Iona Brannon: Freelance Travel, Food and Personal Finance writer as seen in AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Lonely Planet, Refinery29 and others

 

Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those reports on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today, I’m happy to welcome Iona Brannon. Iona is a journalist who loves writing stories that bring out the humanity and community between all of us, especially at the intersections of travel, food, and personal finance. She writes for outlets such as Cutting US Traveler, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Lonely Planet, US News and World Report, Refinery 29, Fodors, and many more. Hi, Iona, thank you for joining us today.

 

Iona Brannon  00:55

Hi, thank you for having me.

 

Angela Tuell  00:57

Yeah, I’m excited to talk with you. So let’s start by you walking us through your career a little bit to this point.

 

Iona Brannon  01:04

Sure. So I studied journalism in school. And then once I finished school, I realized that journalism jobs don’t pay very well. So I went into marketing.

 

Angela Tuell  01:17

They didn’t tell you that in school, because I think I heard that every day just so you know.

 

Iona Brannon  01:20

You know, it’s different. It’s different. When you are not living on campus, you’re not eating the food at the cafeteria.

 

Angela Tuell  01:29

Okay.

 

Iona Brannon  01:30

You know, when, when you’re paying LA rent, it really hits differently.

 

Angela Tuell  01:34

That does. That does.

 

Iona Brannon  01:34

So yeah, I was like, Okay, this is not going to cut it. So I went into marketing. And that’s kind of what I did until the pandemic hit actually. Well, right before the pandemic hit, I was trying to figure out during getting back into it and trying to figure out how to cold pitch and cold pitching, which is, you know, the bread and butter for any freelance journalist is kind of hard to figure out if you have never done it before. And we weren’t really taught I think there was like, maybe one day that was like, This is how you query and it was like printing out a letter and mailing it to them, you know, so it’s like, very old school.

 

Angela Tuell  01:53

And you’re not very old so that’s really old school, right?

 

Iona Brannon  02:18

That’s what I’m saying – not to put my school on blast. So when the pandemic hit, I was furloughed for a little bit like I was working part-time. So I finally had the time, the opportunity to take this pitching course, that I had been eyeing. I had been listening to this podcast, I really liked what they said on the podcast. And so I was like, okay, just gonna sign up for this pitching course. We’ll see how it goes. And it was Rebecca Weber’s freelance writer’s boot camp, that’s the pitching course. And honestly, that’s when things started to I was like, okay, I can actually do this. This isn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. And, you know, of course, there’s like the dream publications that I think every writer wants to get into. But my main passion was travel.

 

Angela Tuell  03:07

Right.

 

Iona Brannon  03:08

So I was like, Okay, I want to write, I want to write about travel. And so I started applying the strategies and the mindset from my course. And then I started getting assignments. And I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is like, this works. This is real. And so that’s kind of how I started doing part-time journalism while I was still working full-time. By that time, I’d switch back to full time we had been moved back or full-time. So then, you know, as I was continuing to get clips in journalism, I was like, Okay, this is getting to a point where I kind of need to just make a decision, am I going to become a full-time journalist? Or am I going to stay in marketing? And so it was almost a year ago, that I decided to take the jump into full-time freelancing. So

 

Angela Tuell  04:00

Wow. And a lot has happened in a year.

 

Iona Brannon  04:03

Yes. A lot has happened. For sure.

 

Angela Tuell  04:08

That’s amazing. What was the one that you were the most surprised to hear back from in your pitches?

 

Iona Brannon  04:14

In the very beginning, Bon Appetit was probably like, such a shock for me to hear back about.

 

Angela Tuell  04:21

Yeah.

 

Iona Brannon  04:21

And it was, they were doing a restaurant update at the beginning of the pandemic, you know, how, like, restaurants were shutting down what they were figuring out. They were, quote, unquote, pivoting. So they were doing this like restaurant diary series, and so I pitched a restaurant to the restaurant diaries, and they’re like, this sounds cool. Okay. And I was like, wait, what? Do you want it? And then, of course, you know, the existential crisis of delivering with impostor syndrome began, but it worked out and I still write for Bon Appetit as well so…

 

Angela Tuell  04:59

That is great. And I and you know how PR people feel when a journalist is like, yes, I would love that story. I would love to do that story.

