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The business basics of going freelance

Freelancing is tricky at the best of times, getting commissions, getting paid on time, chasing up late fees when you’re not paid on time. On top of that, cutbacks throughout journalism and publications falling into administration threaten all journalists, but none more than the freelancers.

The panel, hosted by Mun-Keat Looi, commissioning editor for Mosaic, is made up of three freelancers who began in different ways.

Sally Hayden was a news writer for Vice before being laid off and forced to go freelance.

Olivia Crellin has moved back and forth between freelancing and staff writing; she also founded PressPad, sourcing free accommodation for writers getting work experience in London.

Simon Akam, apart from working for a brief period at The New York Times, has always freelanced.

To start out, they unanimously agree they needed savings. Akam was lucky enough to have parents to support him, Crellin had a job teaching English in Chile, and Hayden had a severance check to see her through for a little while.

These savings allow you the time to hone your pitching skills and make the most out of your ideas. Akam credits the scariest thing about going freelance is facing rejection, but “if you’re working for yourself you constantly have to front-load the frightening stuff.”

Crellin worked as a staff writer first which enabled her to get a mortgage on a flat in London, which she now rents out.

Working as a freelancer, you need to ensure you look after yourself. Hayden works a lot on trauma and injustice, and she notes she needs to expand her portfolio. After covering a story of refugees being tortured, she fell apart and there was no one to check on her. “Since then I’m very conscious that I don’t want to always be doing emotionally draining stuff,” she says.

Looi interjects here encouraging freelancers to ensure they give themselves holidays.

When it comes to pitching, Akam sticks to a strict schedule. Every Monday he drafts a pitch and Tuesday he sends it off. If there’s no reply by the following Tuesday, he’ll chase it up via email, if he has nothing by the third week, he’ll call.

“You need to get your head around this and lose all of your shame,” Akam says, “I won’t let them ignore me.”

Finally, they recommend setting your pitching sights on America. Akam reveals, “The top of the British market will pay £1 a word and think it’s lavish, the top of the American market will pay upwards of $2.”

However, he does recommend writing for The Guardian as “it’s well edited and a good shop window.”

Words by Corrie David

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Meera Selva and Rachael Jolley on presenting stories to different cultural audiences

Rachael Jolley, Editor of Index for Censorship, and Meera Selva, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, sit down to discuss writing for a global audience, the art of a successful pitch and the state of journalism.

“People find it really difficult to think about a global audience,” Jolley says. “Everyone is so used to thinking about it from their own perspective. Often the stories people are pitching they have a knowledge in, but it’s a story that ‘s already out there. Stories need to make sense to people in France, Argentina, Spain. You might know that this is the minister for education, but does your audience? You need to be able to take a step away.”

They discuss how important it is to think outside of your social and cultural bubble. They keep referring to how pitches need to look outside of their own perspective and look at their story from an external perspective and whether the story still stands up.

They say it’s important to make it clear, ‘why are you the person telling this story?’. “in your pitch, you have to explain precisely why you’re telling this story. You don’t necessarily have to be from that community at all,” Salva explains. “You could offer a comparative perspective; it could be that you’re politically safer to report on the issue. For example, you could go to Russia, and then have the safety of being able to again leave. You have to quite clearly express this in the pitch.”

Discussing the opportunities for freelance, Jolley asks Selva whether she thinks that a decrease in staff jobs is a good opportunity for freelancers. Selva is hesitant towards this.

“Yes, there’s opportunity, but there’s a risk,” she says. “Budgets are being cut, and this is why there’s more opportunity for freelancers because there are fewer people being employed as staff writers. In a healthy world, it’s a mix of both. Falling budgets are good for anyone. But I do think that there’s the opportunity for freelancers to reach more editors. In the digital age, there’s more opportunity to catch editors attention.”

She goes on to speculate that the very thing that was accused of ruining our attention spans, is the very thing that is liberating longform journalism. “There’s no point in regurgitating the short bits off of social media. Is the world of journalism moving towards long form because they can get so many short snippets of news from social media?”

