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Freelance Journalist Interview with Sarah Drew Jones

"I humbly accept the criticism often thrown at lifestyle journalists that we deal in fluff and none of us goes home safe in the knowledge that today we helped save the world," says freelancer Sarah Drew Jones. But what fantastic fluff to deal in, as we hear about diving into 100 years' worth of archive pics and getting to fan-girl all over Rik Mayall in person…

Hi there Sarah! Give us a quick overview of all the work you do as a freelancer – what publications do you work on regularly, and which subjects do you write about?

I’m a journalist and editor specialising in lifestyle content: fashion, beauty, health, travel, food, home and interiors, etc. I have more than 20 years of experience and my credits include The Guardian, BBC, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Press Association, Mother & Baby, Western Mail, Spa Secrets, Homes & Interiors, What’s On, Perfect Living, Health & Fitness, and more. I’ve edited several regional glossies, including Sussex Style, Ladies First, WM and Style Birmingham, as well as customer titles for the likes of BT and Harvey Nichols.

You’ve just finished up work on another edition of Woman’s World, the Women’s Institute annual – as 2015 is the WI’s centenary anniversary, was putting the issue together particularly stressful, or more fun? What are the main challenges with the job?

There are far worse employers than the lovely WI, that’s for sure! Editing the Woman’s World annual takes about a third of my year and is a huge amount of work. It’s full of lengthy in-depth features which is a nice change of pace from the usual magazine mix of flick-through round-ups, real-life stories, product pages, and NIBs.

This year’s is a special commemorative issue to mark the WI’s centenary and that brought a few extra challenges (100 years of archive pics, without a pic editor? *sigh*). I wanted some involvement from the Royal Family, as so many of its women have been WI supporters and members over the decades. Cue six months of dealing with Buckingham Palace for a foreword by HRH The Countess of Wessex and some comments from HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Worth it in the end, and the team there was very helpful, but a rather frustrating process for a journalist whose patience has been worn away by the ‘now, now, now’ culture of media.

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done in your career in journalism?

I humbly accept the criticism often thrown at lifestyle journalists that we deal in fluff and none of us goes home safe in the knowledge that today we helped save the world. I don’t write campaigning pieces or political comment often – though I have a politics degree and can pick out Dave Cameron in a line-up – but I’ve done plenty of memorable interviews with famous names over the years. I love to do a face-to-face interview. Reading the subject’s body language informs your questioning, because you can tell if they’re lying, when there’s more backstory to be shared, and crucially if there’s something they’re really aching to get off their chest.

Personal favourites? David Beckham (disarmingly handsome), Catherine Zeta-Jones (surprisingly normal), Joanna Lumley (a masterclass in charm) and the late Rik Mayall (who met my fan-girl request for a few Lord Flashheart lines with inordinate good grace). Interviewing designers backstage at both New York and London Fashion Weeks sticks in the memory, too.

Having my own weekly column in the Western Mail, national newspaper of Wales, was a great platform to write everything from feminist critiques to silly celeb takedowns, and I’ve had some fun times reviewing the week’s events and commenting on trends on BBC radio as well.

Tell us a bit about Malthus Media – do you think it’s a good idea for freelancers to start up their own company/to create their own brand? Does it help with getting clients?

It’s the best way to fully showcase what you can do. Malthus Media is an editorial agency and reflects the fact that I offer quite a wide range of skills and services, from content provision to ghost-writing, training, launching new titles, corporate copywriting, blogging and newsletters, and social media campaigns. I’m primarily an editor, so a lot of my work is driving whole projects and that’s when Malthus Media works best as a collective, sub-contracting to trusted photogs, subs, designers and freelance writers.

Do you have a base of people you work with frequently, established relationships, or do you also still do a lot of pitching to new publications and editors?

I’m lazy about pitching, and am constantly in awe of my fellow freelancers who react to daily news pegs or mine their own life for feature ideas. Though I can do that, of course, I prefer establishing relationships and working on long-term projects, such as section-editing, producing a digital edition, or writing a corporate blog. Full disclosure: this is also because I am a control freak.

My 2015 career resolution is to do more corporate work, so I’m currently in the process of pitching to agencies. You can’t work in magazines for 20 years without developing a sharp visual sense and I like the aesthetics of the page and product curation (I used to edit a customer magazine for Harvey Nichols). I would love to work on the John Lewis or Marks & Spencer customer titles (are you reading this, Redwood? Call me).

How did you build up contacts in the industry as a freelancer? What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out?

Twitter’s great for media networking, reaching PRs and making direct approaches for quotes, interviews, etc. I’d counsel against ranting, arguing, and the airing of very strong opinions on there (run a separate personal account under a different name if you want to vent) and link to your own work as much as possible. Promote, promote, promote. I’m yet to see the point of LinkedIn, but JournoBiz is essential for freelancers.

Advice for someone starting out? Don’t assume that a blog is the only answer. And though training is thin on the ground these days, learn the basics, maintain writing standards (I know, I sound 103) and make an effort to keep up with media law because it’s rapidly changing. That stuff matters.

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

As a lifelong magazine geek, I love Vanity Fair for its balance, beauty and carefully-crafted longform features on subjects as diverse as they are fascinating. The quality of the writing shines through and words are given room to breathe. I’m grateful that this approach still exists in the age of micro-content and dwindling attention spans. So, I’d love to write one of its 9,000 word investigative pieces. Hopefully editor Graydon Carter would be kind enough to give me about two years to deliver it, though…

Working with PR people, do you often use press releases as inspiration for the articles/pieces you write? Are there better ways for PR people to connect and work with you?

Like most journalists, I have a love/hate relationship with PR. I write a lot of beauty and the PRs in that world tend to be focused and accommodating, which is exactly what I’m looking for: as a rule, I’m not keen on vagueness in PRs. I like to list what I need and have them commit to helping me by a concrete deadline.

Press releases as inspiration? Almost never. Most get deleted straight away  while I weep silently, shout or contemplate throwing something  because the subject line makes no sense, the first paragraph fails to explain or sell the idea, or there are grammatical mistakes. Attaching 273 logos and low-res pics and who knows what else doesn’t help their case either. Conveying a relevant, original, sparky idea in a succinct way is everything.

Of course, there are plenty of amazing PRs, and in lifestyle journalism I’d be lost without them. But why would professional writers want to work with someone who is a stranger to the correct use of an apostrophe? We’re annoying that way.

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?

I don’t have a Kindle because I stare at a screen all day and want to hold a book when I’m reading at night, so there’s always a stack of paperbacks by my bed. I binge-buy from Amazon in what I laughingly call my lunch break. Currently I’m enjoying 'Bittersweet' by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. It’s a novel set in Vermont: I was there last Autumn and stumbled across a book signing by the author.

I love CNN and The Independent on Twitter, Martha Stewart’s blog for New England lifestyle porn and Bobbi Brown’s blog, obviously for beauty but for all manner of other lifestyle stuff without any Goop-esque madness (sorry, Paltrow). I buy a lot of Sunday papers and read the supplements through the week, too. Told you I was a magazine geek. Tragic.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sdj19.

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