Make a living being a specialist

YOU CAN earn a living from becoming a specialist writer in your field. That was the theme of the LFB meeting in May. We heard from travel writer Nori Jemil, science writer Kelly Oakes and cycling correspondent Laura Laker.

Nori Jemil, Kelly Oakes and Laura Laker; Photo: Hazel Dunlop

From left: Nori Jemil, Kelly Oakes and Laura Laker

AT OUR May meeting London Freelance Branch welcomed journalists who work in specialist fields. We asked: how do you make money? Do you think you get more than you would as a generalist hack? How far is a specialist market a buffer against difficulties and how far do they want or need to step outside it?

Kelly Oakes was science editor for BuzzFeed UK for four and a half years (@kahoakes). She is now writing for New Scientist, BBC Future, Nature News, and more. She's also been doing non-journalistic work "but with a science theme".

The internationalism of science is one of the best things about it. "You can take a science story that might be based on research in the US, say," she observes, "and pitch it anywhete in the world."

One of the worst is the embargo system: science journalists get copies of research papers from the science journals two or three days before they're published - so everyone including staffers has them and it can be a mad scramble to pitch stories about them. One way around this is to mine the science preprint site www.arXiv.org - where scientists deposit papers they have submitted to the journals: "if you get there at the right time you can find stuff that's about to be properly published."

It's hard for her to compare fees with those for non-specialist work - she does only science. New Scientist pays UK journalists around 50p a word - some might pay more for something on a really niche physics topic.

To do science stories well you need to spend a lot of time on them. "I pitched a story that would have required talking to many experts to an online-only news operation," she laments, "and they were offering only £200 for 1500 words." But "I did get a nice day rate to work on a science feature for the BBC."

So, "for the first year of my freelancing I was doing two days a week of general news editing - the only time I've stepped out of my field."

Now she finds that she spends a third of her time preparing to pitch stories, a third on in-house editing shifts. Her "non-journalism" writing mines a rich vein of places that want pieces about science - including webites funded through the EU - "being paid in euro is very handy at the moment".

Nori Jemil is a writer, videographer and photographer whose awards include British Guild of Travel Writers Photographer Of The Year 2018 (www.norijemil.com), She's a regular contributor to National Geographic Traveller (UK). She got into this line of work by chance when teaching in South America. She'd won a few competitions, then met someone at an event and gave them her card. They passed it on to an editor at National Geographic - and is now listed as a regular contributor.

Outside journalism, she has led photography tours in the Arctic and Patagonia - "which pays quite well" - and has been teaching A-level film and videography.

She previously studied dance and drama and was involved in poetry - so "I tend to look at cultural aspects of stories." People she knows who are doing well in travel "have several strings to their bows - they may be able to do a day a week editing."

She has "finally" got into the Rough Guides - covering Australia's Northern Territory even though her parents live in Western Australia. Online sites, unsurprisingly, "generally don't pay as well as NatGeo and Condé Nast Traveller" - online-only pieces fetch maybe £150 each - if you do photos, film and text. Many "want to see photos before they give you the commission". Are people supposed to fund themselves to go round the world preparing pitches? In fact, teaching or leading tours lets you do that.

Nori is "worried about Brexit and freelance work and travel" - she's hedging her bets and "thinking about diversifying, maybe use my qualification in dance."

A lot of the key to success is networking, going to events - "not hounding people, but sidling up to them and hoping they remember you being brief later."

A lot of colleagues in the Guild of Travel Writers "are doing well". None are rich but "if you can write well you can be paid well-ish. If you have a decent cameraphone it helps - I am sorry for other photographers - I get commissioned because I am known as a photographer who can write." BBC Travel are commissioning and they pay well. The airline mags are commissioning, as are content marketing agencies.

Nori "likes to go to extreme landscapes - I really like the Faeroe Islands - to get really good pictures and try to think of an angle to write about afterward."

Laura Laker is a writer and editor who covers the transport, environment and occasionally sporting aspects of cycling for the Guardian, Sunday Times, BBC, and Sky among others (@Lakerlikes). She found herself "a strange little niche by accident - I did jornalism training in Wimbledon and did an internship at the London Cycling Campaign and fell in love with cycling - thankfully at a time when it was booming."