They both see social media as a place for opportunity. They open up the discussion to the audience, with many speaking about how they have been able to interact with editors online, how they’ve been able to share their work to wider and more global audiences, and the opportunity to find work online.

Salva also talks about how social media helps you build a “personal brand”, which she says is even more important in many ways to global audiences. “Your citizenship matters to global audiences; If you’re British that’s how you’re going to be perceived. You need to define it so people don’t define it for you. Create the image that you want someone in a foreign country to have of you,” she says.

Returning back to the matter of longform journalism, it’s good news, Jolley says.

“We’ve always been an advocate of longform journalism at the Index on Censorship,” Jolley explains. “We think that the world has swung round with us. Four years ago everything, had to be 400 words, we were told that everyone has the attention span of a flea. It’s really interesting how this has changed.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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Rob Orchard: “We’re at the beginning of a data revolution”

Rob Orchard’s brilliant presentation on the drama in data explores the way that data can provide powerful visual stories, particularly in combination with longer features.

“Data journalism is the antidote to knee-jerk production”, he says and emphasises the power in data stories capturing the big picture and the sheer number of people affected in any given story. “We’re at the beginning of a data revolution,” he says.

“With data, you can tell stories of human emotions in ways other forms of articles can’t.”

For Delayed Gratification, Orchard says he uses data to surprise readers but also aims to link news pegs to interesting figures about people. A particularly successful use of data in Delayed Gratification Orchard mentioned was an article on English peoples’ streaming of Three Lions during the World Cup, juxtaposing a chart that showed Spotify’s streaming figures against the dates key matches were played, providing an interesting and amusing source of information.

Discussions of Brexit can’t be stopped says Orchard. His team monitored comments on online news articles unrelated to the topic, such as the Beast from the East and the time Ed Sheeran broke his arm in a cycling incident and found a huge number of comments about Brexit. This resulted in several pages of engaging material about how many comments were left on a non-Brexit article before Brexit was mentioned, with some commenters even linking Brexit to Paddington Bear and The Ashes.

Ultimately, Orchard captured the beauty and thought-provoking narrative that data journalism can create.

Words by Molly Dowrick


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Sathnam Sanghera in conversation with Mark Kramer: “I had to teach myself how to do longform writing”

Feature writer and columnist Sathnam Sanghera discussed the impact of British-Punjabi culture on his writing and being born to Punjabi parents in the West Midlands, in his amusing Lunchtime Keynote talk with Mark Kramer.

Sanghera comes from a non-literary family, he said. His father is illiterate and his family don’t read his writing despite being the main thing he writes about. He has to “triple check” his stories because when he asks his family for stories and information, they disagree with each other.

“People make things up to hide the pain and can completely contradict each other.”

He writes about his family but they don’t read it, the reverse of the problem of a white middle-class man, he said. “My family are not a literary family and they don’t read what I write, I had to teach myself how to do longform writing”, he added.

Sanghera finds the most effective journalism he reads is when the writer admits “There’s no such thing as the truth”, and tries to develop stories fully. He said: “I did ten years of journalism at FT and I never talked about myself.” He added: “So when I first started writing memoirs, I read about 30, I was looking for a model to steal!”

Sanghera emphasises having a reason for starting writing memoirs. He said: “You either have to have something new or interesting to say or you have to make a joke and entertain.”

Writing about your family is atypical in Punjabi culture, Sanghera said. He added: “In an Asian family, you don’t air your problems” and explained how his brother, who is all about image, questioned the way Sanghera shared memories and stories from his family.

Additionally, writing in the West Midlands is interesting, he says. “The West Midlands is full of self-deprecating writers – no-one would ever gloat about Wolverhampton”, he joked.

But growing up in the West Midlands gave Sanghera lots of things to talk about. He guiltily admitted writing can be a “long, painful process” and each chapter of his recent novel had about 40 drafts.

Although his family are happy about being written about, Sanghera wishes he’d thought about what he was sharing about himself. He said: “I didn’t think enough about what I was revealing about myself, all those embarrassing stories about my teenage sex life and incompetence with girls in university – I didn’t need to share those.”

