Sarah Kuta: Freelance writer as seen in National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian magazine, AFAR, Robb Report and others

 

Angela Tuell: 0:05

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. On today’s episode we are talking with freelance journalist Sarah Kuta. She is based in Colorado and covers travel, food and beverage, sustainability, science, history, economics and many other topics. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Conde Naste Traveler, Smithsonian Magazine, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, NBC News, Food& Wine, Robb Report and many other publications. Hi, Sarah, I’m looking forward to talking with you today.

 

Sarah Kuta: 0:57

Sure, thank you so much for having me.

 

Angela Tuell: 0:59

Yes. You know, during my research for this episode I saw you study journalism at Northwestern. And then started off your career with many internships, which is advice I always give, by the way. Could you walk us through your career journey and how you got to where you are today?

 

Sarah Kuta: 1:17

So I grew up in Nebraska. And for one reason or another, I always wanted to be a journalist. I’m not totally sure where that idea came from. But it’s just what I always wanted to be when I grew up.

 

Angela Tuell: 1:29

There wasn’t one big moment that you that you can

 

Sarah Kuta: 1:32

No, no, I mean, I was like the kid who had the remember. little put out the little like fake newspaper, the house and that sort of thing. So I don’t really know, I don’t really know where it came from. But it was sort of always there. So when it came time to start looking at colleges, my mom and I took a big trip around the Midwest, we toured a handful of different

 

Angela Tuell: 1:55

A great city. schools, including Northwestern. And that’s where I really wanted to go, I really wanted to study journalism at Northwestern. It’s a beautiful campus.

 

Sarah Kuta: 2:08

So I was fortunate enough to get in, which was, I guess, kind of shocking to my 16 or 17 year old self. But yeah, I worked with a student newspaper at Northwestern. And it was a great experience. So when you major in journalism at Northwestern, you have to spend a semester doing an internship or class credit at a publication. They used to call it journalism residency, I’m not sure what it’s called now. But I ended up doing mine at the Daily camera, which is the daily newspaper in Boulder, Colorado.

 

Angela Tuell: 2:42

Okay.

 

Sarah Kuta: 2:42

And around that same time, I also got an internship

 

Angela Tuell: 2:43

Wow – what an experience. with the Denver Post. So I ended up doing those back to back,

 

Sarah Kuta: 2:48

Yeah, that was awesome. And then when that wrapped up, I moved back to Boulder to work for the Daily which was really helpful for kind of getting acclimated to Camera where I had interned during college. So that was, I kind of a specific metropolitan region and kind of learning the ropes of newspaper journalism. So I went back and finished up was lucky that that worked out. my schoolwork. And after graduation, I spent the summer

 

Angela Tuell: 3:04

Okay.

 

Sarah Kuta: 3:05

I spent about five years at the newspaper, I interning with the Associated Press in Dallas. started my career covering outdoor recreation, and then I transitioned to covering higher education. And then –

 

Angela Tuell: 3:31

That’s quite a transition.

 

Sarah Kuta: 3:33

Yeah. And then I made the leap into freelancing. So that’s me in a nutshell.

 

Angela Tuell: 3:38

Okay. So you went freelance before it was super popular, like it is now, you know. What, what made you do that? And what was the move like?

 

Sarah Kuta: 3:48

Yeah, so I was really lucky to have a mentor. Her name is Brittany Anas. She’s still a freelance writer today, we work together at the Daily Camera. And she went freelance a couple of years before I even really started thinking about it. And so just from kind of watching her from afar, we were really good friends. So we talked a lot and kind of stayed in touch and watched as she sort of progressed in her career. And she graciously showed me the ropes when I was just starting out. She really taught me the ins and outs of pitching, like how pitching even works, how to negotiate with editors, what to expect on press trips, and all that stuff. So honestly, I think I just kind of followed in her footsteps, and she’s still one of my best friends to this day and really successful. So I have to give a shout out to her.

 

Angela Tuell: 4:39

Oh that’s great. I know they don’t maybe they do now in journalism school teach those things, which they probably should, but they didn’t at that point, right.