She was commissioned by a cycling weekly - and that led to "having a thing as a campaigning journalist going on, because cycling is a small world." A friend from dancing was a producer for Sky and wanted someone - "so, terrified, I went on - and became the voice of reason. "Aren't cyclists naughty", a presenter would prompt and Laura would respond along the lines that the real cause of road danger is white vans...

"Having a specialism has been really helpful for me," she says: "I've become well respected in my field." She has a degree in nutrition: "maybe having a scientific background has helped me try to be even-handed." Sky asked her to cover the Tour de France for them. She was doing three days a week for a cycling website, bashing stuff out... and has "now done enugh sport cycling writing to be able to blag my way through."

Being in the "transport world", having done some speaking at conferences, she has talked to people about designing streets and so - and "a few months after I spoke with an academic who's thinking about setting up a think-tank on urban design, which I hope will help me make enough money to do journalism as well."

She's also crowdfunded work, for example offering donors exclusive coverage of a big Dublin conference on active travel. "Now I have a following around cycling campaigning there'll be more kickstarters and so on."

Discussion

A member asked: Is travel writing saturated, unless a new island pops up? And who are these people who commission the travel pieces and what is their relationship to the writer?

Nori responded that when she first started "I did a course and one of the things I was told by a former travel editor was that you have to work the angle". Don't do things that've been done recently. And don't rule anything out: you could pitch a place as a weekend away or somewhere to take your family. She prefers to do adventure travel and women's travel, though. "You just have to find the editors and find the editors who you can work with."

"If you pitch to a Times editor and get the response 'we don't do that kind of thing' you're showing you don't know the publication: Keep sending pitches, accept that you'll get rejections - or be ignored." On the day of the meeting she got commissioned for something I pitched a year ago - they hadn't read it. "Can we have some photos, they said, and I said 'you've already got them'."

Someone followed Nori on Twitter "and I noticed he was a features editor at the Telegraph and so we met - I got invited to his friend's birthday - but didn't get any work out of it."

Kelly got her first contacts through competitions I entered - such as the Wellcome Trust - and through Twitter. "Show editors what you're thinking about and writing about," she says: "it can happen that you Tweet something and get commissined. I don't know how often it happens but it can..." It's important to "go in really confident - I don't ramble I say my pitch, and tell them if they want to know more I'll send more." A lot of online places have submission guidelines - read them. They, like the BBC, need a lot of stories.

Another member asked the panel whether they have you found any benefit in having a social media presence.

Lara has had an editor for a cycling mag she hadn't written for before contact her about writing: "cycling Twitter is really big".

Nori "knows a couple of people who've done really well from having blogs - they can pay their own way to events and use that to sell stories... So I should be blogging but I don't have time to do that." It's not about being mercenary about building contacts, it's about talking naturally - as we are now."

Another member "has always wondered about travel writing. Who pays for your travel and subsistence?"

Nori noted that if you're commissioned you can go to the tourist board - and often get some help, but not enough. But for BBC travel you can't have anything "comped". Trying to "get two or three commissions from one trip is what the good people do..."

One of the travel writers in the audience observed that "what's really challenging about travel writing is organising the funding" - they have now started funding more of their own trips and finding stories while they're there. But in January an airline presented them with a contract guaranteeing a specific number of commissions and promising to use their Fact File mentioning that they're Now Flying From Manchester in each.

Committee member Francesca Marchese asked: what are the unmissable events for each of the panel?

For Kelly that'd be Association of British Science Writers events - every two years they hold a conference in the UK - and have lots of resources for members.

Nori noted that "there are a lot of us here from the Association of Travel Writers, but that's for established writers, not people starting out. There is an industry event called TravMedia and once you start going to things like that you tend to get inited to more. Then there are the prestige gigs, such as the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent - that doesn't pay very much - only £150 - but once you've done it you're A BBC Radio Journalist.

Branch Treasurer Jenny Vaughan writes science books for young people and is "distressed at the amount of garbage that's out there" and editors' tendency to introduce errors.

Kelly agreed and recalled a particular story about using Cranial Direct Current Stimulation to treat depression. "The headline went up at 5am - and the headline was about Electro-Convulsive Therapy. But "the rubbish is a rich vein of stories" - ask scientists why some story is wrong and pitch 'The Truth About X' - I see the rubbish as an opportunity."