Jill Schildhouse: Award-Winning Freelance Writer and Editor

 

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 we are talking with award winning writer and editor Jill Shildhouse. Jilll has 23 years of experience in print and digital publishing and has worked as a full time freelancer since 2017. She regularly contributes to Travel + Leisure, Brides, TripSavvy, Insider, USA Today, Reader’s Digest, Taste of Home, Southern Living and many more. She is a true generalist writing about a variety of topics from health and wellness, travel and hospitality, beauty, e-commerce, personal finance, technology, sustainability and business. Jill is also the co-founder of Top Tier Consulting, where she teaches publicists how to build and maintain relationships with journalists, and how to rise to the top of busy writer’s inboxes. Hello, Jill, thank you for joining me today.

 

Jill Shildhouse  01:18

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

 

Angela Tuell  01:20

Yes, I look forward to talking with you and hearing all of the great knowledge you have to share with us. So as I mentioned in our intro, you are quite the accomplished writer who is now a highly regarded consultant for publicists as well. I would love it if you could walk us through your career and how you got to where you are today.

 

Jill Shildhouse  01:41

Absolutely, it’s so interesting, I started my career in public relations in the late 90s. And I only made it a year on that side of the business and quickly realized it just wasn’t the right place for me to be. And so I moved over. The very next job I got was with a magazine, which made a lot more sense. I had always loved writing, I wrote a book in fourth grade. And so it just was a better fit for me, you know, right from the get-go. And now it’s been 23 years in magazine publishing. I worked on staff at numerous publications. Over the years, I did a little departure from magazine publishing for a few years and worked in the marketing departments of a Fortune 10 healthcare company. And then I decided that I was done with corporate America. And so I did the very cliche thing on my 40th birthday I yeah, I quit my, you know, cushy, six-figure, salaried job, and I decided to go full-time freelance, and six years later, I’ve never looked back.

 

Angela Tuell  02:54

Great. That was going to be my question. And it has been six years, you know, when you started the full-time freelancing, what were you the most surprised to learn?

 

Jill Shildhouse  03:02

I think, in many cases, it comes down to the strength of the relationships that you build along the way is how you succeed in this industry. Your network almost becomes more valuable than the ideas that you pitch because editors find their favorite writers, and they like to keep them close by I did this as well when I was, you know, the editor-in-chief of a AAA travel publication for years, you find those great writers, and you keep them close by. And when editors move to another publication, for instance, they’ll bring you along. And so that’s another great way to keep you know, building your portfolio. The importance of having a strong network extends beyond just with editors, to other writers as well, because you can share in each other’s successes and frustrations. You know, so much of this job is really done in a silo. As a freelancer, you don’t have co-workers and colleagues to bounce things off of or discuss. You know, but those writer relationships are so crucial. And they’re also a great way to share, you know, editor contact information and bounce ideas off each other.

 

Angela Tuell  04:24

Yeah. How has freelancing changed over those six years? And I know it has we’ve seen even more freelancers join the world as well. And how have you been able to stay as successful as a freelancer?

 

Jill Shildhouse  04:35

Yeah, I mean, I think it really comes down to being nimble. You know, we’ve seen print publications dying, we’ve seen publications folding, there’s fewer outlets to contribute to but there are more freelancers than ever in the marketplace vying for you know, even fewer opportunities. And so, you know, I think social media has been a really important part of my career. And I think a lot of writers feel this way, I was a little bit late to the game, like I only realized last year that Twitter would be useful for, you know, following editors and seeing their calls for pitches, for instance. And so once I got on board with that, I found that I was landing more outlets and getting buy lines in new publications. So you know, that was really great. You also have to be nimble, just in terms of technology and staying on top of, you know, the ever-changing landscape. Everything from affiliate marketing links, and SEO to, you know, the different skill sets that, you know, editors are expecting, you know, of writers these days. Sometimes there’s photos involved, sometimes there’s, you know, writing more like meta descriptions and things. So, you know, it’s really making sure that you’re staying on top of all the industry changes so that, you know, you’re still a viable resource. And then the other thing I would say is really diversifying your income beyond just creating written content. And that was all I did for, you know, the first five years or so of my business. And it wasn’t really until last year that I realized that I could, you know, do more with my skill set, and I could, you know, run a substack newsletter and monetize that. And I could start a consulting business and work with publicists and you know, even Instagram as an income stream for me as well.

