Lee Mylne – Working Journalist profile

8 September 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Some people dream of a career in travel writing. For Lee Mylne, it’s a reality.

Mylne is a freelance travel writer who has visited over 40 countries (and counting). Her career as a journalist began immediately after high school when she worked as a cadet for a daily newspaper in her native New Zealand. After moving to Australia in 1986, her newspaper career eventually shifted to freelance and travel writing. The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Weekend Australian are just a few of the numerous publications that have featured Mylne’s stories.

She’s also published a wide array of travel books such as Frommer’s Australia and Australia for Dummies among others. In 2006, she was awarded with Life Membership of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, which she served as president from 2000 to 2003.

Having just returned from a trip to New Zealand, Mylne sits down with Jade Hampton to discuss her career, the industry, and why every traveler should carry Ziploc bags.

How did you get started in a career in travel writing?

It was an accident. I fell into travel writing out of journalism. After leaving fulltime work to have my first child, I was offered a job as the Brisbane correspondent for a national travel trade magazine, Travel Week, which is now defunct. They were looking for a journalist rather than a travel writer so I was writing news stories and features about the travel industry. When I got involved in that, I was introduced to the Australian Society of Travel Writers. I found out about all these travel writers out there and about this whole other area of journalism existing. I discovered I could travel, for example, to Cairns to cover a conference for the trade magazine and do a destination story about it for another outlet. It kind of snowballed into destination writing. I did other kinds of writing too, but the travel took over.

What skills have you developed as a travel writer that you feel you probably wouldn’t have developed as a typical journalist?

The ability to look at other cultures. I think if I had continued working in newspapers I wouldn’t have travelled so much outside Australia. I think traveling to other countries gives you a much broader view of the world and the people in it. You realise that people are very similar wherever you are, but they still have differences. It broadened my understanding of people and the world in general and how different places work and how we all fit together. Cultural differences aside, people are all pretty much the same. You’ve had a rather successful career in travel writing and freelance. What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of embarking in these careers? There are certain things you have to have, and one of them is discipline. Persistence is important as well without driving editors wild: it’s a fine balance. Don’t go into it without having first worked in mainstream media. You can still do it, but it’s a lot harder. You really need to have contacts. Join a networking organisation, such as the MEAA (Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance). You need to get out there and meet people, work with other freelancers and talk to other freelancers. Don’t consider other freelancers your competition; they are, but they’re also your colleagues. By talking to other freelances, you find out how they work and what works for them. I’d also say these days that freelancers should develop some photography skills, particularly in travel, because publishers want photos to go with the words. Another thing that helps with freelancing is developing a specialty, whether it’s travel, music, the arts, or sports. Make it something you’re passionate about and that you’re knowledgeable about. This really helps because when people are looking for someone in those areas, they will know that you can really do it.

What misconceptions do you feel people have about being a travel writer?

There are a lot of misconceptions. That it’s a glamorous job is one thing; that it’s well paid is another. People think they can travel all over the world and pay for it by selling their stories and photos. Generally, no matter what kind of freelance work it is, the rates are much lower than what budding freelances are expecting to be paid. And it’s much harder to get published than they’re expecting too. It’s hard work. I work about 50 hours a week and so do most of the successful freelances I know. Yes, it’s nice to travel, but at the same, you’ve got to do the work.

In your career, have you ever found yourself in any tough situations?

Yes, but not so much as a travel writer. As a newspaper journalist, I was often. As a cadet in New Zealand, I remember going with a senior reporter to a construction site where someone had been buried in a trench, I can’t remember if he was killed, but the workers at the site took strong objection to us being there and got physically aggressive with my male colleague. When I worked in Brisbane at The Daily Sun, I had to do a number of “death knocks”, the term used for when you go to someone’s house when a person in their family has died in newsworthy circumstances, to interview them or to get photographs. Those situations can be confronting, and I had to do it quite often. I think if you have to do it and understand that it’s necessary to be sensitive, it can work.

How do you see the industry in 5 years?

I don’t think newspapers will disappear, at least certainly not in the next five years. I think more people will increasingly get their news from the Internet in various ways. There’s also a trend towards “citizen journalism” and I think that will increase. In terms of freelancing, I think the number of outlets will shrink. That’s partly to do with group buying, which is already happening. Instead of selling to two different newspapers, you just sell to one and they can immediately run it in their other publications. It will be interesting to see the industry in five years.

When you’re traveling, what items do you always make sure to have with you?

My camera and notebook of course. A sarong – it doesn’t matter where I’m going it’s very useful to have for all sorts of things. A flashlight is another item. I also take Ziploc bags, which is a useful trick I learned from a friend, to keep stuff dry like my notebook. I also take a good book to read in case I get stuck at an airport.

Is there anything you know now that you wished you would have known when you first embarked on your career?

Not really. I’ve learned a lot and there were obviously a lot of things I didn’t know when I first started, but I think it’s a learning process. It’s also a growing up process. I know a lot more about people than I did when I started. I know how to better deal with people and how to interview people, but all that stuff is a learning process. I certainly wouldn’t change any of it.

How would you describe your time in journalism?

Like a rollercoaster: exhilarating, fun, challenging and something I wouldn’t swap for anything.

Describe your writing style in one word.