Episode 21: Time-Capsule Journalism with Ryan T. Bell
Since 2009, Ryan T. Bell has made a living as a freelancer travelling to Russia, South America, Canada and around the U.S. gathering stories and photographs about the Western way of life. He has been published in Western Horseman, and also in magazines like Outside, Town & Country, and National Geographic. Ryan is a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, has a bachelor of arts in history from the University of Colorado and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative NonFiction from the University of Montana. From Montana, Ryan and his family—wife Madeline, daughters Octavia and Esme and dog Bandito—now reside in Washington state. Ryan is pretty much a badass and today, The Freelance Remuda picks his brain. in this episode, we picked his brain on his process, favorite projects and his philosophy on journalism. Worth the listen!
Tell us all your secrets!
Great part of the job - forging relationships with good editors
There's 3 things of which you always have to be doing two of them: 1. You have be brilliant, 2. you have to be on time, or 3., you have to be nice and likable.
He always tries to be nice, and tries to meet his deadline... if he's going to blow a deadline, the story better be brilliant. Be affable. Be game. Be willing to think outside the box. Listen more than you talk.
2003: Worked as a gaucho in Patagonia, Argentina. Pitched his first story about horse shipping to Western Horseman - turned down. Pitched to Equus, accepted. Pitched a series to Western Horseman. accepted. Wrote several more pieces about horse culture in Argentina for the magazine.
Returned to the U.S. Got a job in backcountry outfitting in Colorado and Montana. Continued to write stories for Western Horseman. Differentiated himself as a backcountry expert, but also wrote about ranching.
Comrade Cowboy. Discovered a Montana rancher that took his ranch to Russia. Could not get sent by the magazine, so he hired on with the outfit. "Embedded cowboy journalist." Wrote a 3-part series for WH about his time in Russia.
Decided to write a book about that experience with ranching in Russia. He went back to school to get his masters in non-fiction writing. But the story wasn't over. So he looked for funding to return to Russia to find out what happened next, and he won a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling grant to go. It also opened a door to work with National Geographic.
Today, Ryan works with mainstream publications such as National Geographic, while still writing for Western Horseman. He lives in Washington now.
All the Queen's Cowboys: Story on community pastures in Saskatchewan, Canada. Encompassed ranching, environmental aspects, current events
How do you find out about these stories?
Great sources in the field! People who will tell you what they find interesting, and being quiet to listen to them.
How has having a family with young children affected how you do your work?
Changed completely. His supportive wife knows Ryan is more centered and true to himself when he can pursue and tell these stories. It is a compromise with caring for their children while he is gone on assignment. Now with two children, his workflow is more challenging, and different because he's home more, versus writing on location.
These changes mean he is a more proactive reporter, doing more balanced reporting than ever before.
Writing a story he wasn't thrilled about, but it paid a bill and led him to regular work.
Key to a successful freelance career?
A spouse who is supportive and can help both financially and at home.
How do you take an idea and expand it for stories in different channels?
You can take a story, and share it with an outside community--say, sharing a ranching story with National Geographic, but there's also a question in that story that needs to be answered within the ranching community, for example. Powerful journalism does that.
"I don't feel like I'm writing for an audience today. Everything I write is for the audience in the year 2050. I'm writing little time capsules about what it's like to be alive in 2017. It's easy to do the journalism that supports the western culture, but you also have to write about the shadows."
What keeps you motivated to find another project or another story?
Motivation has changed since having kids. No longer self-gratification-driven, going off to having another adventure. Now, he doesn't know the future his children will face, so he's writing stories that will create some good in the world. His goal is to illuminate issues, pushing the boulder in a direction that makes for a better society.
What is most rewarding for you?
When a story results in a relationship for the reader between themselves and the characters. Building bridges.
Advice for freelancers wanting to work in a variety of publications--not just horse magazines?
Every building has a backdoor. The line to get in a building through the front door is very long. Why stand in that line? Position yourself in a way for someone to open that back door for you. Prove that you have what it takes to write the story by getting the contact and inside angle.
Where can people find you online?
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