 

Iona Brannon  05:08

Yep. Oh, I think there are so many parallels between, you know, the job of a PR and the job of a freelancer.

 

Angela Tuell  05:14

Yes. So much, so much. So through that first year, you know, what have been some of your highlights?

 

Iona Brannon  05:20

it’s hard for me to think about what stories I’ve done. Because once you send it off to the editor, you don’t know when, you know, depending on the publication, every editor has a different timeline. So sometimes you don’t see the story live until like four months later, and you’ve forgotten about the story. And so And sometimes, you know, PRs are the ones that email me and they’re like, Hey, I saw this story. I’m like, oh it’s live, okay. But I think off the top of my head, there are a couple of stories that were pretty impactful for me that I’ve written a couple of deeper pieces for AFAR this year that I think are some of my favorites. Because when I first began, that was one of the reasons I also jumped into full-time freelancing because I wanted to have more capacity to take on longer stories are longer form with like, more research. So I did one on how to interact with indigenous culture wherever you’re traveling in the United States. And that one was really such an incredible learning experience for me, too, interviewing different indigenous educators. And I also did one on how to travel sober and interviewed this incredible woman, Brittany, about her sober journey, and her tips for other people who are trying to travel while still being sober. Yeah, we’re starting out, you know, in their journey. So that was also just an incredible story, to be able to write. And, I mean, I think just being able to hear people’s stories, regardless of what the angle is, because I’ve done a couple you know, I did one recently for Success Magazine, I don’t, I don’t think it’s out yet. But it was interviewing this family who did not come from a background where they had a lot of financial education, and then the way that they intentionally decided, hey, we’re not going to live like this, but we, we don’t want to set up our son to have the same experience that we had. And then they’re like, Okay, go to YouTube university, you know, and learned all that they could and now they have this incredible business, they have like really sound financial ground and they also are sharing, they’re sharing information about traveling but they’re also sharing information about financial literacy. So just like that was a really awesome story for me to write as well because I was able to hear this story and be able to you know, interpret it into article form but yeah, I love I love all the stories that I read, but those are just a few that on off the top of my head, I was the most excited to work on.

 

Angela Tuell  08:14

We will definitely link to those so our listeners can read them for sure if they haven’t already. And you are not only a writer but also a photojournalist. How did you get into photography?

 

Iona Brannon  08:26

I have always been into photography for as long as I’ve had a camera. Like back when you had those little point and shoot cameras that you know, you’re like looking at the megapixels that they offer. So I want to say I was like, twelve, when I got my first point and shoot cameras, I’ve always been super into photography. But it wasn’t until I was in school I took – my concentration was in photojournalism. Okay, and so that’s when I really began to hone in on the storytelling aspect of photography and really seeing things more in the bigger picture, and my photography professor, he was this incredible magical man and incredible mentor. So he definitely impacted the way that I see photography immensely.

 

Angela Tuell  09:23

I love following your travels on Instagram, and now Tik Tok. What have been some of your favorite recent travels?

 

Iona Brannon  09:30

So this summer, I’ve done quite a bit of water-based activities. I’ve gone on quite a few cruises, which like is funny because I’ve never been on a cruise before this summer. Like then I was like on three different cruises. And those were a super blast. So I love being on the water. I’m not really a swimmer at all. So being on a boat is kind of the best scenario for me where I’m like, surrounded by the water, but I’m not scared of like being in the water.

 

Angela Tuell  10:05

Sure where were your cruises?

 

Iona Brannon  10:08

The first one was in Alaska, the second one was in Maine. And the third one was in Europe.

 

Angela Tuell  10:17

Was it a river cruise?

 

Iona Brannon  10:19

No, it wasn’t actually it was, it was just a luxury cruise along the coast of like, we were in Croatia and Greece and Montenegro. So it was, it was really beautiful.

 

Angela Tuell  10:32

I bet that was amazing.

