Did you do a journalism degree or related qualification?
No I didn’t. I did write for the University newspaper but I was doing a degree in aeronautical engineering for 4 years. At school I never knew which way to go, it was either going to be engineering or journalism, eventually deciding on the former. From ‘A’ levels and from University you can get a good knowledge of engineering and technical stuff and then write about it. That’s far easier than getting a good qualification in journalism and then trying to understand the technical side to write about it.
When you qualified which field did you initially go into?
Whilst I was at University I was working for Jordan GP in their aerodynamics dept and then realised that engineering wasn’t for me. Working for Jordan was a work placement as part of thhe degree, 10 weeks a year over 3 years. I enjoyed writing too much and enjoyed the interaction with people as a journalist more than we were getting as engineers. As an engineer I was going into the office in the morning, sitting in front of a computer, then going home at night having hardly spoken to anyone. I preferred getting out and meeting people. The good thing about journalism is it gives you a whole different variety of aspects to look at whereas with Jordan for example, we were focusing wholly on making that car that we had a little bit faster. As a journalist writing technically about F1 there’s a much bigger spectrum of things to write about, investigate and learn about which I find more interesting.
How did you make the jump into journalism full time?
For a nominal sum I started writing for a website. The sum was good for a University student at the time. I was at a good point with my degree because I would have had to do pretty terribly to get anywhere near to failing. So I could cruise the year to some extent and had more time to do writing. I did a 32 part series, (each part being 1000 words) on every technical aspect of an F1 car you could get. It was for www.atlasf1.com which ultimately merged with autosport.com, now one of the biggest motor-sport sites.
Did you write it or pitch it first?
Pitched the idea. I couldn’t have written that just for fun! It took a whole University holiday period researching and understanding bits that weren’t my specialist area. I pitched it, they liked it, we agreed on a fee and then we went forward. I was very fortunate. It’s not easy to get that opportunity. I was also writing to a bunch of different magazines and websites to see if they wanted specific technical writing. And I got another one which was for a magazine called F1 Sport International which lasted for a few years and I ended up being Deputy Editor there whilst I was still at University. Really it was because I offered something different (the technical angle) that made me stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of others that wanted to write about F1 and enabled me to get in there. That’s the thing that’s key, to have a unique selling point.
You mentioned that you were fortunate; do you think luck played a part?
I always think luck plays a part in everything but you make your own luck. If you don’t get out there you don’t get the chance to get that luck that might turn it for you. I got my placement at Jordan by getting out there and handing my CV to everyone in F1 paddocks and eventually got interviews with 2 of the team technical directors and got in that way. I was lucky to be there but once I was there I made the most of the opportunity.
You write for many different publications now. How did you expand your contacts list and start freelancing?
I started off with a journalist agency called Collings Sport which already had a bunch of contacts. The agency worked for every UK national. Once you have been published by some well known publications, commissioning Editors can see your experience and give you a chance. I got into travel firstly with Real Travel. They’d just launched and were looking for writers. I wrote to the right people and rang them up and got my first piece in there. I then went to Travel Weekly and said I write for Real Travel. They understood that I wrote for a magazine that was relatively selective and gave me a chance. When I pitch now I'm able to say that I have written for some well known publications. I’ve written for most of the nationals but haven’t written for them all for travel. But by being published you have proved that you can write to their style and the Editors liked you and then you have a stepping stone into the other sections.
Have you been affected by the credit crunch?
I had been working in a PR company for two years for Ford on UEFA Champions League Football Sponsorhip Activation and Land Rover on the G4 challenge adventure race. Both of those budgets got cut so I left in January. I rang up a few publications at that time and several told me that they had stopped taking any commissions from outside. A staffer I knew at the Times had been taken down from 4 days a week to 2 days a week. Straight away if a company does that they will feel obligated to put some work the way of that person if a story needs to be written. So yes there’s no question that reduced staffing levels and budget cuts have had an effect for freelancers. Magazines are trying to reduce their freelance rates but if freelance journalists stand up and say no then it will help.
What advice would you give someone who was trying to get into journalism or trying to become a writer now?
If we take travel journalism as an example its hard to stand out. Look at the way TV has gone. Five years ago Discovery would put on an extreme volcano programme, for example. Now everyone has seen something like that so they’re constantly trying to invent, get wilder and wilder. I went storm chasing in May and they’re constantly thinking of more and more dramatic storylines that can keep the viewers enticed. It’s the same thing with writing. When a big pool of writers exists you have to think differently and come up with unique angles to familiar subjects. There will always be a story on say, France or Chile in a travel section but its only if you can come up with something original that you’re onto a winner. Once you have that one commission with a decent title it will help to get published by the next one.
Last question: do you still enjoy it?
I love it. I did two years in PR and its not dissimilar to journalism, you’re just sitting on the other side. To my mind, PR needs a journalist’s knowledge to work, you need to know what journalists want. Coming back to journalism I’ve now got more variety in my work than I had when I was last a journalist because of the different things I’m specialising in. Its reminded me how much I love sitting down and writing a piece. There’s nothing more enjoyable than sitting down at the start of a day with a blank page and finish the day with something you’ve spent a while composing but you’re happy with and its going to give people enjoyment when they read it.