Ultimately, however, “There’s something intrinsically funny about British-Punjabi culture”, Sanghera said and he hopes to bring this across in his memoirs.

Words by Molly Dowrick

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Wil Treasure’s podcast clinic: “cut, cut and cut again”

Podcaster Wil Treasure held a lunchtime clinic to offer advice on advice, hardware, software, scripting and structure as well as tips on arranging interviews, collaborations, pitching to specialist media and learning the skills to produce professional content.

He advised podcasters starting out to try and make something that will have more legs than ten episodes in order to have time to build an audience and get advertising in order to get paid. However, he went on to state that podcasts are an excellent way to cover something niche and specialist.

Treasure went on to explain his methods, namely that he tries to not put himself in his podcasts – even to the point of not being present in the actual recording. “I don’t record my side of the interview deliberately to put my interviewee front and centre of the story,” he says.

He also went on to explain that he acquired a small amount of funding from his local council that went towards new recording equipment. He advises journalists to cut, cut and cut again – even if they’re cutting something interesting, the narrative and pace is the most important part when keeping listeners engaged.


Words by Sabrina Faramarzi



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How to get that book inside inside you OUT of you

Many longform pieces lend themselves to a book, or perhaps others would be better as a book to begin. Alyson Warner hosts journalist-turned-author Chris Stokel-Walker and his published Martin Hickman as they discuss bridging the gap between the world of journalism and novels.

The book begins with a pitch, something all journalists will be used to. However, Stokel-Walker admits pitching a book takes more anticipated. He had to pitch his idea as something with sustenance, something that would work over 75-80 thousand words.

In terms of what the publishing house is expecting, Hickman says they need to understand how it would work. “Whoever receives it in the narrative house gets the idea of how it would flow,” he says. But what does this mean?

Hickman advises thinking from an editors perspective, your pitch should say, “In a bookshop what shelf it would be on, what genre would it be? What makes you the best person to tell it?” However, the main question they want answering is “will it sell?”

Hickman says the transition from journalism to novelist isn’t easy, “It’s as profound as going from a sprinter to a marathon runner.” From commission, the process of researching, writing, editing, rewriting, reediting then publication and promoting is a slow one. “You should be thinking in terms of years,” he says.

Once you have your book idea, there are three ways of getting published.

Hickman explains, “the first is the traditional route and the best if you can get one is to get an agent.” The agent can shape the proposal for publishers with your interest at heart. They act as the bridge between you and the publishing world. Most charge around a 15% cut, but it is the quickest and easiest way to get published.

The second is to approach publishers directly. However, Hickman explains most are looking to deal with agents and could overlook ignore your pitches.

Finally, Hickman strongly recommends self-publishing, he says, “I do recommend you look seriously at this, particularly if your work is a labour of love and not commercial.” He lists platforms such as eBook, for a quick and easy publication, or Amazon print book. 

“It’s such a difficult transition to make from 10,000 words at most to 100,000,” says Hickman, “You need to have themes in the book, you need to have characters, the chapters need to speak to each other”

Because of this, Stokel-Walker identified the hardest part of transitioning as relying on his narrative voice more and his quotes less. He says, “I had an awful lot of paragraphs and quote that were taken out because there was too much of ‘that character’”

As a final piece of advice, Hickman recommends writers “write a dummy blurb, write the 250 words that are going to go on the back cover and it will give you an idea of whether it’s going to hook in the reader.” If it does, run with it, if it doesn’t, refine it.

Words by Corrie David

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CIJ director James Harkin on using media as a weapon

CIJ Director James Harkin began his brilliant talk on his investigative work in Syria by playing a clip of an “incredibly courageous” revolutionary singer who performed at a demonstration and called out President of Syria Bashar al-Assad with the repeated lyrics “Get out Bashar”.

In a journey that took him from rural Syria to continental Europe for GQ, James Harkin tracked down the fake and then the real story of a daring revolutionary singer in Syria who either did or didn’t end up with his throat slit by government loyalists. The article narrates the singer’s story, and Harkin noted the courage for the singer to speak out publicly against the president and call him an ass.