 

Angela Tuell  06:34

Yeah, that’s great. You know, why don’t we talk a little bit more about those? Tell us more about the substack the newsletter and the top tier consulting.

 

Jill Shildhouse  06:42

Yeah, so I actually have two sub stacks, I have my personal substack, which is where I put all of my calls for pitches each week, and I have about 4700 publicists. subscribe to that substack.

 

Angela Tuell  06:59

That’s wonderful.

 

Jill Shildhouse  07:00

Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I’ve really built this community, they’re engaged, you know, my open rate is like 60 something percent every time I run one out, which is, you know, huge, I’ve got this, like, amazing captive audience. And it’s, you know, such a great way for them to know exactly what I’m working on, and what I’m looking for, you know, at any given time. And they get to learn a little bit about me, which helps them, you know, develop a rapport with me, and I noticed in my pitches, I get a lot more personalized pitches, which makes me feel compelled to, you know, respond to them.

 

Angela Tuell  07:37

Right.

 

Jill Shildhouse  07:38

Yeah. And then on, and then I do share some industry insights in there as well. And I host, like bi-monthly ask-me-anything sessions, you know so that there’s really a constant conversation happening. And then I also last year, co-founded a consulting business with fellow journalist, Nicole Pajer. And that’s called Top Tier Consulting. And we also have a substack for that side of the business that we run together, which is a very deep dive into industry information and insider information. You know, we share, you know, secrets and tips and tricks for you know, how to get your pitch to the top of a busy writer’s inbox, we show them how to prove that their clients’ product is trending, you know, we really want to help them succeed. Our goal is to, you know, teach publicists how to build and maintain relationships with journalists and get maximum ROI for each outreach effort. And, you know, we understand how difficult you know, PR jobs are I mean, right, you know, there’s so much going on, on that end of things. And the more we can work together to bridge that gap of misunderstandings of how the relationship could really be better, you know, is so great.

 

Angela Tuell  09:08

Yeah, do you find it that’s more helpful for newer PR professionals or targeted towards, you know, all experience levels?

 

Jill Shildhouse  09:17

So it’s actually targeted to all experience levels. And it’s interesting, because I, we constantly both Nicole and I, on the top tier side, and then, you know, just for my own personal substack, we receive so much feedback constantly from veterans in the industry. I mean, publicists who have been doing this 20/30 years, that are like, “Oh, wow, that’s such a great reminder,” or “I never knew that” or, you know, “Thanks for sharing it from your perspective. I never thought about it that way before.” So I really think that you know, this industry information that helps everyone,

 

Angela Tuell  09:51

Yeah, well, we’ll make sure to link to all of those in the show notes, so anyone listening can sign up and learn some more from you. I want to talk a little bit about your array of topics. You cover everything from health and wellness, travel and hospitality, beauty, e-commerce, personal finance, technology, sustainability, business, I probably could go on. How do you find your focus? And what types of stories do you like to write?

 

Jill Shildhouse  10:22

I think I find my focus in not having a focus. I’m, I’m a true generalist. And, you know, I’ve certainly heard over the years that there are riches and niches, and I do have my personal favorite, you know, topics that I enjoy writing about. But what I actually enjoy most about my career is that I get to learn a little bit about a lot of different things. And so I really like being in learning mode. And whether I’m like, interviewing a microbiologist to learn all about the mites that live in your eyebrows.

 

Angela Tuell  10:59

Oh, no, that’s fun.

 

Jill Shildhouse  11:02

Yeah, to like travel agents, you know, talking about their favorite over-the-water bungalow and Tahiti. You know, I find it all just really interesting. And I like diving into new topics, and figuring out how to make them interesting to the average consumer.

 

Angela Tuell  11:19

You know, that makes your – being a generalist – I feel makes your substack even more valuable because you could be on every industry list that a journal that a PR professional has pitched everything under the sun. But…

 

Jill Shildhouse  11:36

And I think I am on all those lists.

