DAN Q. DAO, Journalist (Previously @ SAVEUR, Time Out New York, CNN, New York Post, and NBC)

dan 3.jpg

DAN Q. DAO

Hometown: Houston, TX
Years lived in the city: 8
Occupation: Journalist
Company: Previously at Saveur, Time Out New York, CNN, NBC Universal, New York Post

I’ve always worked at restaurants my entire life. I have always loved that world. I didn’t know that I could make a career out of it, but once I did, that’s what I really jumped into.
— Dan Q Dao

Dan Q Dao moved to New York City to attend NYU when he was just sixteen years old. He studied Journalism and Film Documentary and interned at NBC Universal, CNN, and the New York Post. Since graduating, he's worked in PR covering events like NYFW and nightlife events and as a journalist at Time Out New York, New York Post, and most recently Saveur where he was a Food & Drink editor. 

In this interview, Dan and I talk about the media industry in its current state, how tech companies are affecting advertising, and how everyone in the publishing industry is scared of bloggers. Dan talks about what the media industry needs to do to survive its current crises and how a recent turn of events has pushed him to live his best life as a freelancer. 

STEPHANIE
What did you come to New York for?

DAN
I came here originally to go to NYU (New York University) which is where I went to college. I was a journalism and film major. I did my minor in film documentary at Tisch.

STEPHANIE
Can you tell me what year that was?

DAN
This was 2010. One thing people ask me is “Why are you so young?” and it’s because I graduated from Kempner High School (in Houston, Texas) when  I was 16 years old. I started high school when I was 12.

(Note for clarification: that’s skipping two years of school)

STEPH
Did you feel like a baby in college?

DAN
Yeah. I didn’t even visit New York before I moved here. I just came here on a whim because I wanted to do journalism. It was a crazy, surreal experience [moving here].

STEPH
And your parents were ok with you moving here at age 16?

DAN
They were your normal Asian parents. They were very skeptical and unsure, but they wanted to support me so at the end of the day, it all worked out.

dan 4.jpg

STEPH
What was your experience like at NYU? Was it what you expected? Was it good to be in New York for journalism? Did you like it?

DAN
I didn't have any expectations coming in, to be completely honest. What I found was that I enjoyed the experience. There were some things I hadn’t realized, like how there’s no campus life at NYU. There’s no sports teams at NYU in general, but really no campus. So I didn’t make a ton of friends in college, I was mostly making friends just going out, in the nightlife scene. I worked at a coffee shop. I made friends being out and about in New York, which was cool in its own way. I think I missed out on a college experience, but I really liked my program and I was able to intern at great places, like NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, The New York Post, CNN which is where I worked part-time after I graduated from college.

STEPH
I think the grass is greener on the other side because I know a lot of people who graduated from UT Austin which is a huge school with many sports teams feeling like they hadn’t made a lot of friends either, so you didn’t miss out necessarily.  

What did you do after graduation?

DAN
In 2014, I graduated and it was a weird time and it still is a weird time in magazine and media right now. But at the time I couldn’t find a job, so I worked in Public Relations first. I became friends with Chef Hung Huynh and he won Top Chef Season 3. He introduced me to his PR agency and I ended up getting a job there. I worked in the Hospitality and NIghtlife Division doing events. We did everything from Tribeca film festival to all these Fashion Week parties for Alexander Wang and, Opening Ceremony, and all sorts of other events. We did John Legend’s birthday party. Just celebrity stuff.

After that, I knew I wanted to get back into journalism, because I didn’t really like doing PR. I then went to Time Out New York where I had interned in college and was one of their Food & Drink Editors. After a year and a half, I went to Saveur which is a national food & travel publication and was there until recently when I just got laid off.

Now I’m writing for Architectural Digest, Paper Magazine, Gotham, and Time Out and Saveur, so it’s not a bad time.

STEPH
I want to dive into the freelancing part, but before we talk about that. I noticed that you did a few jobs in food and drink. Did you want to specialize in that?

DAN
So in college when I was doing all these internships, like at NBC and New York Post, I had originally wanted to be a news anchor and had a double major in politics. During my internships though I realized that I didn’t want to do that at all and hated it. Then when I interned at Time Out New York, I was the food & drink intern. Years later, I returned as a Food & Drink Editor. I’ve always worked at restaurants my entire life. I have always loved that world. I didn’t know that I could make a career out of it, but once I did, that’s what I really jumped into.

STEPH
Food & Drink is so fun to do. What did you not like about your internships with the news anchors?

dan1.jpg

DAN
They’re all great people, but I didn’t have the right personality for politics. I wanted to tell original feature stories, lifestyle journalism, and do profiles and interviews with creative people. I used to think and I still think that chefs are one of the most creative people out there. I love digging into the creative process more than I do current events.

Everyone who is on staff at a publication is doing two to three times more work than they used to do for less money
— Dan Q Dao

STEPH
In the world of journalism, would you say that it’s common to get laid off and move on from publication to publication?

