This week’s focus interview is with Neil Murray, editor for FoodNews:
About the publication:
Who reads it and how many of them are there?
A global readership, on subscription only. Subs figures a closely guarded secret!
What subjects do you cover?
Processed foods that are traded as commodities. So juices, frozen fruit & veg, canned fruit & veg, nuts, dairy products, canned fish, soft drinks (oddly enough), herbs & spices and some other things.
What makes you different from the other outlets in your sector?
We have no real competition: we are unique in our sector. Which is nice.
Do you produce a features list? Why? Why not?
Yes, we do, for the regular supplements that we also produce. These carry adverts whereas the weekly newspaper is ad-free.
Do you use freelance contributions, and if so, are they for any particular section/type of work?
Yes: we have freelancers reporting from around the world. We use people in Africa, India, the US, South America, etc.
Do you work closely with PRs (e.g. for supplements, round tables, events) or do you keep them at arm’s length?
We hardly ever use PR stuff. We are a news-oriented weekly and by the time something has been PR generated, it’s not news any more, generally. It’s ‘olds’.
Do you have any advice for PRs?
Cultivate personal contacts with editors. Also, give them contact details of (reliable, trusted) people within your clients’ businesses that they can talk to directly for background and other info, without having to go through the whole PR rigmarole.
What’s the best starting point for a PR who wants to tell you about their client?
I think a personal meeting, over lunch or similar.
What information/input from PRs is most useful to you?
Data. Statistics, market reports, surveys etc.
Do you have a PR pet hate?
“Hello, did you get our release?” Answer: “Yes, and it was irrelevant.”
When is the best time for PRs to contact you & what is your deadline for contributions?
Fridays is good. Deadline for us is Tuesday afternoon, or maybe Wednesday morning.
What interests you most about your job?
It’s news led, and very old-fashioned real reporting, using contacts cultivated and maintained for years. And we travel worldwide. I’ve visited countries that normally I would never expect to see.
What led to you becoming editor for FOODNEWS?
I had a decade’s experience in food industry journalism, and I answered the interview on a whim. I was deadly tired, overstressed and rather unreceptive, so not in a good state of preparedness for a job application at all. The guy interviewing threw a load of stuff at me that I thought was bollocks, and in my general pissed-off state I told him so. It turned out he was deliberately laying a false trail to see if I knew my stuff, so that was quite lucky, really.
Do you Twitter? Why, why not?
No. I tend to do Usenet instead.
I’d like to have a go at…
Travel journalism. Outside journalism, I’d like to be a motorcycle mechanic, oddly enough. I find fixing and restoring bikes hugely therapeutic, and I’m quite good at it.
If you could time travel what time would you go to?
Late 19th century/early 20th century, when science was unfolding at a dizzying speed and progress was astonishing. And before it all got shot to hell in 1914.
About you and freelance journalists:
Do you like freelance journalists to get in touch with you directly to pitch ideas? And if so, how?
I welcome direct approaches. The pitch should always include some sort of demonstration that the journo can work and think independently, or has a foreign language so can interpret and rehash stuff we can’t. Right now, we could really use someone in Russia, who has Russian. Hello, anyone? Oh, and we could also use someone in California.
Name the three most important attributes that make a freelance journalist stand out for you and would make you use them again?
First is the ability to meet deadlines. I always prefer workmanlike copy delivered promptly to Hemingway quality reportage delivered late. Secondly, reliability: the knowledge that if you commission someone, that they’ll deliver the goods. Thirdly, a high standard of literacy. Life’s too short to spend it correcting someone else’s grammar, punctuation and syntax howlers.
If you can, tell us about the best approach you’ve seen from a freelance…and the worst…
The best was quite recently. Our company produces a large number of food and agro-industrial publications. This guy based in Scandinavia called, determined who the face was that could initially field his request, and then sent in a suggestion list of about 30 stories, on every conceivable topic, culled from the Scandinavian newswires and press. This was circulated to all editors, who simply emailed him back, and said: “I’ll have story X, 250 words max, by X date, please.” Now he presents a similar list every week, copied to all the editors themselves, and gets a lot of work from us all. Editors taking stuff copy in other editors so we don’t get the same story being ordered five times. And he’s good. A simple approach backed by reliable delivery. Take a bow, Scott LaHart.
The worst? Not so much an approach; more total incompetence from a guy calling himself a journalist on the basis of some op-ed pieces, who has tried to sell us all agro-industrial stories from South America, but who is so useless at assimilating information (including interpreting kilograms as tonnes and so getting his data wrong by a factor of 1000) and who writes so badly we’ve all ditched him. Believe me, if he could do it right, he’d clean up, because South America is important to us all. Name withheld to spare his blushes.