Freelance Journalist Focus: Sean Hargrave
Sean Hargrave is a freelancer specialising in tech, business and health – here he tells us about his very different interviewing experiences with Alan Sugar and Steve Jobs, and has some good advice for PRs wishing to get in touch…
About your journalism:
What do you write about?
I was the Innovation Editor at The Sunday Times in the ‘90s as the internet really took off so it still dominates my writing, as do technology and business issues as well as health.
Where are we likely to see your work?
I work mostly for New Media Age and Marketing Week as well as a couple of companies who publish supplements in the nationals, including the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. I blog for SamKnows.com, the web site which runs the performance benchmark service Ofcom uses to judge broadband performance. I used to freelance for the Guardian until they had to cut back on outside contributors.
What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
Interviewing Alan Sugar would have to be up there. It was for the Guardian, although they didn’t run it as it was pretty damning of a guy who was just awful to meet and so aggressive towards anyone with an opinion contrary to his own.
He was launching video phones which were very expensive and sent adverts to the phone’s screen. I pointed out it was nuts and would never take off, he pretty much threw me out of the one-on-one interview – his minions didn’t know which way to look. I’ve still yet to hear of anyone who bought a pair of the phones and sat back in their living room to watch the adverts on their screens.
Steve Jobs was a great one. I interviewed him with a colleague from The Sunday Times just a little while after Apple had dropped him. He gave me a VHS to watch with my nephews. It was a film he said he’d been working on and they might like it next year when it’s out in the cinemas. Turned out to be Toy Story!
He wasn’t someone you’d naturally warm to but was polite, professional and completely open and honest. He quipped, “I think Apple wanted a new direction,” and with a grin added, “And I’m happy to let them have it.” Quite soon after, the struggling brand asked him to go back and the company’s fortunes were completely reversed. It made me realise he has more of a profound effect on Apple than Bill Gates ever had on Microsoft (after the early years).
What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
In complete fantasy land, and you could pick anyone living or dead, I guess Jesus would be the ultimate.
Anyone who’s ever played for Chelsea would be great, as I’m a Season Ticket holder, although as Nick Hornby forewarns in Fever Pitch, the only time I’ve ever met a Chelsea player (an injured Graham Le Saux) I was totally overawed and could only ask ‘how’s the leg’.
Of anyone, though, I’m fascinated by Derren Brown, I think he’d have to be my achievable answer. So, picking one, it would probably be him.
About you and PRs:
Where do you source ideas for articles?
I’m pretty lucky because I’m commissioned for most of my articles. I speak to a lot of people for most stories and this can often give me ideas what to pitch in to the people who commission me.
How can PRs be useful to you?
By providing access to experts and perhaps getting a bit of a better understanding of what their clients do. The vast majority of PRs are professional and great to work with but you’d be amazed at how many PRs don’t have an answer when you ask what their client does, how they’d fit in to the piece they’re pitching them for.
Though the majority are very professional, there are those who have to go off and ask clients for ‘further info’ and then end up sending a dozen attachments and pre-approved cut and pasted, meaningless puff about the company. Insight, that’s what a journalist most needs. Quite a few PRs have this and they’re always a journalist’s first port of call because they ‘get it’, they’re not just there pumping out releases and cutting and pasting mission statements backed up by the last dozen quarterly results figures. If you ever find yourself doing the latter, just think, how would you sell your client in an elevator pitch and put that in a couple of lines, perhaps with a para or two of back up info but give it a point, sell your client don’t drown the journo in attachments.
There’s also a tendency among PRs to keep on asking for clarification on what a story is on, even though they’ve got the top lines of the synopsis and a list of bullet points. At some stage, you just have to see it as an opportunity and get involved rather stop asking for more and more potential questions and topics.
If you say your person is lined up and it’s deadline day, treat it as a contract you shouldn’t break lightly. I’m amazed still at a small minority of PRs who think it’s ok to switch spokespeople or even client at the last moment or even just blow out altogether.
How and when do you like them to get in touch?
Only ever by email, unless it’s for something we’re already in the process of arranging. Otherwise it can just be crazy with calls coming in all the time, particularly as I mainly work on commissions and do virtually no news, so the calls are normally too speculative. It’s very rare an unsolicited call taps in to something I’m writing about.
Fortunately the ‘did you get the release’ call seems to have died a death, but that could be just because I’m no longer in a magazine or newspaper news room.
Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
Definitely an interruption, but that’s probably just me. I’m settled down in the Oxfordshire countryside with a wife and three kids and so I just can’t be bothered to go to another round table or fly somewhere to walk around a load of stalls, get drunk and then empty a suitcase of press releases to remember what it is I should have seen if only I were fluent in German/French/Spanish and were able to cover halls ten times the size of Wembley Arena in a day. Having said that, that’s how I spent my twenties and so I can’t knock it. It’s a great way to network and see a bit of the world, only now I’d much rather do a day on the phone, get beaten on Mario Kart by the kids and settle in to dinner and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ – comes to us all I guess.
I find most invites are normally well meant and so I like the spirit in which they’re sent. I also feel for PR people who have to phone round in a hurry trying to get some journalists to pretend to be interested in an exec who’s flown in to a hotel lobby for an afternoon and wants to share ‘top line thoughts’. Those are the interviews that never end up providing anything useful for either side, in my experience, unless the person really has come over to launch something.
If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
To understand what their client, through them, can provide that will make my articles better.
If I could pass on one piece of advice it would be that they should be proactive so they could mention that the guy who’s done x in the field I’m writing about could speak at x hour tomorrow, or if you want a different take on this you should speak to my client who believes x is wrong, everyone should be looking at y.
A lot of the time a journalist enjoys a bit of guidance. And the golden rule, I would pass on to PRs; if you call, leave a message! If you don’t have something to say I won’t want to call you back about, don’t call in the first place. If I’m screening calls because I’m on a big deadline and PRs keep calling but don’t leave messages (although you subsequently find out who it was) it really drives me mad.
How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I’d love to be a singer songwriter but can’t sing, my guitar playing’s a bit ropey and I’ve not met Robbie yet to offer him any of my songs. Being a novelist would be great but then I presume that’s what every journalist thinks of – like most, I’ve got a half-written thriller sitting on my PC.
At school I was always going to be a builder, like my dad, and then I thought about being a history teacher while at university.
If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
It would probably end up going to the tax man at the moment! I know it would be earnest to say some amazing trip which I’d write about but I’d probably get some posh tickets to take some friends to a Chelsea game or fly my wife off for a weekend somewhere. Just in case she’s reading this, I’d definitely go for the latter of those two options.
No, actually, I think I’d get my web site finally designed so I could push my media training.
What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I’m terrible, I rarely read books at the moment. I read the Telegraph, for its breadth of coverage, and love a trashy tabloid or gossip rag. The BBC home page is my home page when I start up Explorer.
I find nearly all my reading is done online, particularly now I’ve got the iPad at my side of an evening. The interesting thing is with digital you become far less brand loyal and end up being taken off all over the place to read interesting articles you probably wouldn’t have heard about unless someone on a LinkedIn group, Mashable, Facebook or Twitter had pointed them out.
That’s what’s making publishing so interesting now. Other than the fact everyone wants it for free, despite online ad rates being so miniscule, I think we’re moving to a point where people find they don’t rely on publishing brands any more but rather their collection of friends and contacts they have through social media, which often include people you’ve never met but you know you can trust their judgement on what’s a good read.