Instead of a traditional paired mentor-mentee program this year, we are featuring monthly Q&A’s with mentors about how they broke into journalism, what their day is like, and any advice they have for young journalists. From there, students or anyone else (“mentees”) can email the mentors with any questions or set up informational interviews.
Our fifth Mentor of the Month is Drew Lazor (@drewlazor), a freelance food writer who has a regular column in Philadelphia Daily News and also has contributed to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Food Network, Serious Eats, and Lucky Peach. Ask him anything via email@example.com.
Q: How long have you been a freelance writer? Did you have a full-time staff gig before you went freelance?
I’ve been working as a freelance writer full-time since June 2012. Before that, I worked at the Philadelphia City Paper for six years, most notably in an Associate Editor role, which involved everything from food/drink/film/music coverage to web/social media duties. Nowadays, I work both locally and nationally. I write a regular column for the Philadelphia Daily News, and also contribute to the Philadelphia Inquirer, philly.com and so on. Nationally, I’m a contributor to outlets like Food Network, Food Republic, Lucky Peach, PUNCH, Serious Eats, etc.
Q: Did you always want to work in journalism? How did you transition into food writing in particular?
I definitely always wanted to do something with writing. Growing up, it was the academic discipline that came most naturally to me, and it was the most fun, too. I was the EIC of my high school paper (The Patriot @ John Carroll School in Bel Air MD) and a section editor at my college paper (The Collegian @ La Salle University in Northwest Philly). For the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a music journalist — thank Almost Famous for that, I think! Ha. And I actually did that for years, along with anything and everything else that came my way.
I ended up in the food world the same way I ended up in this line of work. In 2005, when I was a senior in college, I got an internship at the City Paper. My editor at the time, Ashlea Halpern (currently traveling the world! she is awesome), needed someone to write a restaurant news beat column, and I volunteered. It really just snowballed from there. I’d always been interested in food, but the response from the column was great, so it encouraged me to pursue longer-form stories focusing on the Philly food scene. In 2006, there was an entry-level opening at the paper and they hired me. As far as how I “broke into” the industry, though — I think I just worked really hard. I really busted my ass. Wish there was a sexier answer, but that’s pretty much it.
Q: Describe a typical work day for you.
I’ve never been a morning person. My mom still loves bringing up all the times throughout my childhood that she was physically unable to get me up, so she just left me in bed, and all the times I stayed up insane hours finishing projects or homework. (Sorry mom!) I work out of my house, so I’m typically either here, writing and hanging out with my dog and two cats, or out somewhere reporting, investigating, taking photos, etc. I do a lot of my writing at night — like, late night — so I’m one of those weirdos with a backward biological clock. I always get it done, just in an unorthodox way. (Sorry editors!)
Q: What is your best advice for young journalists? What’s your response to warnings like “Journalism is dead!” or “You’ll never make a living this way!”?
First of all, I’d like to offer a big fat screw you/shut up to any miserable-ass bump on a log who says that kind of stuff to students. Just because you’re jaded and burnt out doesn’t mean you have to stomp all over the aspirations of people who’d like to do what you do. So many people told me that back when I was a student, and that was what, over a decade ago? Get a life. Real talk though, it’s not as if that mentality is rooted in nothing. Journalism is a massive challenge, but if you really want it and you have the talent, work ethic and ambition, nothing can stop you but yourself.
My advice for students is extremely simple: START GETTING BYLINES WHILE YOU’RE STILL IN SCHOOL. This applies to kids fresh out of school, too. Don’t expect to land some sweet gig with nothing but a degree in in your toolbox. The experience of pitching an idea and following it through, from the reporting stage to seeing it on the page (or screen), is INVALUABLE. The earlier you start, the better. If it’s paid, awesome. If it’s unpaid, fine — not ideal, but the experience is your payment. And don’t give me this “oh it’s sooooo hard” crap. If I may sound like a crotchety old man for a sec: When I was in school, I was a full-time student, I worked a part-time job, I had an internship and I freelanced as much as I possibly could on top of that. That’s how I got started. If you’re not willing to work hard, that’s totally fine, but you need to stop thinking that you have a future in journalism. Stop whining and start writing.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a freelance food writer? Or the best thing about being a journalist in Philadelphia?
My favorite thing about my job is the fact that every day is different. Some days I’m stuck in the house messing with words for hours. Other days I’m driving around to unfamiliar places and eating awesome (and sometimes awful) food. Other days still I’m taking pics, or on the phone all day tracking people down for stuff, sometimes while driving around and eating awesome/awful food. It’s never 9-to-5, and I love that.
As far as being a journalist in Philly goes — at the risk of sounding very film noir, this city is filled with stories. It’s such a special place. I’ve been here 13 years and I’ve barely scratched the surface. The journalism community here, too, is special — a lot of really cool, really talented people doing excellent work.
Q: What do you enjoy outside of journalism? Favorite places to hang out in the city, or hobbies, etc.?
Eating and drinking, mostly! And watching movies. My professional and personal lives have always kinda smushed. As far as hobbies go, I’m a big sports fan (Baltimore teams of course, though I mildly root for Philly squads), and I love biking, travel, hanging out with my wife/friends/dog/cats, being an idiot on social media…this sounds so boring. I don’t know, it’s all on my LinkedIn, man! Oh and below, since people sometimes ask, I’ve included short lists of my favorite Philly bars and restaurants.
BARS: a.bar, American Sardine Bar, Fiume, Fountain Porter, Grace Tavern, Khyber Pass Pub, Loco Pez, Locust Rendezvous, Pub & Kitchen, Sidecar
RESTAURANTS: Bistrot La Minette, Kanella, Little Fish, Oyster House, Pizzeria Beddia, Shiao Lan Kung, Rai Rai Ramen, Vernick, Zahav, Zeppoli
Thanks for your hilarious and candid answers, Drew! Check out some of his favorite clips:
Any questions or comments about the mentorship program itself? Would you like to be featured as a Mentor of the Month too? Contact Meeri Kim, AAJA-Philly’s Mentorship Director, via firstname.lastname@example.org.