 

Iona Brannon  10:35

Yup.

 

Angela Tuell  10:36

So talking more about your stories, how do you get your story ideas and decide, you know, which you will pitch and cover?

 

Iona Brannon  10:43

So I think most journalists are extremely curious people.

 

Angela Tuell  10:50

Yeah. True.

 

Iona Brannon  10:51

So I’m super curious. So if there’s a, if there’s something that piques my curiosity, and it’s something that I want to investigate, then I’ll figure out a way to, to make it a story, if that makes sense. And again, that’s the best part about being a freelance journalist, right? You get to control the stories that you decide to pursue. Yeah, more or less, of course, editors have to accept your pitches and think and also think that is worthy of pursuing but in general, I think I love the ability to choose, this is something that I find interesting, this is something that I’m passionate about, let me write about it. And let me write about that. So I think if there’s a question of how that work, then I usually try to dig a little bit deeper. And, then I ask myself, Is this something that I’m curious about? Because I’m curious about everything? Or is this something that the general public would also be curious about?

 

Angela Tuell  11:50

Yeah, I love how you describe you say you write stories that bring out the humanity and community between all of us, especially at the intersections of travel, food, and personal finance. I love that.

 

Iona Brannon  12:03

Yeah, I mean, I think everything is interconnected, right, like, travel, food, and money. I think they’re all so important. Like, I think about a story that I wrote about Greenville. Recently, in Greenville, South Carolina, what comes to mind, to me is the food scene and the food scene, they’re made such a big impact on me that I thought, wow, this is a compelling reason for people to come to the city. And, so there’s like the travel in the food connected, right? And then within that food scene, there are so many individual chefs that have their own stories of struggles, and this and that, and, you know, when it comes to, to what they’re doing, that’s like, a million different features that are waiting to be written.

 

Angela Tuell  12:53

Right – it’s not just one story.

 

Iona Brannon  12:54

And it’s limitless. Yes, exactly, exactly. Yeah. But I feel like personal finances are like is a topic that I’m trying to intentionally pursue more stories in. And it’s kind of it’s challenging to be intentional about one specific sector, because sometimes, you know, you have 1000 different ideas that are 1000 different sectors. And it’s like, Okay, I can’t just write the stories that come easily, I also have to be intentional about what stories I want to write. And personal finance is just, it’s a huge passion for me, because that impacts every aspect of our life, right, like, every aspect. And so seeing it in travel and the way it intersects with travel, you know, I’ve done some features about women and travel and like their businesses, but in the more like the personal side of personal finance, I am hoping to get more into conscientious spending and being intentional about where our money goes, because I don’t know if the listeners know this, but so much money that gets put into the travel industry or gets spent in travel goes back to, you know, a very few powerful, high-income countries, and it doesn’t actually stay within the community where you’re, where you’re actually located when you’re traveling. So that’s something that I’m passionate about. I want to, you know, write more about and educate more on.

 

Angela Tuell  14:30

Yes, that’s great. And, you know, if you go into other industries, then you’re going to have more PR people contacting you in different industries. If you’re that, you know, that just travel and personal finance, and then even more, so that could be an issue.

 

Iona Brannon  14:46

Yeah, I mean, let me tell you, I like to write one story about something, and then next thing I know, I’m getting pitches for the next three years about chapter one voice.

 

Angela Tuell  14:57

Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m saying. So speaking of that, you know, do you work with public relations professionals very often? How can they help you do your job? And then any pet peeves? Which we may have just mentioned a little bit.