 

Angela Tuell  11:39

I was gonna say, that it’s probably better for you, for the PR professionals just to be following what you’re working on and responding to those things.

 

Jill Shildhouse  11:48

Yeah, exactly. And you know, and it allows me to work with a lot of different publicists, but also a lot of different editors. You know, my editors know that they can come to me for like, pretty much any topic under the sun. And I’m going to dive into it and research it and you know, figure out how to tackle it.

 

Angela Tuell  12:05

That’s really cool. I think I know that travel is maybe one of your favorite topics.

 

Jill Shildhouse  12:10

It sure is. Yes.

 

Angela Tuell  12:11

You’ve been to 36 countries. Any favorites, you could talk about it? You know, that’s a hard one.

 

Jill Shildhouse  12:17

It is a hard one. And I’m going to like five new countries this year. So that one’s going up.

 

Angela Tuell  12:22

Oh wow.

 

Jill Shildhouse  12:23

So I’m really excited. My absolute all-time favorite is always going to be Italy. I’ve been there four times and I need to go back at least 40 more, I think. it’s just it’s the most magical place on earth.

 

Angela Tuell  12:39

It is.

 

Jill Shildhouse  12:40

You know, I’ve had some really amazing experiences. I’ve gone snorkeling in Fiji. And I’ve made Stroopwafel in, you know, Denmark, and I’ve toured the fjords of Norway. You know, I’ve just had some really incredible experiences through my travel writing, and it’s just it’s my absolute favorite part of my job. Yeah.

 

Angela Tuell  13:02

You know, a lot of what we do principally is on the travel side of things. So I’m a little interested in that, of course. With, for travel pitches and media invites, specifically, what are your recommendations to PR professionals?

 

Jill Shildhouse  13:16

Yes, I just did an AMA about this earlier this week. So this is completely top of mind. But I think you know, for media invites, you know, at the end of the day, it’s, it’s a business decision for us to go on a trip or not. I know that it’s sort of viewed as like, oh, you get these free vacations all the time. And they’re anything but. You know, we’re running around 12 to 14 hours a day, you know, on jam-packed itineraries, we’re missing out on, you know, personal things at home. And we’re also essentially losing money every time we’re on a press trip because we’re not really able to write during them. And we sometimes have to turn down assignments while we’re on those trips, just because of the nature of how busy those trips are. So you know, the more information the publicist can share in the invitation, the better we’re able to assess if it’s a good business decision for us to accept that invitation. You know, we really need to understand what’s in the itinerary. Mostly, so we can figure out if it’s something marketable, that we can sell our editors.

 

Angela Tuell  14:24

Right.

 

Jill Shildhouse  14:25

And we also need to know what is covered and what isn’t. There’s so many, you know, hidden or surprise costs, on press trips, you know, that it’s really important to spell that information out upfront as well.

 

Angela Tuell  14:38

Yeah, have you – you know that is something I’ve never done on any trips we’ve hosted I, the journalist haven’t had that experience where they’ve had surprise costs. So I was I was a little surprised to hear that. I think I saw it in one of your tweets or something.

 

Jill Shildhouse  14:52

Yeah, probably.

 

Angela Tuell  14:53

Yeah. And so that’s pretty common?

 

Jill Shildhouse  14:56

You know, it is. And it can be something as simple as an agency asking us to, for instance, pay for our flights, and then they will reimburse us on the back end. But typically, you know, we’re laying out, you know, $600 / $1,000, you know, depending on where the destination is. And then there’s always a lengthy reimbursement process that takes like two to three months to get that money back. And meanwhile, we’re expected to cash flow, you know, that and it’s sitting on our credit cards, you know, accruing interest, if you can’t pay it off. You know, there’s things like gratuities. There’s, you know, transfers to and from, you know, airports, to hotels, or to, you know, events.

 

Angela Tuell  15:45

And JPs or taxes.

 

Jill Shildhouse  15:48

And I will say, a lot of agencies do it, right, and they, you know, take care of all of those things. And it’s a seamless process. But invariably, there’s always some type of surprise charge, you know, that that we’re not aware of or prepared for.