DAN
I have friends and colleagues who have all left their jobs whether it was by choice or not. It’s a strange time in media right now. Everyone who is on staff at a publication is doing two to three times more work than they used to do for less money. The media industry doesn’t make the same amount of money (in revenue) anymore because Facebook Advertising, influencers, etc. have all disrupted the advertising space. Companies that have an ad budget of $x are now spending a percentage of that ad budget on Facebook posts, hiring influencers, and doing experiential marketing so the time of paid ads in traditional media is over. And with that, you’re taking away the primary revenue stream of an entire industry and disrupting it. I think there’s a lot of benefits to social media and as a consumer it’s easy to use social media to find new users is really beneficial, but from a consumer standpoint it’s detrimental. In 2017 alone we lost Gawker, Gothamist, DNA Info.  The Village Voice shuttered its print and Teen Vogue shuttered its print and GQ had a bunch of layoffs. Food & Wine moved out to Birmingham, Alabama. Lucky Peach, which is one of my favorite food magazines (partly produced by Momofuku) closed. It’s been a crazy time in media. If someone were graduating from high school tomorrow, I would tell them to be very careful if they wanted to do journalism.

STEPH
I think another shift I’m seeing is that the way to become a journalism has molded with anyone who might have credibility in a field and access to being printed. You see more and more professors, actors, writers, businessmen, bloggers - all of these people who didn’t necessarily study journalism and now work in tech or finance or accounting can now publish their thoughts on what’s happening in their world with a click of a button. What do you think the industry of journalism or journalists do to offset this change and disruption in the industry?

DAN
I think media companies need to diversify their revenue streams. One thing that Time Out did really well was build their e-commerce platform. So if you had a “ten best attractions in New York” article, there were buttons where you could buy tickets to all these attractions and companies would get revenue share. It seems a little shady ethically now, but it’s where the whole industry is moving towards. Media needs to be smart and make money with any opportunities they might have. Also, live events is a great way to make money. Influencers and partnerships are a big thing. Throwing a huge event and getting a big sponsor, like Budweiser or a car company, that can go a long way. You just have to be smart and use your content in a way that lends itself towards creating events around the content. Media has to be smart and start making events centered around the content. Creating e-commerce activations around the content. Editorial content can still be editorial content. It doesn’t mean pay-per-play or sponsored content.  It means creating good content that is useful to your users and creating opportunities to make money out of htat content. And a lot of companies fail to do that because journalists are not business-people. So a lot of people don’t think that way.

STEPH
We see a lot of companies dying out because they don’t adapt to industry changes or companies doing things the old way just because it’s always been done that way. And I think there’s also a stigma of “money is evil” but without revenue companies fail. From a business perspective, companies are favoring “free” marketing now. Companies try to do indirect marketing through LinkedIn, Instagram profiles, Facebook pages. It’s almost archaic to buy print ads now.

DAN
Companies don’t want to and the average consumer is much more discerning of what feels organic. They want to see collaborations and stories and things that feel organic. Sales teams at media companies aren’t really equipped to that kind of thing and don’t think that way.

STEPH
Would you say that these companies need to hire more business-minded people or no? Because I know that with creative types there’s a wariness towards business.

DAN
It’s such a tricky thing. I don’t know if you know anyone in media, but there’s always this huge divide and distrust between the editorial team and advertising/sales teams. Because the editors always think that the sales people are trying to influence my creative work and what I’m writing and the integrity of the story I’m trying to tell and what not. So yeah, does it mean we should hire more consultants? Yes. Or find more editors who are willing to work with those types of people. It’s not just hiring more business people. It’s hiring more people who are forward-thinking editors. Editors who aren’t only interested in creating content but also in creating content that drives revenue.

STEPH
So both sides of the table need to come forward. This reminds me of a conversation I had with my roommates who both work in advertising. I have a degree in marketing. And I always just assumed that the advertising and marketing teams would work together harmoniously under the same umbrella. They told me that it’s actually the opposite. Advertisers are very wary of marketers because to them, marketers only care about the data and analytics and lack the emotional investment that advertisers have.

DAN
It’s definitely a similar story on our side with editorial teams too.

STEPH
What advice would you give someone who is looking to start freelancing and how did you get into it?

DAN
Technically, you’re not supposed to because you sign non-compete contracts. But I, and other people in my industry, just wanted to make more money. So I started doing it while I was full-time at my other job but now I’m doing it actually full-time.

Because I’ve been in the industry for a while now, I just freelance through personal contacts. I know industry leaders and while on press trips you meet a lot of editors just traveling together with them. For example, I had gone to some press events with some friends from Architectural Digest and when I got laid off, I ended up pitching to one of the Editors there.  

STEPH
What can one expect to make from one article for a freelancer?

DAN
It depends who you are and what kind of grade you command. I think the standard going rate for online articles is $0.50 a word. Or $300 or $400 for a 800 word article.

STEPH
That’s pretty good if you do a few articles a day.