 

Sarah Kuta: 4:46

here’s how to pitch for print. And here’s here’s how to write a huge feature story for print magazine that has like 25 sources instead of kind of more of like the quick hitting digital landscape that we’re in today. So yeah, yeah, that was a lot of a lot more trial and error when I first started.

 

Angela Tuell: 5:10

Sure. What were you surprised to learn?

 

Sarah Kuta: 5:13

One thing that stands out to me is in Denver, we have a really tight group of freelancers, staff writers, and editors and publicists that all hang out and get together and talk shop. And we probably get together like once a month or once every couple of months.

 

Angela Tuell: 5:34

That’s great.

 

Sarah Kuta: 5:35

So there’s a lot of camaraderie among freelancers, which, I guess, when you first start out, you’re, I wasn’t quite sure if it was a sort of competitive field. And to some degree it is, but I’m not sure how unique that is to the Denver Metro area, or whether you might find that everywhere. But to this day, I still think it’s one of the most valuable sort of assets that I have as a writer, which is there’s always kind of other sort of, quote unquote, co workers that I can talk to, or refer work to, or ask advice from. So I think that was something that was surprising, but also ended up really helping me out as I started to build my career.

 

Angela Tuell: 6:13

Yes, that’s invaluable, because you’re not in an atmosphere, a team atmosphere working at a company or within you know, that outlet internally. So to have those kind of resources is is wonderful. How has freelancing changed over the years since you started? And you know, maybe some hurdles you faced in your career and how you overcame them?

 

Sarah Kuta: 6:34

Yeah, I’m sure everyone has said this. But freelancing has gotten more challenging. Just publications shutting down and budgets getting tighter, just the whole media landscape is, is really different even than it was you know, 5, 10 years ago.

 

Angela Tuell: 6:52

Right.

 

Sarah Kuta: 6:54

So the way that I’ve tried to over, try to overcome that as a freelancer is just by diversifying. So I feel like there’s one school of thought, that gets kind of chopped around among freelancers, that you should really establish yourself as an expert in one niche, and really just own it, like own that, own that realm, from top to bottom. But I’ve kind of taken the opposite approach, which is, I read about pretty much anything and everything. And I think that my

 

Angela Tuell: 7:23

We’re going to talk about that.

 

Sarah Kuta: 7:24

My, like sort of traditional journalism training, and the work that I did, as a newspaper reporter really lends itself to that sort of sort of being a Jill of all trades, because I grew up in that sort of reporting environment where I was just calling people up on the phone and asking them tough questions sometimes or…it really teaches you how to be nimble and kind of quickly get up to speed on any given topic. So all that to say that, you know, especially during COVID, travel shut down, so I sort of just pivoted and started writing about bunch of different other topics. Real estate, was one that was a big one, food was another big one. So I guess, my, my overcoming of a hurdle is kind of diversifying my portfolio and make sure making sure, I’ve always got a lot of different plates spinning. Another hurdle, I think is just impostor syndrome, which is that so much of what we do is kind of like shooting stuff out into the void and never, either not hearing back or not getting any feedback, or getting like bare bones feedback. And it’s taken me a long time to realize that, you know, it’s not personal, like there’s, if an editor doesn’t respond to a pitch, it may not be a reflection of me, it might just be the number of emails they got that day, or the KPIs that their boss wants them to hit that week, or finally, whatever the case may be, or maybe they already have a story in the works. So I just sort of try not to get too attached to any one thing and kind of keep chugging along. And that’s been helpful for kind of overcoming impostor syndrome. Not that I’ve totally mastered it, but working on it.

 

Angela Tuell: 9:06

That happens on the PR side, too. I know. Yeah. It may be sometimes it is personal, but hopefully not. Yeah.

 

Sarah Kuta: 9:13

I don’t think so.

 

Angela Tuell: 9:14

I know, I’m just kidding. But you know, going back to the wide variety of topics. As an example, for everyone listening. Most recently, you wrote the 50 best franchises to own for Success Magazine, along with an article on river and ocean cruises for Travel Pulse. And a story about astronauts and if running around a wall of death could help them stay in shape on the moon for Smithsonian Magazine. So what types of stories are your favorite to write? You know, we’re in where do you find them?

