Freelance Journalist Interview with Katherine Baldwin

Hi Katherine, tell us about your work as a freelancer, and where we are most likely to see your work?

I juggle lots of balls and try not to drop any! Or to use a more professional term, I have a portfolio career.

I have written for Psychologies, Red and EasyLiving magazines and I’m waiting for Red to publish another of my first-person pieces. I’ve also written for The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Time and I blog for The Huffington Post, We Are The City, Just Charlee and on my own blog, From Forty With Love.

The topics I’ve written about include personal development, optimism and faith as well as many articles about modern women and the dilemmas we face. In particular, I write pieces that emerge from the research I’m doing for my book, 'The Baby Gap', which is about the challenges facing women of my generation who find themselves approaching their 40s or their 50s, with amazing careers and lovely homes but without partners or children, and who are wondering what to do about it. So I write a lot of articles and blogs on dating and relationships, the biological clock, the options facing women of my age (I’m 43) who think they might still want to be mothers, and so forth. I also write about recovery from addiction and eating disorders, because that is part of my personal journey and I’d like to be able to use my experience to help others avoid similar pitfalls.

Right now, though, I’m doing less freelancing as pitching stories is very time consuming and magazines and newspapers have less and less money to pay for articles. So I juggle writing my book with a range of other assignments: I train journalists; I deliver writing workshops in schools; I speak in schools on self-esteem, body image, eating disorders and addictions; I write personal development classes for The School of Life; I do political analysis; and I write business book reviews. I’ve also just trained as an instructor in a self-awareness/self-esteem building programme called Packtypes and I’m starting to market that to clients. So it’s quite a broad portfolio!

You’ve been a journalist in Mexico and Brazil – what advantages and disadvantages are there of working in the UK compared to other countries?

I would say people in Mexico and Brazil are more open and more willing to talk to journalists, both people on the street and officials. That said, I remember it being incredibly difficult to track down the right people to talk to in Latin America, particularly in government, as there are so many layers and there’s so much bureaucracy. In Latin America, the type of stories you get to cover tend to be more dramatic than in the UK – mass prison breaks, major political scandals, huge crime waves – and that can make life more interesting for a journalist, although it’s not great for the local population.

Reporting from around the world, what differences have you seen in the journalism industry globally, especially in regards to freedom of press?

I guess there is censorship of sorts everywhere. In the UK, where there is a great deal of freedom of press, reporting biases still exist, depending on which newspaper is publishing the story.

In other parts of the world, I think things have changed a great deal. It was 12 years ago when I left Brazil to come back to the UK so when I was living in Latin America, there were less press freedoms than there are now. Still, corruption remains rife in some countries and it is difficult for journalists to publish the truth. In places like Mexico, you’ve also got the challenge of drug cartels and other criminal gangs that can make a journalist’s life very dangerous.

You’ve covered some of the most prominent natural disasters and terrorist attacks of recent years – what role do you think journalism has to play in the aftermath of these tragedies?

Our role is to get the word out. Without journalists to send the news back home, nobody would know the scope of the disaster or tragedy, how many people needed to be rescued and what kind of aid they needed. Journalism can help raise thousands of pounds for the victims of natural disasters – we write the stories, people at home are prompted to donate, and the aid agencies move into action. Journalists can also help keep a disaster in the global spotlight for a long time.

That said, it’s also the role of journalists to make sure victims aren’t forgotten when the news cameras move on to the next big story, which they inevitably do, and very soon. We need to do good follow-up.

Having worked in journalism for the past nineteen years, what are the most prominent changes you have seen in the industry?

Social media and the rise of citizen journalism. Years ago, you needed qualifications and lots of training before you were let loose on a story. Today, anyone can blog, tweet or send a photo via Instagram or Facebook from a disaster zone or news event. We are all journalists and technology has developed to allow everyone to write, film, or take photographs for little investment.

On the one hand, this is an amazing development, making the whole process so much more democratic. On the other hand, standards can fall and too many rumours and untruths end up being published, with consequences. The internet also means that it’s becoming hard to earn a good living as a freelance journalist these days as there’s so much competition and the media has less money – you have to be very creative.

Take us through some of the most memorable pieces you have worked on?