DAN
The things is though that I would receive a 100 pitches or so a month as an editor and I would answer maybe 10 of them. Editors don’t get back to you quickly so you have to be patient with people and follow up but at the right time - not too soon, maybe in a week. You don’t want to seem a bother to them. There’s a whole strategy to this that's similar to pitching to a publicist which actually helped me in this sense. I remember pitching to editors as someone who was repping clients instead of trying to sell my work. I would say “Oh, can you do a story on my client who is a chef?” and they would never answer. And it’s the same thing as a writer, saying “Can i write about someone who is a chef?” so you have to be patient and be strategic about every introduction and you have to leverage every introduction. You always have to be thinking about stories and always reading what each publication is doing because you want to pitch stuff that they’ve been publishing recently. It shows that you’ve been reading aside and you know their voice and content.

It works best if you’re naturally spending time to be tuned in to what they’re doing in general.

dan on tv.png

STEPH
Can you tell me about the process of pitching?

DAN
The best way to pitch is to find a site you want to pitch. Read all of their most recent content. Come up with an idea that you think is a fit. Send a pitch with 3-4 sentences explaining the idea and maybe link back to an article on their site that has a similar format or theme and say that you want to do something similar that they just published last week. That’s the easiest way. Once you get your foot in the door somewhere it’s much easier to pitch again and again. Just get that initial contact with the editor and do a good job (like submit your work on time - the basic stuff).

STEPH
Where would you like to take your career next?

DAN
I think freelancing is working out really well for me right now so I do want to continue.

STEPH
What do you think separates a great journalist from a normal journalist?

DAN
There’s tons of writers and content creators. I think what separates a journalist from a content creator is integrity. Not that I don’t appreciate what bloggers do and there are some bloggers who do follow this rule that I’m about to tell you, but I think bloggers aren’t held to as high of a standard when it comes to ethics. If they do partnered content, of course they’re going to post it as partnered content. I think with journalists, you’re out there hunting for stories, looking for ideas of your own. You’re not just writing about your friends or people who have reached out to you. You’re not waiting for things that are coming to your inbox or chasing things that are trendy. There’s a higher ethical standard as well as a higher quality standard in terms of writing with journalists. You wouldn’t compare someone who goes to the gym everyday with someone who is a personal trainer who studied kinesiology and nutrition. I feel like that’s the difference.

dan 2.jpg

STEPH
There’s something different about being paid to write or promote something. There’s natural distrust in the beginning. With journalism I feel like you’re chasing some sort of “truth” or knowledge that you want to share with others.

It can seem dumb because I’m writing about food, but at the end of the day, that’s someone’s livelihood.
— Dan Q Dao

DAN
Yeah. Like you know all these restaurants that are very Instagrammable. They’re so fun but a lot of the time they are backed by influencers. At the same time there’s other restaurants who might not do that kind of thing but they’re still making great food just as a mom-and-pop restaurant. It’s our goal as journalists to go and seek out those places that aren’t warranting as much attention but still have validity. If we don’t do that, then no one else will do that. It can seem dumb because I’m writing about food, but at the end of the day, that’s someone’s livelihood.

STEPH
To me, a journalist tries to uncover something hidden and bring that to light to the public whereas a content creator is promoting stuff that people either already know about or people would like - trendy, flashy things.

DAN
And of course, the lines are blurring more. If you’re a young writer, you have to do both. You think about what your audience wants to read and worry about traffic and engagement, but you’re also striving to be a traditional journalist as well.

STEPH
Would you say that your competitors aren’t other media companies anymore but all these content creators who have flooded the internet?

DAN
It’s everyone. Everyone is journalism is scared about the blogging industry I feel.

STEPH
Cause you only have so much attention to give to the internet, so it’s like, “who’s going to get it first?”

DAN
Exactly.

STEPH
What is a supposed “failure” that actually paved the way to success?

DAN
Getting laid off was a great way for me to fail but also gave me the push to go into freelancing. I’ve always wanted to go into freelancing, so this was a perfect way.

STEPH
A lot of really successful entrepreneurs were actually laid off in their first few jobs and it gave them the freedom to do what they wanted to do. Someone on my team last year got laid off very suddenly and her next job was her dream job.

What would you say you’re inspired by in life?

DAN
Every time I have a story and I have positive feedback, it inspires me to keep going. A small comment can go a long way. In terms of people, I’ve had various mentors in the industries I’ve worked in and surrounding yourself with a strong network is also very inspiring.

STEPH
Do you remember your first memory in New York?

DAN
When I first visited NYU and my mom and I stayed in SoHo and we walked around the block. I was scared to be lost.

STEPH
What would you say you’re grateful for in life ?

DAN
Being Vietnamese, I am really grateful that my parents left their country for a new life.

DAN ON SOCIAL:

You can find Dan here:

https://www.saveur.com/authors/dan-q-dao

https://twitter.com/danqdao

http://danqdao.com/

https://www.cision.com/us/2016/09/pitching-food-content-with-saveur-digital-editor-dan-dao/