 

Sarah Kuta: 9:51

So I love to write stories that kind of let me go deep on one specific topic. I feel like that’s a little bit trickier to do in this day and age and also just like having to kind of keep a consistent workflow to pay the bills and all that. But I always try to have, you know, one sort of personal project or deeper stories that I’m working on kind of on the backburner as I’m working on all or kind of daily, or quick turn stories. So for me, that’s a story that sort of lets me report and talk to a bunch of people. Also something that lets me learn something new, something surprising, and really just sort of dove basically delve down a rabbit hole that I’ve kind of always been personally interested in. And I usually find those types of stories when I’m out, traveling or just, you know, something I kind of noticed, in my own personal life or on the street. And I also read a lot of news, like I’m sure everyone else does. So I sort of do that. And it’s kind of like this subtle flow of, you know, trends and what’s going on in the world, topics to maybe avoid or topics to try to strike while the iron is hot. So I definitely say, reading a lot and consuming a lot of news helps with story, finding stories.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:11

Sure. How many stories do you typically write a week?

 

Sarah Kuta: 11:15

It’s a lot. I don’t think I’m like a normal person. It’s more, it’s more than more than ten.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:23

Wow.

 

Sarah Kuta: 11:23

But they’re not all deeply reported. A lot of them are just sort of like quick news hits.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:27

Sure.

 

Sarah Kuta: 11:28

So –

 

Angela Tuell: 11:30

You’re just pumping them out.

 

Sarah Kuta: 11:30

Yeah, I think I think like my strategy, from a business perspective is to just always have a bunch of plates spinning, like I said, so yeah, I don’t, I don’t try to rely too heavily on pitching, although I do pitch quite a lot. But I also just like to have kind of more steady, steady gigs running in the background that I’m always kind of working on.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:52

Sure. I’m, I’m sure the longer you’ve been doing it. Now you have stories coming to you as well from editors and not having to 100% pitch.

 

Sarah Kuta: 12:00

Yeah, yep.

 

Angela Tuell: 12:01

Yeah. Which is great. How many outlets are you writing for right now about?

 

Sarah Kuta: 12:06

Six or eight at one time, but it’s a variable, depending on you know, some some editors are assigning stuff, monthly, quarterly, daily, so it’s not it kind of ebbs and flows. I would say.

 

Angela Tuell: 12:19

Talking about publicists a little bit. What advice do you have for us, when pitching you stories? I’m sure you are on every list, because of all of the topics you’ve written for, which has got to be incredibly overwhelming with the amount of emails you get.

 

Sarah Kuta: 12:36

I do get a lot of emails. So I guess my advice would just be like, keep pitching and keep following up. And also, forgive me for not responding to everything. I’m sure this gets talked about a lot on your podcast. But I think the publicists that I have the strongest relationships with definitely, like, whenever I see their name in my inbox, I always make a point of reading it and hopefully responding just to say, like, Hey, I got this, I’m not sure if it’ll be a fit for anything I’m working on. But, you know, it takes it takes a lot of time and effort to build those relationships. And it’s not easy to do, and it doesn’t happen organically. But I’d say if you do have the time, and you can find a way to sort of connect with the journalist more personally, it just, it’s just like, pure psychology, like we’re gonna, we’re gonna respond more positively and read the emails and, you know, chit chat and even just talk about what’s new in your world, and maybe a story will develop from that. So…

 

Angela Tuell: 13:32

Yeah, definitely. Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to PR professionals?

 

Sarah Kuta: 13:38

This isn’t really a pet peeve, I guess it would be more of a tip, I would say that. If you’re going to send a pitch, if it’s possible to include a link to a photo folder, that’s super helpful, because it just sort of eliminates a little bit more of that, like, back and forth of like, if an editor, if an editor says yes, like chances are they probably want to, they want to know what the art is going to look like. And that way I can sort of quickly forward it along to them.

 

Angela Tuell: 14:03

Yeah. You know, that ahead of time for –

 

Sarah Kuta: 14:05

It’s not really a pet peeve.