 

Angela Tuell  16:04

We mentioned in the intro, some of the outlets that you’re writing for, which ones do you most enjoy writing for, and the type of stories you focus on for each.

 

Jill Shildhouse  16:14

Travel + Leisure is one of my favorite outlets to contribute to. For them, I do a lot of hotel round-ups. So you know, pick up pick a particular city and you know, here’s the best 10 You know, hotels to stay up there for these reasons. And for this type of traveler. You know, if you’re looking for a romantic stay, you want to stay here, if you’re looking for family-friendly activities, this is the spot to be. So I like I like knowing that I’m a little part of like somebody’s vacation planning experience. And that, you know, I’m giving them that firsthand information that they know that they can trust. And they’re going to have, you know, a great getaway as a result. The other types of pieces that I write for Travel + Leisure are e-commerce pieces. And I just finished one on what to pack for a cruise. And I had so much fun with that piece because I’ve taken 15 cruises, I have my 16th cruise coming up next month.

 

Angela Tuell  17:20

Oh, wow.

 

Jill Shildhouse  17:21

And so these were all like really personal recommendations that I was giving. I own like 80% of the things that I recommend in this article. And they weren’t even like all press samples, I purchased a lot of them with my own money and have found them to be the best thing to take on a cruise. So you know, really being able to share that firsthand experience, I think is important.

 

Angela Tuell  17:47

You mentioned that about purchasing them. Do you normally need to consider affiliate marketing when you are talking about products and articles?

 

Jill Shildhouse  17:58

Yeah, it depends on the outlet. There are some outlets that it’s absolutely required, you know, they have their, you know, affiliate partners that they work with, and the products need to fit within those. And they may even have some additional requirements around the number of you know, reviews that it has, you know, on a website. But then there are some publications that you know, aren’t as strict about it. They have some preferences of you know, you including some of course, but they also leave it up to the writer’s discretion to really pick the best product. And if they don’t fall within an affiliate marketing program that’s okay, because it’s the best product.

 

Angela Tuell  18:39

Yeah, that’s great. I sometimes wish that consumers knew which ones were which outlets were like that. But yeah, so aside from Travel + Leisure, what are some of the others?

 

Jill Shildhouse  18:52

Um, so I’ve been contributing a lot to Southern Living over the last year. And those assignments are so fun because I get to share a lot of personal like family recipes. You know, within those or I’m, you know, sharing some type of important information on, you know, easy recipes, answering questions about you know, does certain things go bad in your pantry or how to store different foods so they last longer. So, you know, food and travel go hand in hand in my book, and I really like writing food content. I also contribute pretty frequently to Brides magazine. And so you know, that’s still a lot of travel-focused articles. I’m working right now on a honeymoon guide for Arizona, which is where I live. So I have a lot of great suggestions for honeymooners on how to have a really romantic honeymoon. But yeah, you know, I contribute to a lot of different publications.

 

Angela Tuell  19:57

So something else it’s a very hot topic right now. What you might be tired of talking about is AI content. And I saw in one of your recent substack newsletters that you talked about AI, and the dangers of relying on things like Chat GPT. And it’s such a fascinating topic, you know. What are your thoughts?

 

Jill Shildhouse  20:18

Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. And then, you know, are kind of changing by the day, as the technology, you know, keeps becoming more robust. You know, there are some outlets that are using chat GPT. And they’re not making any secret about the fact that they have AI content that they’re producing. And there are other publications who have sent, you know, notices out to all of their writers stating that if you use chat GPT, for any of the content that you create, we will find out because we have detection tools, and you will not write for us anymore.

 

Angela Tuell  20:55

Wow.

 

Jill Shildhouse  20:56

And so, you know, I don’t think it’s a tool that writers should be relying on for writing purposes. I think that there are some opportunities with AI for some of the behind-the-scenes and more administrative type tasks that we do on a daily basis. But I think the real problem may come into play with publicists relying on AI content in their pitches, or in the responses that they provide to email-based interview questions.

 

Angela Tuell  21:31

Oh, wow. Yeah.

