Freelance Journalist Interview with Hilary Fennell

Hi Hilary, tell us about your work and where we are most likely to see it?

I currently work as a freelance journalist, documentary maker and communications consultant.

I have had my own weekly lifestyle, interview, and opinion columns in several Irish national newspapers over the years. I have also written on a freelance basis for a number of publications on a variety of topics including arts, travel, health, homes and interiors. At present I write a column called ‘This Much I Know’ for the national Irish Examiner newspaper, where I feature a different high-profile person, or someone who is in the news, each week.

I also have vast broadcast production experience. I have both produced and directed television series and documentary productions, many of which have won international plaudits, from feature-length arts projects to lifestyle series and social commentary, funded by organisations such as RTE, UTV, BBC and the Irish Film Board.

I recently produced a radio documentary for Today FM called ‘Cherish All the Children’, funded by The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, about the pioneering women who set up Ireland’s first organisation for unmarried parents with Mary Robinson, who went on to become President of Ireland. It has also just been nominated as a finalist at The New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards for The World's Best Radio Programs & Promos.

What inspired you to first break into journalism?

I began my career working in television. I had completed an honours law degree at Trinity College Dublin and was studying to be a barrister at The Kings Inns. However, secretly I think I always wanted to work in the media, and, even more secretly still, to write. While I was still a student at the bar I got a job with an independent film and television company – the lectures were in the evening so I was able to work around them during term time – and really never looked back.

After I qualified I worked first as a production assistant, then as a researcher, then as a reporter, presenter, producer and director. At this stage I’ve worked in several independent companies, as well as for the Irish national broadcaster, RTE and, latterly, for myself in both television and radio production. So I’ve seen the broadcast television and radio industry from all angles. I began doing print journalism when I was asked to write a weekly opinion column, and have been writing as a freelancer ever since. 

What changes have you seen in the industry since you began, and what emerging trends have you noticed in the past few years?

Advances in technology, obviously. Nobody makes phone calls any more! I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing as it probably saves time for us all, but it is amazing to think that I can go entire working days without speaking to another human, while communicating with countless people via email.

Other changes are, of course, the downsizing of teams, especially in television. Starting out, I remember going on shoots with a camera person, sound person, producer/ director, production assistant, and presenter. These days one person might be expected to do everything, so you have to be able to multi-skill.

It’s amusing and depressing in equal measures to see that some people now consider Googling as the only necessary form of research. The art of the research interview – finding out information, drawing people out, picking up on nuances, listening, developing empathy – takes time and practice. It’s a craft and there is still a real need for it in much of my work, especially when I’m researching a potential documentary idea, as much of what is published on the web is spin and PR.

What are some of the most memorable pieces you’ve worked on throughout your career?

I will never forget interviewing Bryan Ferry. I was presenting a television arts show for RTE and UTV at the time and all I can remember is thinking what beautiful socks he was wearing – top quality with a really fetching dark blue herringbone pattern – as I was far too star-struck to look him in the eye. Thankfully, it wasn’t live.

I co-produced and co-directed an award-winning film about James Joyce’s 'Ulysses', called ‘Imagining Ulysses’. It is memorable because it was such a challenge to come up with a fitting format for a documentary about such a masterpiece. In the end, we settled on making eighteen separate but interlinked short films, each one relating to one of the eighteen episodes of the book. It was an incredible achievement and I’m still very proud of it.

In general, the articles and programmes are a means of conveying a story, a way of getting the reader or viewer or listener to experience something other than their own version of reality, or perhaps to find out that they are not alone in feeling a particular way. So it always gives me great satisfaction when someone is touched by some of the more intimate pieces I have made, such as ‘Nóirín Ní Riain – Voice at the Edge’ – a portrait of an unusual spiritual singer, and “Hearing Silence’ – a piece about Elizabeth Petcu, a professional musician who is losing her hearing.

What feature, interview or documentary would you love the chance to do?

I’d love to make a feature documentary about Leonard Cohen. I’ve seen every single thing that has been made about him and I still think there is an even better piece yet to be made, by me. But then they do say ‘never meet your idols’. I have a curious mind, which is why I do what I do, so I’m currently developing several ideas for future radio and film documentaries and feature articles.

One of your specialist areas is the arts – do you think enough mainstream media coverage is given to specialist subjects?

I do think that the PR side of things is well catered for with the endless celebrity interviews to promote a new film or book or album. But I’m particularly interested in creative practice and process – basically, the different ways in which people create their work and their reasons for doing so.

There is room for more mainstream coverage on that subject, which does not have to be academic or esoteric, and space also for more debate on arts policy, the value of artistic practice, the role of the artist in society and their contribution to our lives and culture.

You have previously worked as full-time staff on an editorial team. How did it compare to freelancing, and would you ever be tempted to write for one publication exclusively again?

The grass really is always greener. My road to freelancing is a long story but when I last had a ‘nine to five’ I did often dream of the freedom of working from home. Now that I am currently self-employed and freelancing, I sometimes yearn for the structure of a working week, quite apart from that steady pay cheque and paid holidays, of course. I could certainly be tempted by a full-time staff job again.

You are also a short story writer – tell us more about this?

I only began writing fiction in earnest a few years ago. Some of my short fiction has already appeared in anthologies and has been shortlisted for awards including The McLaverty and Fish prizes.

Since January, I’ve been concentrating on completing a final draft of my first novel. It is, without doubt, the single most challenging piece of work I’ve ever done because I have been juggling doing paid work with this time consuming, solitary process – luckily, it is a process which I love. Deadlines work for me so I have given myself a self-imposed deadline of the end of this Summer to finish this draft and start sending the book out, scouting for the best agent I can find.

How can PRs be useful to you, and how and when do you like them to get in touch?

I prefer emails to phone calls, and need as much advance notification about events as possible – the more notice I'm given, the better the chance there is of me being able to cover whatever it is they're contacting me about. Especially with something like my ‘This Much I Know’ column, which can be booked up two to three months in advance. I’d also love to hear from more PR’s from the UK as I’m always looking for high profile people to interview for the column.

I’m very good at replying – one email is almost always sufficient – but I prefer a follow up text if the PR urgently needs a reply from me about their email. I worked as communications director for One Family, one of Ireland’s leading voluntary organisations, and continue to work as a communications consultant for private clients, so I often feel like a poacher turned gamekeeper – when I’m the one pitching and chasing answers from editors and producers – therefore I do realise the importance of a reply. There is nothing worse than a slow ‘no’.

The PR community in Ireland is relatively small, so I have a group of companies and executives that I know quite well now from working together over the years. I never ever get a PR pitching ideas to develop for radio or television – only print – and I’d be happy if they did so.

Do you ever attend press conferences, trips, parties and other events?

If I have time and a particular interest in the event, such as anything to do with the arts and culture and wellbeing – painters, photographers, street artists, dance, performance, the spoken word, written word, film, fashion, music, psychology – I would attend things for the opportunity to network and put PR and editorial faces to names, as much as anything else.

What media do you enjoy in your spare time?

Lots – television, but really only documentary, arts and factual; films – one of my favourite experiences in the whole world is to sit in a darkened cinema as the opening credits roll; books, newspapers, magazines, blogs. I’m always looking for ideas for interesting print and documentary pieces. 

Hilary can be found tweeting @HilaryFennell_

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