I have strong memories of a mass prison riot in Brazil. Tens of thousands of inmates in prisons across the country staged a coordinated riot, prompting guards to shoot and kill some of them. I went to Carandiru, a notorious prison in Sao Paulo, and stood for hours outside talking to the girlfriends, wives, and sisters of the inmates who had no idea if their loved ones had died or survived. I met a woman who’d found out her husband had been shot by hearing his name on the radio, but couldn’t get any information from the officials for days. It was really moving. These women had very little and had travelled a long way.

Once the situation had calmed down, I saw how women were renting bras and flip-flops and conservative clothing so they could go into the prison to visit their loved ones – they needed to cover up and get rid of their stilettos and many didn’t have suitable attire. There was a whole marketplace outside the prison dedicated to these clothing stalls and I did a great story based on that.

Covering the Asian tsunami from Sri Lanka was also a moving, memorable time. I particularly remember a scene where people were burning bodies on a bonfire because they didn’t know what else to do with them. I saw so much destruction and devastation there – it was difficult to take in. But it was also an adventure, travelling across the country with a photographer, driving up and down the coast, taking a ride in an open-sided helicopter.

Reporting on the London terrorist attacks also sticks in my mind – I’d covered so many dramatic news events in other countries but never at home. I remember darting all over London on my Vespa as the police tried to track down possible suspects. It was one of those events that had the adrenalin running for days on end.

You’ve worked for some prominent news titles – is there a magazine, newspaper or website you haven’t worked for that you would like to?

I guess I’d love to write for The New York Times but that’s probably my ego talking. I’m not sure whether the name of the newspaper or magazine really matters. It’s more about the kind of stories I want to write. I’d like to write articles that make a difference and these days the stories I am most drawn to are ones of personal transformation, for example, people coming out of addiction, finding hope and turning their lives around.

What piece would you jump at the chance to do?  

My dream, I guess, would be to have a regular column to write about my own personal transformation, which is ongoing and will be for many years, as well as about the dilemmas facing women and men today in terms of relationships, fulfillment, and so forth. I’m fascinated by people and how we change, don’t change, and interact with each other.

You are writing a book – 'The Baby Gap'. Was this the next logical step from your freelance work, and was it difficult transitioning from feature to book writing?

The idea for 'The Baby Gap' came out of my own experience, which I began to capture on my blog From Forty With Love. I’d turned 40, I had an amazing career, a home in London, tonnes of friends, but it felt like something was missing – not so much the baby, but a partner, family, love, I guess. And I was surrounded by women in a similar position. My friends all had great careers and their own homes but many were single, were wondering if they’d left it too late for motherhood and were trying to work out what to do about it.

One of my blog posts was spotted by a newspaper writer and The Daily Mail commissioned me to write a feature. I found I was fascinated by this topic and wanted to write more about it, but the transition to book writing has been hard. At first, it all seemed to flow; I got an agent quite quickly, but then we were rejected by 14 publishers. It was hard to keep up the momentum. But I’m back writing and am talking to agents and publishers again, although I might broaden the focus of the book a little to encompass more about relationships and the dilemmas facing men.

Tell us more about the journalist training work you do?

I train journalists for the Thomson Reuters Foundation around the world. I’ve trained in Brazil and Mozambique (in Portuguese – I speak Portuguese and Spanish) and I’ve trained in the UK and the US. These courses teach journalists from developing countries to become better reporters and to cover specific topics like politics, natural disasters, or finance. They’re really rewarding to teach. I’ve also lectured at City University on covering natural disasters and emergencies and I’ve taught writing workshops in secondary schools.

Do you ever attend press conferences, trips, parties and other events, or can you do most things remotely these days?

These days, not so much but I do go to networking events with other journalists or people who are connected to the issues I’m writing about. I work from a studio with other creatives so that gets me out the house every day.

A lot of your recent work covers women’s wellbeing issues, and topics such as body image and eating disorders. Do you think enough coverage is given to these subjects by the mainstream press?

There is a lot of coverage of these issues in the press but I’m not sure it’s always the right kind of coverage. I think we could write more about the root causes of eating disorders, which can include childhood trauma, neglect, control issues, low self-esteem and so forth, rather than focus on a woman’s weight. In my experience, it’s not about the weight or the food. It’s about what’s going on underneath. And the same goes for all other addictions. I’d like to see more written about why so many people today struggle with these issues and how we can change our attitude to our lives, to ourselves, and to each other to find some peace and freedom from our unhelpful behavioural patterns.

Katherine can be followed on Twitter @From40WithLove, and her work can be viewed here.

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