Freelance Focus with Nick Smith
This week, FeaturesExec caught up with freelance journalist and photographer Nick Smith.
Nick tells us about Angelina Ballerina, his desire to travel to Antarctica and how he prefers face-to-face meeting with PRs, preferably in the pub!
About your journalism:
What do you write about?
There are three main aspects to my work: I write adventure, exploration and wildlife conservation features for what might loosely be described as the ‘travel sector’; I review books and interview authors for literary publications, and I write articles about management for the business sector. Where possible I shoot the photographs to accompany my words. I spent many years editing monthly magazines and I reached the conclusion that there was a yawning gap in the market for journalists who could take decent photos. This combination is rare and I have to work quite hard to convince editors that I can write and snap with equal proficiency. Some editors won’t listen, while others think it’s simply not possible. But there are a few who like the idea of the same person generating the words and images for a feature.
Where are we likely to see your work?
Mostly magazines, although I’m increasingly finding myself writing for newspapers. My travel clients include Country Life, the Explorers Journal, Organic Life, Wall Street Journal, Geographical, Traveller, Flipside, Outdoor Photography and so on. On the book reviewing side I am a regular contributor and columnist on Bookdealer, and have been a regular for the Literary Review and the Times Higher Education Supplement. In the management sector I write and shoot for E&T, the recently relaunched fortnightly magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology.
What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
I recently did a 5,000-word feature on the best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith. You hardly ever get a commission of more than 2,000 words, so to have all that extra space and time to warm to a theme was a real treat. We did the interview in his house in Edinburgh where I also took several portraits – there’s a real connection between the words and pix. A picture library has since put the portraits on their stock and the article is being anthologised in a book. A good result all round.
Over the past few years I’ve been on assignment to countries including Botswana, Ecuador, Mauritius, the Maldives and Namibia. They’ve all provided the source material for features that are slightly different from the usual straight-down-the-line travel stuff that seems to be so popular. In each of these cases there was a wildlife and environmental conservation angle, which to me at least is a bit more spiritually nourishing than writing about spa resorts, golf courses and honeymoon destinations.
What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
Antarctica. I know it’s been overexposed and there are environmental concerns over encouraging travel to the region, but I think there is scope for some really good feature work at the moment, what with all the upcoming Shackleton and Scott centenaries.
About you and PRs:
Where do you source ideas for articles?
For the travel stuff it’s quite simple: I go where I’m sent. I do try to make sure that where I’m sent is of interest to me personally and I won’t promote a product that I think is environmentally irresponsible. I usually build up ideas with PRs over a coffee to see what we think will work best in terms of exposure for the client and revenue generation for myself. Most PR’s clients in the travel sector understandably like a firm commission before sending you anywhere. In stark contrast many of the magazines I tend to work for prefer you to go away and come back with something interesting before committing to a story. This can sometimes make it quite hard to get the ball rolling, but once the PRs trust your ability to sell photographs on your return it all sort of falls into place. It helps if you’ve got a reliable track record and a good cuttings book, but really it’s all about building trust.
How can PRs be useful to you?
I very rarely work directly with travel companies for a whole host of reasons, and so without PRs I wouldn’t get out into the field as often as I do. The best are fixers who can make things happen both for you and their clients. There’s one agency I work with a lot, and by the time we were on our third or fourth project together it started to feel a lot like teamwork. They know what you can do and they have a feel for your proposal conversion rates. In a business where 90 per cent of what’s discussed never happens you need to be able to have honest discussions with PRs.
How and when do you like them to get in touch?
When I was a magazine editor I sometimes found PRs a little over-attentive. That’s not their fault. It’s a competitive business and you’ve got to be active and visible to succeed, even if that means being a bit pushy. Now I am on the other side of the fence I can’t imagine life without them. Because I write a lot and am frequently in libraries or on aeroplanes I prefer to be emailed. But nothing beats a good old-fashioned face-to-face meeting for kicking around a few ideas – especially if the meeting is in the pub.
Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
Useful. Conferences provide photo and networking opportunities. Hosted trips are usually good for introductions to staffers on other magazines. Parties break down barriers that phone calls and emails can’t. There was one publication I’d been trying to get into for ages and I couldn’t even get through the door. I was later introduced to the editor at a drinks party at the Royal Geographical Society and it turned out we had a common interest in quite an obscure author. This must have done the trick because he always took my calls after that and I ended up with some good commissions from him.
If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
The goal of most meetings with PRs seems to be ‘getting commissions’. I completely understand that this is the currency of the PR world, but I sometimes think more could be achieved if we all went one level deeper and concentrated more on developing stories. I tend to think that good proposals will naturally develop into commissions rather than the other way around.
Do you have a PR pet hate?
Not really. I sometimes groan a bit when I get a pointless press release or the infamous ‘follow-up call’. But as marketing techniques become more sophisticated these are thankfully becoming a thing of the past. When I get a ‘cold call’ from a PR I try to be polite because I know how hard they are on the caller, and it’s usually the inexperienced ones or even the interns who are given the job. Whenever I need to cold call an editor my bones turn to water. I know some editors who are quite rude to freelancers and PRs and that’s a bit off-putting and there’s no real call for it.
I sometimes wish that PRs made more of the potential for freelancers to get them increased exposure. For example, if you take a staffer on a trip somewhere exotic then the maximum exposure you will get is one magazine. In my experience the staffer will (understandably) be enjoying the freedom from the office and won’t have a great deal of time on his return to write up the story. Likewise the editor won’t feel under any great pressure to publish the story, as it will be seen as ‘low rent’. These days, I can only usually think of going away on a trip if I’m sure that I can earn more money than if I was sitting at my desk in my office at home – and that means getting more than one commission. On my return I need to file my copy and images as soon as I can in order to get the invoicing in.
How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I’ve never done anything else so I’m not sure what real people do for a living. I wouldn’t work in publishing though. I think I’d like to be a lecturer on an Antarctic cruise ship or a safari guide. I’ve done a bit of lecturing on writing and photography for explorers, so I think I’d be quite good at it.
If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
I’d buy a perspective correction lens. I’m currently working on a book about Imperial London, its buildings, monuments, statues and so on, and so one of these specialist architectural lenses would be quite useful. Or, I’d take some time off to get my website going. I bought a domain name a few months ago, but haven’t done a great deal since. I think having a web presence might have some benefits, although I personally doubt if anything will ever replace dealing with people face-to-face.
What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I have just reviewed ‘Pilgrimage to Mecca’ by Lady Evelyn Cobbold for Bookdealer. I’m about to start my research for an assignment in Iran later this year, and so I’m mugging up on some background for that, including ‘The Road to Oxiana’ by Robert Byron and ‘From a Persian Teahouse’ by Michael Carroll. I don’t have much time to read for pleasure, but when I do I like to read to my three-year-old daughter, and we’re both enjoying the ‘Angelina Ballerina’ series about a little mouse that can dance.
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