 

Jill Shildhouse  21:32

And the real concern here is that AI doesn’t write anything unique. You know, I mean, aside from the fact that it doesn’t have a voice, and it doesn’t have personal experience, and it doesn’t have credibility, and it doesn’t source, you know, where it gets its information from, and, you know, the 40 other things that are wrong with it. The real issue comes down to anything that is created through AI is essentially plagiarism. Because nothing it’s creating is a unique thought.

 

Angela Tuell  22:03

Right.

 

Jill Shildhouse  22:04

So, you know, if we’re getting email responses back from a source, and they were pulled from AI, you know, we don’t even know that. And we could be inadvertently turning that into our editors without even realizing that we’re violating the guidelines that we agreed to.

 

Angela Tuell  22:23

Right. Wow. That is definitely something, to be aware of, and hopefully trust that the PR professionals you’re working with, aren’t doing that. And I’m assuming you have to ask now, at this point.

 

Jill Shildhouse  22:36

Yeah, we do have to ask now. And, you know, it’s unfortunate that we’re going to have to ask that. And, you know, I’ve seen some chatter in some of the PR forums on Facebook, where publicists are essentially bragging about this amazing time-saving tool that they’re using now. And it’s starting to get a little scary on our end because we just don’t know what we don’t know. We assume when your source is excited to answer interview questions, that it’s because they’re passionate and knowledgeable about the topic, and we’re getting their firsthand insights, you know. It would never have occurred to me that those questions were just being fed into a computer and spit back out.

 

Angela Tuell  23:20

Yeah, I, you know, this is even another example of how much even more important the relationships are, you know, knowing who you’re working with.

 

Jill Shildhouse  23:28

Exactly.

 

Angela Tuell  23:29

Yeah. So before we go, I would love to ask, I know, we could talk about this for hours and hours, but some of your best advice. And, you know, along, we talked a little bit about the AI one, but for PR professionals when working with journalists, and the best way to help you do your job.

 

Jill Shildhouse  23:45

I think, I think the most important thing is to really be communicative during you know, any type of collaboration with media. I can’t tell you how often we get ghosted by publicists halfway through working on something together.

 

Angela Tuell  24:00

I cannot believe that.

 

Jill Shildhouse  24:02

I know I’m constantly shocked. So you know, if you can’t deliver what you agreed to deliver, that’s fine. But please just let us know right away so that we can scramble and find a plan B before our deadline.

 

Angela Tuell  24:14

Right.

 

Jill Shildhouse  24:15

Another thing to keep in mind and I’ve been seeing this a little bit more and more lately is to remember that your client’s marketing goals do not dictate our editorial angles. And then the last piece of advice I have is, you know, really leaning on the available technology as a resource to gather the information that you need about the writers that you want to work with. So instead of shooting us an email that says you know, wondering what you who you write for and what you cover, and you know what you’re working on this week. Do that research yourself, you know, lean on Muck Rack to see what their most recent buy lines are to get a feel for what they’re doing. Follow them on. on social media, a lot of us are posting the things that we’re writing about on social and, you know, looking for sources or products to feature. And then lastly, follow our substacks. You know, writers make it so easy nowadays, for you to connect with them and to have that information that you didn’t have access to before.

 

Angela Tuell  25:20

Yes. 100%. And besides the substacks, which we’ll link to, how can listeners connect with you online?

 

Jill Shildhouse  25:27

Um, so luckily, I am the only Jill Shildhouse in the entire world.

 

Angela Tuell  25:31

Wow.

 

Jill Shildhouse  25:33

So if you just type my name into Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, substack, or any of those, you’re gonna find me instantly.

 

Angela Tuell  25:43

Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today.

 

Jill Shildhouse  25:46

Thanks for having me. This was a great, great discussion. Thank you.

 

Angela Tuell  25:52

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 CommunicationsRedefined.com/podcast. I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

After a short stint in PR, Jill spent the majority of her professional career in magazine publishing before making the transition to freelancing.  In today’s episode she shares with Angela why she embraces numerous topics and works hard at building relationships within her network.  Jill’s work speaks for itself – she loves a good deep dive into a topic, dishes on her favorite eats and travels, and discusses how crucial it is to be nimble in this field.  For more information regarding her expertise, please take a moment to subscribe to her substacks through the links below.

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