Freelance journalists: specialise or diversify?

Last month, I was pleased to join a panel discussing that old chestnut of whether freelance journalists should specialise or diversify. Some fabulous insights and experiences were shared with the sell-out fourth Freelancers Salon organised by the Cardiff & SE Wales NUJ branch and NUJ Training Wales in Cardiff.

 

My journey to Copenhagen…

I had a degree in Scandinavian and German languages from University College London and the NCTJ journalism apprenticeship under my belt. I moved to Copenhagen in 1990 with my wife Clair and set myself up as a freelance correspondent for UK and international media. It was the first step to specialising.

I gradually built up a decent client base and after a year was regularly filing news to Fleet Street, as it was then known. The national titles I was writing for included the Daily Mail, Independent, Independent on Sunday, the Guardian, Today, The European and the Evening Standard. I was their ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground. I was filing stories such as the development of electric cars in Norway, renewable energy in Iceland, the Maastricht referendum shock result in Denmark, as well as society weddings, major company news and tales of condoms that glow in the dark.

Despite coverage of EU and NATO summits, I soon realised there was steady, but not exactly huge, interest in general news from the top of Europe. The news editor of the Daily Express once told me: “If I could think of the most boring story on my list today it would still be more interesting than the general election in Greenland.”

…and own specialisation

That sort of led me to to specialist publishers like the Economist Intelligence Unit, Institutional Investor, Futures & Options World, Hedge Invest, European Frozen Food Buyer, Potato World (yes really!), Laundry & Cleaning News, and numerous shipping titles like Lloyd’s List, Seatrade and maritime trade union magazines. It meant steady, monthly journalistic work and a build-up of specialist knowledge. The maritime and financial sectors are where I have built up most specialist work, knowledge and contacts. I was finding the answer to the question: ‘Freelance journalists: specialise or diversify?’

That regular encounter with trade contacts also opened doors to specialised translation work. For example, hedge fund reports and prospectuses, the Danish Frozen Food Council’s annual report, annual and quarterly reports for stock-exchange listed Sophus Berendsen, shipbuilding brochures, shipping company trading reports etc. One of our main daily offerings is editing and correcting non-native English news items to native English for Danish ferry company DFDS.

Lucky breaks

Anyone who’s enjoyed success in their careers will have had a few lucky breaks. It’s usually not pure luck, but more the result of networking and being in (roughly) the right place at (roughly) the right time ready to pounce on opportunities.

For me, shipping magazine Seatrade needed a writer for a weekly column of Danish news briefs. That break led to my becoming a shipping journalist and contributing to many major maritime titles over the years. Financial news agency AFX News needed a part-time Copenhagen correspondent. That helped me advance in my work in financial journalism covering the Danish mortgage-backed bond market, Swedish hedge funds, mutual funds, derivatives, the Icelandic banking crash and institutional investment.

Danish business daily newspaper Børsen needed someone to write a full-page business news round-up in English while the usual guy was on leave. He phoned me after a month to tell me not to f*ck it up as he wasn’t coming back. I did that for a few years and published a lucrative spin-off subscription newsletter, ‘the Danish Monthly Report’, after it ended.

As for translation work, someone once called my office in Copenhagen by mistake instead of the local EU Representation Office (the phone numbers were one digit different). After explaining the mistake, I accepted the juicy assignment and it helped along my translation work. Many clients and millions of words later, I am now one of only two linguists in the UK to hold chartered status in the Danish to English language pair.

Back to the UK

I returned to the UK with my wife Clair and a young baby in 1996. Our business, Nordic International Ltd has evolved and flourished. Clair is in charge of administration while I manage daily operations, liaise with our project manager Annette Graf-Walker and a sizeable pool of freelance translators and journalists who work with us.

The answer to the question

So, should freelance journalists specialise or diversify? Being a specialist has helped me stand apart from the crowd and opened doors to opportunities that would otherwise have been closed. But in specialising, I have always tried to ensure enough diversification to avoid too many eggs in any one basket. I have had several great, sometimes big-spending, customers turn into non-customers at a stroke. Some have been taken over, others gone bust or changed editor who wasn’t interested in what I was offering (including in one case the conclusion of a long-running fraud trial I’d been reporting on regularly for months).

Main speakers at the Salon were all specialists in their various fields: Carolyn Hitt, Welsh freelance writer, broadcaster and co-Director of Parasol Media Ltd; Louise Bolotin, Manchester-based freelance journalist, editor, proofreader, copywriter and a former NUJ trainer who has delivered workshops on negotiation; Shirish Kulkarni, the new Wales Community Organiser at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

I was on a panel discussion with Natasha Hirst, Cardiff-based photographer and writer. It was chaired by seasoned freelancer Lila Haines.

 

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