Tragically, three days after the demonstration, the singer, Ibrahim Kadoush was thought to have had his throat slit and vocal cords cut out by government loyalists. However, Harkin notes “the legend took a life of its own”. The story of the singer chanting a demonstration was picked up by the BBC, Associated Press and CNN in “very detailed terms” on social media and from media reports from Beirut.

Harkin’s harrowing detective work fills us in painlessly on the tangled and deadly political allegiances protecting the regime.

Read his piece here.

Words by Molly Dowrick 

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Jill Nicholson on the stories that people actually read

Over the weekend, the word ‘Chartbeat’ keeps popping up throughout various talks. And it’s no secret: Chartbeat has helped change how journalists produce their work.

Jill Nicholson from Chartbeat talks about how to make longform journalism work with the data.

She begins by pointing out how 52.2% of longform articles that are read are discovered through the website itself. People are then most likely to discover longform articles through social media. 28.6% of longform articles are found through social.

However, people who discover articles from social media are more likely to complete the article. “There’s just more intent,” she says if it’s discovered through social.

Chartbeat’s goal is not clicks. It’s about loyal readership,” Jill stresses. “Our goal is to help you use technology to help your job, not get in the way of it.”

Story is key

There were some surprises she said in the trends Chartbeat found towards the most popular long reads of 2019.

“Non-celebrity stories that were just interesting stories did well last year,” Nicholson explains. This is a good sign for journalism, showing that interesting stories are always key to success. However, people aren’t going to be searching for these stories on the web, so they need to have strong social media promotion. Which means tweeting about them more than once to ensure they gain traction.

“Writing headlines is an art”

Despite how journalism has increasingly been listening to reader-behavioural data, she says that the fundamental skills of journalism haven’t gone out of fashion in the age of SEO and clicks, but it’s just that these skills need refining.

In fact in the age of digital, Nicholson says, headlines are more important than ever. “For your digital reader, all you have is the headline,” she says.

She shows statistics about what makes headlines successful. Chartbeat found that negative words, interrogative ‘whens’ and ‘whats’ and demonstrative pronouns like ‘these’ and ‘this’ produced the most clicked on headlines.

“Unfortunately it seems that the human beings that you’re trying to reach just like the sadder stories,” she jokes. “Do with that what you will. It doesn’t mean you have to be doom and gloom all the time, it’s just something to be aware of.”

She also said that it’s important to keep headlines human and use approachable language that you would use in conversations. Especially in an age of fake news, “people like to feel that these stories have come from human beings and not ‘The Media.'”

She also warned against questions in headlines: “question headlines have been associated with clickbait”. She reassures audiences that if they’re feeling overwhelmed with all this data on headlines alone, that “headline writing is an art.”

“It’s hard,” she says. “It’s just a skill, but these are just things to remain aware of.”

Fundamentally, all these statistics and data is simply about gaining greater reader relationships, which leads to more money for news organisations.

“The more engagement, the more loyal, the more revenue,” she says.

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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Maeve McClenaghan on how to create compelling stories in podcasts

Investigative journalist Maeve McClenaghan began The Tip Off two years ago. It began as a side project aimed at listeners behind the scene access to the process of researching and reporting a story. Each episode has a new journalist who takes the listener through their process from idea to publishing.

She joins the Well Told conference on Saturday giving a talk on how to create a compelling story in a podcast. She breaks it down into a few categories: format, tone, structure, recording, publishing and safety.

Most podcasts, she says, are done in people’s free time so she advises creators to “make sure the subject is something you’re passionate enough about.” Then you need to check your hypothesis works and check there’s a market for it. If the market has already been filled, how can you tell that story in a new way?

For format, Maeve highlights the length of the episode. Podcasts do give creators freedom of length, but Maeve advises, “people might not listen for an hour. I find 20-35 minutes works quite nicely for me.” Only include what is necessary.

The tone of the podcast might not have to be the obvious choice. Maeve highlights the Mystery Show for its whimsical tone. She says, “It’s a great example of how even with subjects that aren’t completely serious, you can use narrative storytelling to build up the drama of it.”

