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Freelance journalist interview – Samantha Lyster

Samantha Lyster has been an online editor at The Times, and is now a freelancer covering a broad range of topics for business and trade magazines including The Grocer and Professional Manager. In today’s interview she talks us through her career in journalism as well as her breadth of work and experience in other areas.

About your journalism:

What do you write about?
At The Times, where I was an online editor, I wrote mainly lifestyle features including travel articles, food & drink and fashion, along with comment pieces on education and social issues. I then took voluntary redundancy and embarked on a series of travel adventures around the world. Since returning from my travels I have freelanced mainly for business and trade magazines. I write about the food and drink industry for The Grocer, work psychology for Professional Manager and I have edited client magazines for River Publishing.

Where are we likely to see your work?
Currently, in business and trade magazines such as The Grocer. As The Times website is now behind a paywall all my archive is locked away, unless you are a subscriber! When I left The Times in 2010 I also took a break from journalism in order to concentrate on voluntary work projects including developing the marketing strategies and PR for eco-tourism resorts in Thailand and Australia. So now I am back building up my freelance journalism.

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
I was in New Jersey visiting family when the 9/11 attacks took place and so covered the events for the paper I was working for at the time, The Birmingham Post. It was one of the biggest stories I was involved with but also incredibly terrifying as there was so much misinformation at the time that we thought the whole of New York had been invaded. We had to fly back two days later and everyone on my plane was a nervous wreck. The airhostesses had to calm several passengers down with brandy.

I loved the travel articles I wrote for The Times website, including reporting on the nightlife of Rio, writing about performing stand-up comedy in California and wandering around Devon in a camper van with sticky gears that caused my friend Simon to develop temporary tourettes.

I’m also particularly proud of the video content I created for The Times website, including the series Being Bond in which we took Times writer and columnist Hugo Rifkind and put him through a Bond re-vamp. Unfortunately when the website changed systems a lot of brilliant footage was not moved over. However, one of the groups involved in the series kept a copy so part of it is on the web.

My main role at The Times website involved creating editorial content for one-off sites that celebrated a particular event or were in partnership with a commercial client. One of my favourite sites was for Courvoisier as we asked fantastic writers, including the gorgeous Amy Lame, to look for the alternative side to nights out resulting in some great features. It was a lovely opportunity to commission excellent photography and the whole package worked beautifully.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
The travel feature I really want to do is to re-create the trip across Ireland my parents took the year before I was born. They drove from Dublin to Galway stopping off at various places and I have these fantastic photographs of my parents and my older sister in their 1970s finest posing next to farm gates and climbing up hills in flares! It’s particularly poignant because although my parents were both born in Dublin they left at an early age to come to the UK and they saw more of this country than their own. It was the first time they were in a position to explore their homeland.

I also feel that now, more than ever, we need more uplifting features in the British press. There are so many fantastic people in this country doing amazing things to help people and keep people going and yet all I read in magazines and newspapers is that we’re all going to hell in a handcart. I want to interview inspiring people, not celebrities, but ordinary people who are making a difference.

About you and PRs:

Where do you source ideas for articles?
I find that ideas for features often come out of other work that I’m involved with. Although journalism is my main skill, I also work with various organizations and charities such as Transition Towns and Empowerment at Work. I write a blog that details the different projects I’m involved with ( and it’s through connecting with different groups that I get ideas. I also travel a lot and pick up ideas during my trips. However, if a PR has a great idea they want to run past me then I’m happy to hear from people. The only issue is that often the idea has been run past other journalists too and so is not an exclusive that you can sell into a publication.

How can PRs be useful to you?
I’ve always found good PR people to be invaluable; they make your working life a lot easier by providing information or interviewees so you can get on with the business of writing. Working freelance, the quicker you can get the feature completed the better as this frees you up to chase or take on more work. In order to do that, and still produce a quality article, having someone assist you in finding the right person to interview or getting data for you is really useful.

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
I always use ResponseSource when I need help with an article. I prefer to use email, as it is quicker and easier to connect with PRs. I will then follow-up with a phone call if they have information or a client I can use. I’m always happy to get relevant press releases, as you never know what they might spark.

Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
I think it is better to be given the option to attend a trip, party or event, as you never know how useful it might be. If I don’t think it will be of use to either the PR or myself then I can always decline. The fact is that this business is all about networking and creating opportunities. As long as they come in by email you can always hit the delete button, so I never see them as an interruption.

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
I would say that if you cannot deliver something, just tell me rather than ignore emails. I’ve had this a couple of times where there’s an opportunity for a PR to get their client publicity but for whatever reason they have not come back to me. I completely understand if the client is not up for it or is not available but do tell me. Also, I have had PRs get in touch with only half a story. The basic details are there but whether because they are too busy or just do not have specialist knowledge; I have then had to do extra research to piece together or check facts on the information they offered me.

About you:

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
As a comedy writer, I’ve already written and performed stand-up under the stage name Kitty Kavanagh, which I chose while working for The Times and wanting to put a distance between what I did there and the comedy. I already have a commission for a ten-minute monologue. However, at the moment that work is just coming in so I’m building-up different revenue streams to help fund it.

I don’t think anyone these days can rely on just one form of work, and so I have been steadily building on my experience at The Times where, as part of my role, I created editorial campaigns for clients. I have been working on project management for various organizations. I have a great gift for connecting people and this has resulted in several projects getting off the ground, including one between Transition Town Pimlico and Tate Britain. I have been writing a lot about experiential marketing and this is an area I want to move into. Not just writing about it but coming up with the ideas and managing them into reality.

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
On a trip to Canada to visit the friends I made on my last lot of travels. I am very fortunate and very blessed to have seen a lot of the world but my next big trip will be to Canada, I especially want to go to Montreal for the comedy festival.

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I still love Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and often re-read them. The two books vying for my attention at the moment are Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities and Haruki Maurakami’s Norwegian Wood. Of course I’m trying to write my own book, based on the blog I kept while traveling and performing comedy under a stage name, so I’m not reading as much as I normally do.

As for magazines, Time, The Week and The Economist for keeping my knowledge of current affairs up to date and Vogue because it doesn’t tell you how to be fabulous, it just assumes you are.

As for blogs, I like the European Commission one that corrects ‘mistakes’ by the British press ( I think it’s important, especially in light of the hacking situation that an organisation other than the British Press Complaints is looking over the world of journalism.

On a lighter note, I love Catherine Quinn’s food explorer.

Also, love Mildly Bitter’s blog but this is because we share a passion for the comic Daniel Kitson:

[lnk||_blank|Contact Samantha Lyster on the JournalistDirectory]
[lnk||_blank|Samantha Lyster’s website]
[lnk||_blank|Kitty Kavanagh]
[img|jpg|Freelance journalist Samantha Lyster]