 

Iona Brannon  15:10

Yes. So I actually love this question that you’re asking, because I think that there is such a huge opportunity for freelance journalists and PR to work together because their freelance journalists are always looking for great story ideas, right? And PRs are always trying to get their stories in front of an audience. And so I love when there is an understanding between me and PRs of like, Hey, this is what I’m, this is what I need. Do you have anything that fits that bill? And they also understand that I don’t have the power to put something into a publication, you know, like, I like, I just tried to get paid girly. Like, I well, you know, like, I want my stories to get accepted by these publications just as much as you do. Right. So I think that sometimes, there is a lack of understanding, I think between the two industries, of what, like, what freelance journalists do. We’re pitching constantly to looking for stories constantly to, and, for me, a personal pet peeve when it comes to pitches from PRs, which I’m sure editors probably save up freelance journalists, too. But it’s like a half-baked pitch, or, you know, like that, you know, what about this place? Or what about this thing? And I’m like, Well, I don’t know, what about it, I don’t know anything about this product, or this service, or this place that you’re talking about. And if you aren’t able to give me a compelling reason for why I should spend my time pitching it to an editor, then then, like, what are we doing here? Why are you now like, why are you wasting my time, but as freelancers, we don’t get paid unless our pitches get accepted? Right. So right, there’s a lot of unpaid time that goes into answering emails, that goes into a lot of the logistics and the bookkeeping. So, if we’re able to open your email, then I want to, I want to know exactly what you’re offering. So that I know, is this something that will work with any of my editors? Is this not? So being able to be concise to journalists, is going to make the relationship much more mutually beneficial I think.

 

Angela Tuell  17:47

Yes. You’ve told me before, that pitching headlines in the subject line is really helpful to you in ways that so that you can envision, you know, how the story would actually be what’s the headline, you know, give me a little bit clearer and concise like that.

 

Iona Brannon  18:01

Yeah, definitely. And there’s been plenty of times when a PR has pitched me a headline. And I thought, wow, that is a good headline. Let’s see if my editors, you know because it can encapsulate a story. And you kind of know, if a story has legs, if you’re able to summarize it into a headline, sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. But you know, if I can look at the headline, and like, Oh, this is something that’s interesting, I can click the email, I can read through the details, then I can pitch it to my editor, it can be that quick, or I cannot. But if there’s no bullet point of what you’re trying to tell me, right, what is the point of your email, then it’s a lot more difficult to, as a journalist, stop, spend my time thinking about, Okay, let me digest all this information. Right? Let me figure out what is an angle that I can create? What is the headline that I can create, and then spend my time pitching that to my editors. So it’s like your, if you’re able to take the headline off of the plate of the journalist, if you’re able to take the angle off the plate of the journalist, then then that can shorten the gap between me opening the email and me pitching it to my editor.

 

Angela Tuell  19:25

Yes, that’s great advice. We often say that our job is to make the journalist’s jobs easier, but then that is not what always happens. So I really appreciate that advice, for sure.

 

Iona Brannon  19:37

Yeah, and I think that there’s also, you know, a conversation between journalists of like, what do PRs expect? And I think that, at the end of the day, public relations is an asset to journalism, but it’s not, we don’t answer to PRs. Right? Because if we answer to PRs, then that would be unethical. Right? Like so it’s always like, I have to see if this aligns with, like my ethics. And if it does, then we go for it. If it doesn’t, then I can’t go for it. And there’s nothing I can do about that. Right? So it gets really complicated. Sometimes I feel like the relationships, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it.

 

Angela Tuell  20:19

Yeah. Agree. Do you only write about places that you’ve been to?

 

Iona Brannon  20:24

No. I also write about places that I haven’t been. But I think it depends on the type of story.

 

Angela Tuell  20:31

Right.

 

Iona Brannon  20:31

If it’s a story that is more like a listicle, or something, you know, of these places. It’s fall right now. So there are a million fall foliage stories, right? Yes, I don’t think that any of those writers have been to every single one of the fall foliage places that are listed.

 

Angela Tuell  20:52

They’re just doing their research.

 

Iona Brannon  20:54

Exactly. That’s like one example of a place that you wouldn’t necessarily go to every single one to write about, but I did a story recently for AFAR on these Maine Windjammers in Maine. And that’s a story that I wouldn’t have been able to write, had I not been there.

 

Angela Tuell  21:17

Right, right. Yep, that makes perfect sense. So before we go, I must ask about your upcoming big adventure. At some point here of slow travel south through Central and South America, you must tell us more.

