Focus on The Spark magazine with Darryl Bullock
This week FeaturesExec catches up Darryl Bullock, publisher of Bristol’s Spark magazine.
About the publication:
Tell us a little more about The Spark magazine:
The Spark is a free quarterly magazine which, this May, celebrates its 65th issue and its 18th birthday. The magazine was established in 1993 by John Dawson, but is now owned by me, Darryl Bullock.
What subjects do you cover?
We cover food, family, complimentary and holistic health, green issues, local events, arts, local activism, the outdoors, creativity and personal growth.
What stories are you most interested in covering?
The Spark tends to cover stories with a West Country bias, although we will obviously highlight green and ethical news and issues worldwide. All of our news stories and features need to have at their heart a positive outlook. We want readers to be enthused and inspired by The Spark, not depressed!
What makes you different from the other outlets in your sector?
Firstly we’re totally independent and never run advertorial. You don’t get coverage in The Spark just because you’ve bought an advert. We also self-distribute, which means that we know exactly how many copies get picked up and where they get picked up from. We print 33-34,000 copies an issue, which I believe makes us the biggest ethical quarterly in the UK. We’re also tabloid sized and printed on newsprint, which really makes us stand out from the many A4 glossies out there.
How do you decide the content, front covers and headlines?
We have an excellent editor (Vicki West, currently on maternity leave and being covered by the equally excellent Bill Heaney) who ultimately decides what the content of the magazine will be, but ideas come in from everyone. We hold regular editorial meetings where our freelancers are welcome to come in and pitch ideas, and we also toss ideas around in the office. It’s very much a team effort.
Do you produce a features list?
We don’t tend to provide a forward features list as we like to rely on what our writers want to write about, rather than telling them in advance what they should be writing about. However we do have certain set sections and regular features: each issue carries, for example, a food page, a family page and an MBS (Mind, Body and Spirit) page as well as a regular events section, a DIY section and so on. We have a regular summer Festival Guide, and have just launched our first Spring Courses Guide which we intend to run annually.
About you and freelance journalists::
Do you like freelance journalists to get in touch with you directly to pitch ideas? And if so, how?
In the first instance freelancers need to know what kind of things we’re interested in covering and need to remember that we always favour anything with a West Country flavour. Their best bet would be to check us out online (at www.thespark.co.uk) first so that they can get an idea of the subjects that interest us and our readers. After that, if they think they can contribute they should email our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org with a short pitch.
Name the three most important attributes that make a freelance journalist stand out for you and would make you use them again?
I’ve been freelancing myself for 16 years now and the single most important rule is NEVER miss a deadline! I know that the reason I get repeated freelance work coming my way is that I try my damnedest to stick to that! It’s also really important that freelancers know their market: there’s no point in you trying to pitch a story to me about a farmer in Scotland, for example, when the magazine in based in Bristol and is mostly distributed around Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, South Wales and Devon. Finally, listen to what we’re saying: everyone thinks they’re a better writer than you! I don’t in any way consider myself to be a great writer, but I’m a decent one and I wouldn’t have been able to carve a career out if I wasn’t, and all of us involved with the Spark have been in the trade for a number of years. We do know what we’re talking about. Any criticism offered is almost invariably constructive.
If you can, tell us about the best approach you’ve seen from a freelance…and the worst…
The worst is easy; they always come from people with no idea of how to write for a magazine and quite often from people who own businesses and are just after some free editorial. I’ve lost count of the number of people who approach us asking for work but who have never read a copy of the magazine!
I can’t think of a single ‘best’, but in general the best approaches come from people who are passionate about what they want to write about and have done their research on their subject and on The Spark’s ethos. Writing is about communication: you need to want to tell that story to people and to convince me that your story is worth telling.
Do you work closely with PRs?
We do work closely with PRs; when they do their job well they are invaluable.
If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
I am always amazed at the number of badly written and badly researched press releases that get issued by PR ‘professionals’, also the amount of completely irrelevant material we get sent. If PRs are doing their job properly they should be aware of what kind of publication The Spark is and stop trying to pitch things our way which we are never going to write about. Our biggest problem is that we’re a quarterly, so there’s little point in trying to get us top write about something happening tomorrow.
How should a PR approach you about their client?
Best is always via email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
What information/input from PRs is most useful to you?
A brief outline of the product, service or personality they want us to cover will be fine – plus photos: images are always hard to source and it would save so much of my time if decent, hi-res images were available from the start.
When is the best time for PRs to contact you & what is your deadline for contributions?
The magazine is currently printed four times a year, usually on the last Monday of February, May, August and November. Final copy deadline is usually a month before that date (i.e. late January for our spring edition, late April for summer, July for autumn and October for winter).
Describe a typical day at work: What are you editorial duties/responsibilities at the outlet?
I’m usually at my desk by 9.30 and spend the first hour or so dealing with emails. My role at The Spark is more admin-based than editorial, although I still write the food page and edit the events section. But no day is typical; I could be dealing with our printers one minute, interviewing a great local food producer the next and then up to my elbows in toner because one of the office printers has broken down! And the phones never stop ringing.
What interests you most about your job?
I love the randomness of it – this is not your typical office job and we’re not your typical magazine. Most of all I love working with the amazing, enthusiastic and knowledgeable team we have at the Spark.
Where have you worked previously, and how did you end up in your current position?
I had my first piece printed by the Bath Chronicle in 1995. Since then I have worked entirely as a freelancer for publications including Venue Magazine (where I edit the L&G section as well as writing food features and reviews), Folio, Essentially Catering (I write a feature each issue on regional food producers) and magazines as diverse as A Bear’s Life (US), Palmyra Explorer (UAE), 3Sixty, One80News, the Pink Paper and dozens more. John, who founded The Spark back in 1993, asked me to come on board to write the food page about eight years ago. I then went on to establish Ignite, our three-monthly events section, and took on a more managerial role when John decided to step back in August 2008. He approached me last year and asked if I would be interested in buying the magazine.
Do you Twitter? Why, why not?
I do, and I love it. The Spark’s twitter address is @Spark_Magazine; my own is @dwbullock but I can get a bit sweary and opinionated. My views are definitely my own and not those of any of the publications I work for!
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Write about what you know; don’t miss deadlines.
What media do you seek out first thing in the morning?
Twitter; BBC news (both online and on the BBC News channel); I also get the Guardian and Independent headlines emailed to me every day.
If you could time travel what time would you go to?
December 8 1980, and stop Mark Chapman shooting John Lennon.