Focus interview with freelance journalist Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is a freelance journalist who specialises in human interest stories, health, relationships, psychology and parenting. His work appears in The Express, Independent and Telegraph, as well as Men’sHealth and many other magazines and websites.

This week, FeaturesExec caught up with Dan to discuss interviewing Sir Richard Attenborough, where his inspiration comes from and training to become a psychotherapist.

About your journalism:

What do you write about?
Anything, really. Over the last decade or so I’ve written stories about carbon offsetting, bipolar disorder, child labour, Shaolin monks and a seven-stone female competitive eating champion! But I increasingly specialise in health, relationships, psychology, personal growth and parenting – especially fatherhood and post-breakup parenting which will, sadly, be a huge topic over the next decade due to our 50 per cent divorce rate. I used to do a lot of first-person fitness stuff for Men’s Fitness and others, but my injury-ravaged body makes that rather less appealing these days. In general, my focus is definitely micro rather than macro, as I’m eternally fascinated by people – if there’s a powerful human interest story, I’m hooked.

Where are we likely to see your work?
I write for the health desks of the Express, Indy and Telegraph a fair bit, but have written for most of the broadsheets and some of the tabloids. I am about to add Men’s Health to my list of employers, and write for any mags or websites that fit my interests and ideas. It’s a bit hard to say though, as this year will be a strange one for the publishing industry – some major clients have already told me they’re not using freelancers for a while, so writers will be casting their net ever-wider.

I’m looking to expand my copywriting portfolio too, having produced copy for clients like Zurich Financial Services and Benoy architects (who designed Bluewater and the Bullring). I would like to make some more connections in PR and marketing agencies, so if you’re looking for a copywriter, do get in touch (take a look at my website to see what I can do).

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
I loved interviewing Sir Richard Attenborough in his private cinema last year – he’s a charming, fascinating man. Perhaps the piece I’m proudest of was a story I did about the pleasures and pitfalls of being a single father for Guardian Family. It generated a huge response and many readers said it moved them to tears – the kind of thing that really makes writing worthwhile.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
I would love to interview Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali, two of my heroes. And a long, Sunday Times mag feature about going off on some crazy adventure for months, like riding a bike through Africa or meeting lost tribes in the Amazon, would be rather wonderful.

About you and PRs:

Where do you source ideas for articles?
Good PRs are gold dust when it comes to stories, otherwise it’s the papers, radio (Radio 4 can be very fruitful) and websites like WebMD, which is brilliant for health ideas. I also have dozens of more quirky, offbeat ideas a week, but they’re harder to place, as most commissioning editors want ideas that fit the same old writing-by-numbers formats. Yawn.

How can PRs be useful to you?
Suggesting stories I hadn’t thought of and finding experts/case studies for me when I need them. The occasional long lunch doesn’t hurt either!

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
Good, strong, saleable ideas are always welcome, by phone or email.

Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
At the risk of sounding grumpy, I don’t find them very useful, to be honest. Having the odd coffee with a really switched-on PR is far preferable, otherwise I can spend half a day on something that doesn’t lead to any commissions.

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
Not just one – to understand who I am as a writer, and what I do and don’t write about; not to send me emails about things I will never, ever write about (beauty products, fashion, nappies…); to provide angles and/or case studies with every release; and to give enough information to enable me to sell the story. It’s amazing how little info some PRs provide, which gives me nothing to work on.

About you:

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I’m currently training as a psychotherapist, so I intend to combine therapy/teaching/writing books and psychology-related columns and articles in the future. I’m also increasingly providing expert comment for other writers and on radio/TV – especially on fatherhood and parenting in general – which I enjoy and hope to do more of. But the therapy training takes years, so I’ll be a journo for a while yet!

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
I’d take my son, Ben, on a surfing holiday – he’s desperate to go but things are a bit tight right now.

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I have about a million books to read at the moment. I’m currently gripped by Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which is fascinating, although some of the more spiritual stuff is a bit hard to swallow. I subscribe to Psychologies, Men’sHealth and Esquire, so the latest issues are currently clamouring for my attention…
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