whether the editor/client is OK with including them in a story. (They may not be.)
Is there a notable difference in the idea-hunting process for branded content versus editorial? Do writers for your publication have additional resources than they would have at an editorial publication because Reinhart is a foodservice company with staff on call?
Absolutely. When I’m planning each issue and I look at all the pitches, I look to see where our experts would fit best in different articles. In “business of foodservice” articles, and in the section that deals with product reviews — we want as many experts in those sections as possible. I don’t want every article to primarily rely on our experts, but I always consider, and writers can always ask whether there might be someone.
We dig deep into our resources. Earlier this year, I did an article on protecting your business. We had a director of security, who happens to be a cyber-security expert. He could tell operators how to protect their employees’ information, deal with would-be payment system hackers, protect customer data, overall how to keep a restaurant safe on digital platforms.
Which reminds me – you’ve always been a writer first. You came up in traditional journalism, then became a specialist (food, entertainment, etc.) and then switched to the branded side a few years ago, correct?
I’m still very much in traditional media, I still work for WGN Morning News. One half of me is in that world. The way I got into branded content — and I’ve written for everyone from Lexus to Mastercard to Pernod — is that I established myself as an expert. Specifically, a Chicago expert. For the same reason, Playboy and NBC digital also came to me. When Google+ wanted to launch in Chicago, they came to me. All these companies had me be their “person in Chicago,” creating hyper-local content and guides.
Also, I was fortunate to really start my journalism career with digital media, when most journalists turned their nose up at it. I made a name for myself. I still get brands coming to me wanting me to do Chicago content.
What’s a tip you’d have for someone who wants to find more work and become that go-to person for brands?
You have to establish yourself as the go-to person, the expert, and no one else will do. Gain an expertise, deep knowledge of your topic, so you don’t just say, “this is a trend right now.” Be the person who knows the backstory behind the trend, and have experts you can call to get their take on it. Then, build up your fan base, your confidence level and your contacts.
There are so many voices out there, you have to be a person who stands apart. Anything you write and post on social media — you should put yourself out there constantly as being an expert on a topic. And then, brands should find you.
And if they don’t?
Go to them. Once you have established yourself as an expert, you need to be aggressive. There are so many voices out there right now. You also really have to network. Go to networking events. You can also use LinkedIn, Facebook groups. See who your friends know and get them to make a connection.
When you approach a company, if they don’t have a presence in the type of content you do, you could be the person that creates that presence for them. Demonstrate that you can create that content product, or create content about a new market, or for a new consumer target.
Say, “I see that you’re not utilizing this channel or section on your site. I really think I could take it to the next level.”
What would you say to writers with similar past experience to yours, who are struggling lately to find their footing and assume that expert halo?
I see it often. I feel they didn’t embrace digital media early on, as I did. I keep active in every channel: broadcast, print, digital, ebooks, now a podcast. When someone says this is going to be the next thing, I make sure I learn it — because you never know when the dollars toward an older channel are going to get shut off and put toward that new thing.
Many times it’s happened to me: This project had a good run, and now it’s over. You always have to look forward to what’s next.
And what’s new/next for you right now at Reinhart is a podcast. Tell us a little about it.
I’ve always sort of produced my television segments, even wrote my scripts at some points. So I leaned on that experience, used my existing interview skills, and really tapping into my connections for chefs, mixologists and restaurateurs to be guests. Right now we’re recording twice a month, four guests each time.
The format explores the background of guests: How did your culinary journey start? What were your beginnings, how does your heritage influence your work? That matters whether you’re a person of color or a white American with Scandinavian roots. Grandmother and mother influences — people always find those really endearing. That leads us into, “Tell us about your menu and what you’re doing now.”
Can you share who any of your guests will be?
I just stumbled across this guy who opened a bar that has no booze in it, in Texas. He is a drug and alcohol counselor—no personal history of substance abuse, but it was in his family, so providing an alcohol-free space was important to him. I’m very excited to interview him.
In consumer lifestyle journalism, there is a huge push for diversity. And recently you mentioned that the convergence of food, supply chain, agriculture and social justice is of interest to editors and readers of consumer pubs. Is a similar awareness happening in trade/branded content?
Yes — there’s a push for diversity in the stories and also the people writing stories. When we cover heritage cuisine, we’re talking about the people behind the food. We’re trying to dig deeper beyond the surface of superficial trend stories, into the social currents, the influences that shape the restaurant industry. For example, there’s the MeToo movement, which leads us to explore sexual harassment in foodservice and how it affects the industry. Same goes for ethnicity and people of color — there’s so much to dig into there. And neighborhoods, metropolitan gentrification.
Our customers are the people affected by those issues in foodservice.
But we’re not an advocate’s platform for anything. We’re covering the facts. We are uncovering the issues. We’re talking to the experts on any subject about what needs to be done. We make sure people know what’s really going on in the industry and how to make it better.
Where do you think the content industry is heading in the next few years?
Consumer publishers will continue to struggle and go out of business. To balance this out, there will be more branded content. And companies that want to expand their branded content offering are often looking for legitimate journalists. They’re not looking for public relations people or social media stars. They’re looking for people who have credibility, are ethical — who are media professionals.