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Freelance Journalist Interview with Sam Campbell

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

You are most likely to see my stuff at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), although that is behind a paywall. My work has also featured in a wide range of other publications, including The Guardian and GlobalPost, and I have produced lots of web and ad copy that doesn’t bear my name. I have also penned art reviews and pieces on youth culture (usually under pseudonyms). 

What inspired you to first break into journalism?

Mainly frustration with the lack of creativity in other work. Good journalism can really make a difference so there can be great job satisfaction.

You’ve worked as journalist in Southeast Asia and Cambodia – what differences are there from reporting in these areas as opposed to the UK?

Southeast Asia is developing rapidly and there are many interesting stories associated with these growing pains. Culturally, the region is diverse yet still values many comparatively ancient traditions. That combination – or sometimes collision – of the modern with old ways is fascinating, yet it can cause challenges. Direct questioning or criticism can be poorly received in hierarchical societies where much value is placed on ‘face’. An authoritarian government can further complicate matters. A considered, careful approach is needed, although this, for me, has fed back positively into my work here in the UK.

Your work has covered issues such as human rights abuses and the environment, do you think these topics are given proportionate coverage in the mainstream news?

I think these topics receive a good amount of coverage here in the UK, although sometimes the full story requires a wider perspective. It’s easy to blame factory owners when workers go on strike, for example, but thorough investigation might reveal that these owners themselves are subject to their own pressures. Analysis of the social and economic forces at play always aids understanding – in this area I think current coverage can be lacking.

What‘s the most memorable, or challenging, work you have done?

Different commissions are challenging in different ways. A GlobalPost investigation into the clandestine safrole oil industry sticks in my mind. Sometimes corporate work can difficult with executives pushed for time. And writing copy for an unfinished ‘five-star’ hotel’s website was far from straightforward – the place was barely even a building site.

What feature or interview would you jump at the chance to do?

I would really like to do more lifestyle and culture work but it is so competitive in the UK (and there is a fair bit of nepotism). I started out writing on esoteric culture – like tattoos believed to confer ‘magical’ protective qualities – although I soon found that I would have to diversify to ensure a viable career. I have also penned art reviews and pieces on youth culture – it would be great to get back to that. I still have an excellent feature on the world famous Durian of Kampot if anyone is interested!

You have worked full-time on editorial teams before – what are the advantages and disadvantages of this as opposed to working freelance?

Most freelancers will agree that uncertainty can be a big source of stress. Famine often alternates with feast; a slew of too many commissions following a slow period. However, while full-time editorial offers greater security, freelance work allows greater opportunity to follow your own passions. I think that my current mix offers the best of both worlds.

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

Press releases can be useful but the line between helpful and annoying is easily crossed. ‘Blanket bombing’ with irrelevant material or pestering is not likely to result in coverage. A clear, short email with links or attachments for detail is best.

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

Mostly remotely. Whereas meeting face-to-face used to be a key part of the commissioning process, I now often find myself dealing with people I have never met. Still, invites are always nice, as are speeches and slides following an event.

What media do you enjoy in your spare time (TV shows, box sets, films, books, mags, etc.?)

I recently read Phillip Short’s biography of Mao, which was extremely well-written. His book on Pol Pot was also very good. I return again and again to Gottesman’s 'Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge' – I think it remains the most informative work for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Cambodia. As regards film, I always have time to watch 'Barry Lyndon' again, although after a long day I may instead veg out in front of an old Kung Fu film (Sammo Hung and Lam Ching Ying are always good).