Maeve highlights that again, you can get creative with the structure. She explains how linear isn’t always best. “Once I’ve got the story and someone’s told me what they did I think I could start them at the beginning, or I could drop them at this later point and show them how they got there.”

The location of where you record the podcast must also be considered. Maeve highlights the pros and cons of using a studio space compared to other locations. While a recording studio can produce clearer audio, it can be more stressful for a guest. If you are using a room elsewhere, consider how soundproof it is. Maeve suggests looking at rooms with thick curtains or bulky furniture to absorb sounds from outside.

To publish your podcast Maeve recommends the platforms: Libsyn, Soundcloud and Acast. She also recommends creating a cover image that is 1400 x 1400 pixels minimum for high quality.

When it comes to releasing your podcast Maeve says, “Everyone says weekly is better, but I do it fortnightly because weekly is hard.” Weekly works best as listeners get into a routine of expecting it on a certain day, however, don’t force it if it doesn’t work for you.

Maeve has three tips to get your podcast heard. She recommends launching with two or three episodes to give a sustainable impression. She then recommends emailing critics with a press release and hope it stands out in their inbox.

To generate and build an audience she suggests looking at Facebook groups for your speciality and promoting there, she explains “I think once you can get it in front of the right people and a buzz starts happening, that’s how you get your audience”.

She ends her talk on discussing the safety of your podcast. When discussing issues such as domestic violence, it’s important to protect your source by changing their names and sourcing actors for their voices. “You might need to take an additional responsibility of protection for them.” To cover yourself, she says to remember to stay within the law and should you publish any accusations, ensure the accused have had their right to reply.


Helpful podcasts:

For tone: Whimsical – Mystery Show, Rich storytelling – S Town, Human Voices – Dirty John

Structure: Twists – Criminal, Set Segments – Reply All/Heavyweight


Other helpful source for tech: Podcasters’ support group

Words by Corrie David

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Young audiences: stereotypes and strategies on how longform can flourish on youth-focused platforms


Louise Ridley, the former longform editor from Buzzfeed heads a panel discussion on young people and longreads with Pink News’ Ellen Stewart and Imran Rahman-Jones from BBC Newsbeat.

It’s good news for longform journalism. The panelists all agree that the myth that young people don’t care about longform, that they don’t have attention spans, just isn’t true.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes which can be restrictive about young people,” she says. “That young people are not interested in news or they have short attention spans – but the evidence for this is ‘waffley’ and not conclusive,” begins Ridley.

“I don’t think young people have shorter attention spans,” says Rahman-Jones. “Young people do stick with articles to the end. You’ve got to look more widely around the web.

Look at Netflix, they’re producing true crime stories – that’s long form storytelling. It’s just a different format.”

All three panellists agreed that longform doesn’t just have to mean more words. It means more storytelling.

Stewart pointed out that even though she doesn’t write traditional longform stories as Pink News‘ head of Snapchat, the platform has an unusual high dwell time on their interactive Snapchat stories. A whopping dwell time of two minutes, whereas their website only has an article dwell time of about 40 seconds.

For young people, the importance of visual elements cannot be understated. “Young people will switch off if you don’t grab them. If there’s an interesting visual and graphic, that’s the best way to grab. Don’t ever use black and white. There should be a ban on that,” says Stewart. 

But it’s also important to just get creative with the ways of storytelling. Rahman-Jones describes how a piece he wrote last year involved transcriptions of voice messages, text messages, and video footage. For young people, Ridley concludes, “it’s how you can sell it.”

While news outlets might need to get more savvy with how they tailor their long reads to reach young people, she says it’s still just about good journalism.

“You need to ask, is there really a story to tell here? Not just a long story. Why are young people going to give up their time to read your story?” she asks. “Who are the characters in this? It has to be that there’s a person and that leads to the topic. Always start with the people.”

According to them, longform articles are still succeeding with young audiences, and they’re not going anywhere soon.

Words by Juliette Rowsell