 

Angela Tuell: 14:07

Right, no. That’s a good, that’s a good, good advice. So definitely. Let’s talk a little bit about some of your recent stories or even doesn’t have to be resent. Yeah. What have been some of your favorites?

 

Sarah Kuta: 14:18

One of my all time favorite stories was it was notable for a couple of reasons. One, it was the first story I ever wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, and they had been on my list of goal publications for a while. This was a couple of years ago now. And it was a story about the history of the ski chairlift. So I live in Colorado, I’m a skier, you know.

 

Angela Tuell: 14:41

You have to be, right?

 

Sarah Kuta: 14:42

During the winter, but it never occurred to me to sort of look into how the ski chairlift was invented or where it came from. And I actually learned about that on a trip to Sun Valley. They have a really cool Museum there, just a small couple room history museum. And they had an exhibit on the guy who invented the ski chairlift. And he was an engineer in Omaha, Nebraska, which is about two hours from where I grew up. So I was intrigued for a bunch of different reasons. And I was actually able to track down his daughter, who’s still alive and chat with her about her dad. And what she remembers about him designing the ski chairlift and took a long time. And it was kind of like, labor of love. But I was really proud of the story. When it finally came out. A story that I wrote recently that I was pretty proud of, because it was sort of a, I had to think a little bit creatively. So I was on a cruise not too long ago that got disrupted by a cyclone. And we had to completely reroute, like we didn’t get to do, basically, any of the itinerary that we had planned. I’m sort of planning on doing that itinerary for like, the stories that I was hoping to pitch and write and all that. But we ended up getting to go to some new destinations that I’ve never been to. And I wrote a kind of a column more of a personal essay about how some of the best trips come from travel disruptions and sort of like, you know, the cliche that like sad about the destination, it’s about the journey. But I was happy to sort of make lemonade out of lemons with that one where, you know, it could have just been a wash, but it wasn’t like I was able to write something that was sort of personally meaningful, coming out of that trip.

 

Angela Tuell: 16:26

I like that perspective, I feel like we spend so much maybe not all of us, but so much time planning a trip and having, you know, your, your mindset on what you’re doing, where you’re going. And it’s inevitable that things change or come up. That’s a major one, of course, for the whole itinerary changed. Who was the column for?

 

Sarah Kuta: 16:44

Um, so actually, right, I contribute to a newsletter for alumni of my school district where I went to high school. So that’s just kind of a fun side project. But it’s actually nice to write for an audience of sort of, like, quote, unquote, fans, like people that I knew growing up and still know my parents and all that. So…

 

Angela Tuell: 17:06

I love that I love that. We’ll have to see if we can get a copy to share with our listeners. Do you have any stories that you wanted to tell, but haven’t made it into print yet?

 

Sarah Kuta: 17:18

I do. And both of these are stories I just like haven’t quite gotten around to pitching yet. So they might still, they might still land somewhere. Who knows. Last summer, I spent some time in central California, kind of near San Luis Obispo County. And I got to do a tour of Hearst Castle and learn about Julia Morgan, who was California’s first female architect. She designed Hearst Castle. And she also designed something like 700 buildings. And this was in the late 1800s and early 1900s when women weren’t really encouraged to have careers. So I’d love to do kind of a deep dive on her and sort of her backstory. Another one that I’m sort of I’m pitching around, but also just kind of sitting on is – also resulted from a trip I took last summer. I went to Boise, Idaho, and they have a really big Basque population. So…

 

Angela Tuell: 18:16

Basque, you said?

 

Sarah Kuta: 18:18

Basque, yeah. It’s a group of people who hail from northern Spain.

 

Angela Tuell: 18:23

Okay.

 

Sarah Kuta: 18:24

And they sort of migrated to different places in the US over the last century or so. And their language is really unique. It’s a language isolate. So it’s not derived from any other language is sort of totally unique. And there’s a preschool in Boise that is teaching kids this language and sort of helping to keep it alive. It’s not necessarily in danger of dying out, but they’re sort of helping to keep this language and this tradition alive. And I think what’s cool about it is that it’s sort of an unexpected place. Like it’s happening in Idaho.

