Freelance Journalist Interview with George Demetri
Today we talk to George Demetri – former editor of World Tunnelling/Trenchless World magazine turned construction freelancer. He tells us about about the flexibility of freelance, benefits of work trips and Pyongyang's Metro system.
About your journalism
So, you’ve been the editor for World Tunnelling/Trenchless World until recently – what did that entail?
As a one-man band, I covered the usual mix of duties including planning, commissioning, writing and researching news, features, interviews, proofing, writing electronic newsletters, uploading web assets, as well as organising and chairing industry round tables, representing the magazine at conferences abroad, and going on site visits – primarily to ongoing tunnel projects, globally. The role often demanded unpaid, out-of-hours working – it goes with the territory. This is publishing, after all.
In your previous work as a freelance what did you write about?
Construction, generally, for a host of UK construction industry B2Bs, including titles such as Architects Journal Focus and Contract Journal. I also wrote for Brick Bulletin – don't laugh, it isn't funny, and it wasn't a magazine about bricks, either. It was more to alert architects to the contemporary design possibilities that can be achieved with brickwork.
The other 50% of my freelance work involved writing technical articles for PR firms, which was a useful way to supplement one's income. Some journalists pooh-pooh the idea, I have no problem with it and it is usually quite well-paid.
What subjects will you be looking to cover now you are going freelance again?
Primarily all aspects relating to underground construction, including large-bore tunnelling and trenchless sectors, as well as general construction.
What is the most memorable work you’ve done?
Around three years ago, a Swedish manufacturer of drilling equipment asked me to cover the construction of a hydro-electric power installation inside a Swiss mountain. The project and its logistical challenges were awe-inspiring: a special cable car was used to haul men and machines (including 36ft drill rigs) up through 1,000m to 20 different job sites. One of these involved a new water tunnel being excavated by a tunnel boring machine (TBM) on a steep 45º incline. Seeing this outstanding, inspirational project made writing the article a joy – to have attempted to write it purely through research and emails would have been a poor substitute.
How have you found the transition from freelance to editor, then back again?
As a freelance, you are your own master and must develop the discipline which is vital to prevent you floundering. Chasing nearly every piece of work can be daunting, which is why an in-house position can seem initially like a godsend. But it can also be tremendously pressurised and exacerbated by office politics. The relative stress-free nature of being a freelance and the associated flexibility are huge benefits.
What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
A feature on Pyongyang's Metro and construction there, generally. Although the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has a strict policy concerning journalists, I applied a few years ago through a travel company to visit the country, not thinking for a moment I'd be allowed in. The response came back: entry was granted as “The DPRK does not regard your magazine as a threat". I was elated and crestfallen in equal measure. Unfortunately, for numerous reasons, I never made the trip.
About you and PRs
Does the amount of work you do with PRs differentiate between your respective roles as an editor and freelancer?
You tend to use PRs less as a freelancer I have found, but if you are an editor, they can be invaluable when they provide copy that is well-written, concise and authoritative. Of course, sometimes all you get is an advertorial but most PR agencies can supply well-written, quasi-generic material.
How can PRs be useful to you?
By providing timely, well-written, concise and technically correct information that is without hyperbole and waffle. I tend to reach for the razor blades when I read: “We are delighted that we opted to use product/company X which has made a real difference to this project, allowing us to complete on-time and on budget. The supplier showed true professionalism and we will have no hesitation in using this product/company again. What is more, the client is also delighted.” Ugh.
How and when do you like them to get in touch?
When they need to, as long as there is a valid reason for them doing so and it helps with the work in hand.
Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
Are you kidding? Over the past seven years, I have done some serious globe-trotting for my work. All the trips raised the magazine's profile and were useful educationally and therefore editorially but, just as important, they greatly enhanced my role.
How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I have enjoyed photography ever since being given a camera when I was seven, so I guess I'd be an architectural/construction photographer. Funnily enough, for a leaving present my colleagues at Aspermont Media bought me a build-it-yourself SLR camera, which I am looking forward to making and using.
If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
On a trip to North Korea; failing that, I'd buy an Amtrak ticket from New York to Seattle, stopping on the way in Detroit – I am a huge Motown fan and eager to see and photograph the so-called urban decay of 'Motor City', hoping to grab some black and white shots along the way.
Do you tweet? Why, why not?
No, I never seem to get round to it. And anyway, who'd want to read it?
What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I am currently reading the intriguing 'The Assassination of Robert Maxwell' by Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon. I also have on the go Giles Milton's excellent 'Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 – The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance'. While in my rucksack, you will always find the latest Amateur Photographer (the only mag I subscribe to), and Time Out London, all the better now that it is free.
George can be reached by email at email@example.com.