 

Iona Brannon  21:32

Yes. So I am hoping to go to Central and South America, as part of an opportunity to have some immersive Spanish-speaking opportunities. That’s one of my goals is to learn how to speak Spanish fluently, I can understand a bit but not communicate in a way that is helpful to me. And so that’s, that’s something that I kind of want to do. And also because as a freelancer, I’m not really tied down to one destination. I kind of want to take advantage of that flexibility right now and just be able to take my time experiencing different cultures and engaging with different local communities. And I’m really excited about the stories that I’ll be able to tell and the opportunities, that I’ll have. There’s only so much that you can see or experience on a two-week trip. Anywhere you go. Right and even with –

 

Angela Tuell  22:34

And a lot of us one week trip.

 

Iona Brannon  22:36

Yeah, one week trip even less. So I. So I think that I’m trying to write more stories about different cultures and go deeper into those stories. So what I don’t want to do is parachute journalism, where you just pop in, you see things the way you see them, you write the story, and you’re gone. And so that’s one of my goals for this upcoming slow travel journey is to be able to actually be there and be listening and not have this pressure of a deadline or this pressure of finding a story. And just kind of living and experiencing what life is like in this destination. And if a story comes out of it, a story comes out of it, right? But I think that there are so many stories that are below the surface level when you take the time to slow down to just be to interact with people. And then and those are the stories that are typically from the more marginalized voices because those people don’t have the same resources to maybe hire PRs, right, or they don’t know how to utilize their social currency in the same way. There are so many different levels of privilege that dictate what gets seen in media and what doesn’t get seen in media, right? So being able to kind of take my time and get to know people in different areas and hear different stories. I’m really hoping to be able to share some incredible, incredible narratives and features.

 

Angela Tuell  24:15

Yes, it makes me so excited to read them. I can’t wait. So is the plan to not really have a plan, either, and just –

 

Iona Brannon  24:25

Yeah, I think that the general plan is to take it one day at a time or not one day at a time, but probably one quarter at a time, three months at a time.

 

Angela Tuell  24:38

Do you plan to do it for a year or how long?

 

Iona Brannon  24:41

That’s a great question. I don’t have any kids and I don’t have any animals. So I don’t really have restrictions in terms of timing. I think the plan is to go until I don’t want to go anymore. Then I’ll stop.

 

Angela Tuell  25:02

How fabulous. Hopefully, we can get you down to Peru at that point.

 

Iona Brannon  25:06

Yes, I would love to. That’s definitely, that’s definitely on the agenda. So –

 

Angela Tuell  25:11

Wonderful.

 

Iona Brannon  25:12

We’ll be in contact.

 

Angela Tuell  25:13

Towards the end, I guess. Hopefully, you’ll make it by then. Yeah.

 

Iona Brannon  25:16

Yeah. No. I’ll be like emailing you in three years.

 

Angela Tuell  25:24

That’s awesome. Well, how can listeners connect with you online and follow along in your travels?

 

Iona Brannon  25:30

You can find me on social media. I am. I use Instagram a lot. I’m trying to figure out Tic Tok, but I don’t know about that. Like, I feel like I’m not chaotic enough. I think. Personally, I’m chaotic. But I don’t know if I have come across that chaotic. Right? Yeah, like a cross, like platforms. But yeah, Instagram is probably the best way to follow along or if you’re wanting to connect about business or consulting or whatever, freelancing you can reach out through my website, Iona Brannon.com, I have a not often sent newsletter. Okay. Little like an outreach intake form that you can just fill out and it goes to my inbox and I will reach out.

 

Angela Tuell  26:22

Yeah, and on Instagram it’s Iona Wonders. Well, thank you so much for joining us. We cannot wait to follow along and all of your adventures.

 

Iona Brannon  26:31

Thank you so much for having me and I really appreciate it as well.

 

Angela Tuell  26:37

That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined. Please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe to our show. We’d love to hear what you think. You can find more at Communications Redefined.com/podcast. I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.d

Angela gets Iona to share about her transition from marketing to freelance writing and how her stories bring out the humanity and community between us all.  Iona specifically writes about the intersection of travel, food, and personal finance.

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