 

Angela Tuell: 18:59

Yeah.

 

Sarah Kuta: 19:00

So, yeah.

 

Angela Tuell: 19:01

I love that story.

 

Sarah Kuta: 19:02

It’s so helpful to write both of those. I just have to find the time.

 

Angela Tuell: 19:07

Right? Well, what we’ll be watching for them. Hopefully, they will happen. Do you, speaking of travel a little bit, do you mostly travel domestically? Or both international and domestic?

 

Sarah Kuta: 19:20

I try to do a mix of both. Yeah, I think domestic is great, because it feels like and this could just be totally wrong. It feels like it’s a little bit easier to kind of pitch and sell pieces about traveling in the US or in North America. But yeah, obviously international as well for the right audience.

 

Angela Tuell: 19:39

So do you take hosted media trips then? And if so, you know what makes you say yes or no to a trip?

 

Sarah Kuta: 19:47

I do. I do take hosted media trips, but I tend to be really, really selective about the trips that I take. Probably to your point. I always consider what the publicist or what the destination is looking for in terms of coverage. And whether that’s something I think I can realistically deliver on. A lot of times as a freelancer, it’s sort of like as you know, out of my out of my hands, and while it’s great to know ahead of time that you have a story nailed down, sometimes the itinerary changes, or sometimes it’s just not realistic for the publication that they’re targeting or whatever.

 

Angela Tuell: 20:23

Right.

 

Sarah Kuta: 20:24

So I really tried to be mindful of that. And I want to make sure it’s worthwhile for everybody involved. Beyond that, I would say a lot of it boils down to the relationship I have with the publicist, or the brand. Much more likely to go on a trip with someone I’ve worked with closely before. And we sort of know how each other operates. And you know, how I know how easy they are to work with. And I know that they sort of understand my role and my job and the challenges that I have as a freelancer. So that’s a big factor, too.

 

Angela Tuell: 20:53

Yeah, you don’t have to name names. But have you been on any hosted trips that you probably should have said no to? Or realized later?

 

Sarah Kuta: 21:03

Um, when I first started freelancing, I, I would pretty much just say yes to any trip. So I feel like that was kind of a lesson learned was because when you’re when you’re new, you’re like, wow, if someone wants to, like fly me to, you know, somewhere, this is so cool. It’s like, what everyone dreams of.

 

Angela Tuell: 21:21

Right?

 

Sarah Kuta: 21:22

And over time, you kind of quickly realize like, oh, okay, it is actually work. Not a vacation. It’s not, I mean, it’s like sometimes half fun, half work, but it’s like, usually mostly work. Like there’s, you know, the schedules are packed.

 

Angela Tuell: 21:37

If you have any downtime, you have to write, right?

 

Sarah Kuta: 21:40

Exactly, yes. You kind of stressed about, like, where you’re going to place the story afterward. And just like I don’t, I don’t know if that’s just my personality, but I spend a lot of time worrying about that. And just expectations. So I think, for me, it’s like that. It’s not necessarily like a trip I sort of should have said no to it’s just sort of like narrowing down my my own kind of like internal guidelines for which trips to say yes to and what has to pass on. Because you obviously can’t, I mean, some some journalists travel pretty much 365 days a year, that’s not necessarily on my career setup. Like I have a home and two dogs and a partner, and I like being at home. So I kind of try to balance it.

 

Angela Tuell: 22:23

Yeah, yeah, that’s good. Where do you see the future of journalism? And you know, freelance writing? Are there emerging trends or developments that you’re that you find exciting or concerning? I know we talked a little bit about the challenges there, but-

 

Sarah Kuta: 22:38

I’m not really sure how to feel about this one, I guess it’s just something that I’ve been noticing, which is just like the rise of E commerce and like affiliate based stories, and it just seems like so many publications are either like launching kind of more of a commerce strategy, or they’ve had one for a number of years. And that’s like, it looks like that’s the majority of the stories that they’re kind of commissioning and assigning, so not good or bad, just sort of like something to try to navigate and think about, like, is there? I guess for me, it’s sort of like, a good frame, to think about if I’m pitching a story. Like, is there some, is there some way I could integrate, like a commerce element into this? Because it certainly seems like that might make an editor more likely to pick it up.

