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Freelance Journalist Focus – Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is a freelance journalist who writes on food and drink, mainly for and the Channel 4 Food website.

This week FeaturesExec caught up with Craig to discuss coffee and Mexican food. We also find out what he’s been up to recently, and what’s on his list of must-read books.

About your journalism:

What do you write about?
Primarily food and drink features which have an underlying theme or developing trend which helps connect them for readers, rather than straight-up restaurant reviews. When I cover restaurants, it’s either by interviewing the chef, or combining different venues which are linked in some way, whether by cuisine type, chef temperament or atmosphere. Drinks-wise I tend to write explanatory pieces, like how beer is made, how to taste whisky and how to use rum in food.

I also write about food-and-drink related travel, where food is a way of getting an understanding of a place and to better appreciate what we have in the UK, though increasingly I’m doing standalone travel too. I also have a serious obsession with coffee so I’m always trying to discover new ways of interesting readers about this diverse drink – I really think it has as much variety and human interest as wine.

Where are we likely to see your work?
I write a lot for the Channel 4 Food website, which gets an incredible number of hits, as well as drinks pieces for delicious. magazine online and travel pieces for but I also contribute to print. I’ve written about coffee for the London Evening Standard and I’ve got a beer feature coming out in the November issue of Esquire. In the past I’ve written for The Wisden Cricketer and Nuts so I’m happy to turn my hand to anything which has an interesting story to tell. I also put together features and copy for corporate clients, where it won’t conflict with my other outlets.

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
I’ve just come back from a trip to Iceland where the landscape is so incredibly different, the food so eclectic and where it doesn’t really get dark that it feels like you’re a million miles away – that sort of place is fantastic to write about. Then again, I went to a coffee-tasting at Mercanta recently, a coffee-importer in south-west London, where we just slurped our way through some of the world’s best coffees. Learning from people who really enjoy their work and know something inside out is a real privilege.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
I’d love to visit Mexico and eat my way around the country’s street food – Mexican food is going to hit the UK in a big way and there’s nothing like hitting the streets of a country to get under its skin. I’d also like to pitch ‘The Street Food of South East Asia’ or perhaps Central America, which would take at least six months of hard travelling and eating to do it justice, but I’m yet to meet an editor willing to back my idea (or the concept of me loafing around on a beach for an extended period). Either that or a feature on how Costa Rican surfing and coffee are the best in the world.

About you and PRs:

Where do you source ideas for articles?
From seasonality, festivals, new openings and things that I come across which really interest me. Sometimes it’s a case of me being in the right place at the right time, meeting people with a new approach to something, but also talking to contacts and PRs about what they’ve got going on and coming up is always helpful.

How can PRs be useful to you?
I always welcome information on new openings across the UK, up-and-coming chefs and international travel stories. The key thing is to pitch me ideas rather than venues – I rarely write about single venues or hotels and need to unite different places in a common theme.

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
A short and succinct e-mail selling me an idea is ideal, but a quick phone call instead can be helpful too. Mid-morning is usually a good time to catch me at my most receptive.

Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
I’m always keen to hear about relevant press trips. A key advantage I have as a freelance is being able to take a number of days away to work on a feature, when staffers find this tricky, so it’s a real asset when I pitch to features editors. One-off events, dinners and launches can be useful too, but I try to avoid lunches as it really cuts into my working day.

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
PRs have a lot of journalists to keep an eye on but I don’t handle products (except for alcohol), and I very rarely cover news so there’s not a lot I can do with these stories. Always try to keep it relevant and succinct. Whoever keeps sending me press releases about their shoe range though, please stop.

About you:

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I’d move to Colombia in a nanosecond, buy a small coffee finca and try to produce fantastic coffee to supply my own café, and enough money to live a good quality of life and support a future family out there.

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it? On one hell of a trip around South-East Asia or Central America, get stuck into the local food, work where possible, make new friends and return armed with enough feature ideas to fell a rhino. It would be the gift that kept on giving.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My tutor at the London College of Communication, Sue Heal, once said that succeeding as a features writer is all about selling your ideas, to the right editor, at the right time, in the right way, and to always keep pushing at it. I think she was spot on.

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I’m in a fallow period for book reading, but these things go in cycles with me. I do read The Week and The Economist religiously and have a room’s-worth of magazines I want to work with including the Lonely Planet Magazine, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, GQ, Esquire and Wallpaper*. I read them to get a feel for each magazine, its structure and content so I can pitch appropriately to editors – it’s the only way to not look like a complete arse. Online I keep an eye on the delicious. website, Channel 4 Food and Foodtripper so I can spot gaps I can sell into.
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