 

Angela Tuell: 23:23

Right? Yeah.

 

Sarah Kuta: 23:24

Doesn’t doesn’t belong in every story. So I guess that maybe makes it like, more competitive for the stories that don’t have any commerce element. But that’s something I’m just sort of keeping an eye on and watching and kind of seeing how it all shakes out.

 

Angela Tuell: 23:38

Yeah, I think as a traditionally trained journalist, it’s really bothered me, as I learned about it. You know, when it started to become popular, it’s still by a little bit, although I’ve worked with and talked to a lot of journalists and, you know, outlets that still really try to keep it, you know, editorial and, and making sure that they would really suggest that product or that item before it’s in there, you know, but there’s some that are blurring the lines, the lines differently than that. And that’s part. That’s a little scary, you know?

 

Sarah Kuta: 24:10

Yeah, for sure.

 

Angela Tuell: 24:11

Yeah. So what are you working on currently that you can talk about?

 

Sarah Kuta: 24:16

Um, I’m writing a lot of daily news stories. So I write a couple of daily news stories for Smithsonian. And then I’ve also recently been doing some daily writing for Travel Pulse. So just writing kind of more about travel with an emphasis on the cruise industry.

 

Angela Tuell: 24:33

Okay.

 

Sarah Kuta: 24:34

And then kind of sort of to that same end, I’ve got a couple of stories in the works for an upcoming package that Conde Naste Traveler is doing about cruising. And it’s a package focused less on the destinations that a cruise can take you to in more about sort of unique elements you might find on the ships or unique offerings, that the cruise line itself is spinning up. So…

 

Angela Tuell: 24:57

Oh, that’s pretty cool. Thank you. Before we go, I also must ask about

 

Sarah Kuta: 24:59

Yeah. your dog Daisy. I know you mentioned a couple of dogs, but she has her own Instagram account. super adorable. How did she break into social media? Well, this is gonna out me is such a millennial. So, Daisy is my six year old Rhodesian Ridgeback. I got her when she was a puppy. And you know, as you know, when you get a puppy, you take a million pictures of them. So, right after I got her, I was like, oh, wouldn’t it be fun to have a creative outlet? And I could post pictures of her on Instagram in sort of, like, in her voice? Haha. Like, I feel like it was like a time and a place. Yes, six years ago. Um, so I haven’t been. I mean, I should say Daisy hasn’t been super active on her Instagram account as of late, but part of that is because she recently got a baby brother. His name is Angus. He’s a Doberman Pinscher that we rescued from animal shelter here in Colorado. And he’s about two years old. So they get along great, except for that Angus, has that sort of puppy energy and loves to drive his older sister crazy. But yes.

 

Angela Tuell: 26:14

So maybe he’ll join her on social media at some point.

 

Sarah Kuta: 26:18

Oh, and I should also add that they are my supervisors, because I work from home. They, you know, they’re sort of like the bosses and make sure I get my work done. So…

 

Angela Tuell: 26:27

Do they make sure you take a break and walk them during the day?

 

Sarah Kuta: 26:30

Yeah. Oh, yeah. And they take a cut of all of my my earnings.

 

Angela Tuell: 26:36

A big cut probably, right?

 

Sarah Kuta: 26:37

Yeah.

 

Angela Tuell: 26:39

That’s great. Well, we’ll include a link to the Instagram account as well for anyone listening. How can how can any of our listeners connect with you online?

 

Sarah Kuta: 26:49

Um, I’m on Instagram, Facebook, X and email.

 

Angela Tuell: 26:55

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Sarah.

 

Sarah Kuta: 26:58

Thank you. This was really fun.

 

Angela Tuell: 27:01

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.

In today’s episode, Angela talks with Sarah Kuta about the challenges and opportunities of freelance writing, focusing on the importance of mentorship and networking, successful pitching, and current trends in the industry.

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