To work as a freelance journalist, learning to hustle is part of the job
This piece was originally presented orally at Hakaya’s “Lesson Learned” storytelling night in Beirut in November 2018.
When I was 15 years old, I worked at the newsagent’s in the English village I grew up in.
Every Saturday morning, it was my job to stack the newspapers, keep the chocolate bars piled high, and nod and smile at various stories of village gossip — roadworks here, sheep breeding there, that sort of thing.
There, I learnt some basic rules of selling.
If The Guardian was not placed on the top shelf, customers would become confused. If The Times of London wasn’t in the middle, they would become flustered. The Sun had its own special spot to one side. If a paper was out of place, customers would grumble.
That was my first lesson of selling: give people what they want, and present it to them as they expect it to be presented.
Later, I went to work as a part-time assistant in a women’s clothing shop in the city of Cambridge. I had sales targets, which were always higher on Saturdays. I learnt to natter with people whom I had only just met, and to be honest. If a woman didn’t look so brilliant in one dress, I politely said so — and it was my job to find her a better alternative.
That was my second lesson of selling: be a human being — someone that people want to talk to, and to work with.
After university, I got an internship, and then a staff job, at a national newspaper in London. My boss was compassionate and my ideas and energy were welcomed.
But after two years, I was growing frustrated with limited field reporting opportunities, and could no longer see the reason I went into journalism — to tell stories, and to tell people things they don’t know. I realised that purpose would not reappear if I stayed on as a staff journalist at a desk in London.
I decided to go freelance, and in March 2016 I left my comfortable staff job. I was going to have to start selling again — this time to pay the bills.
I would be lying if I said I fell into it. That was another lesson: when working and selling freelance, organisation and planning count for a lot. I had made a very conscious decision to leave my job and start on a different path. I researched freelance journalism avidly online, reading dozens of “dos” and “don’ts” articles on pitching to editors. I used Twitter and Facebook to network, and persuaded a couple of much more experienced foreign correspondents to meet me for a cup of tea. I found out that obtaining insurance and commissions would be less of a headache if I did some hostile environment training, so I spent a wedge of savings on a course. Working as a staff journalist had helped me — it meant I (sort of) knew how newspapers work. I knew that I would not make any friends by phoning editors up to chase pitches.
I had been interested in the Middle East since visiting Syria as a tourist in early 2011. I liked the place. Learning French as part of my undergraduate degree had served me well, so I figured that Arabic might be useful in the Middle East. It helped that I really loved — and still do love — the language. I had visited Lebanon before, and knew I had felt at home in Beirut, so it seemed like a logical choice.
Freelancing was (and still is) really tough. Despite my research, I hadn’t really honed pitching story ideas brilliantly. Some editors were sympathetic. A couple of months into my freelance career, I sent one commissioning editor at a British magazine an unfocused pitch. The topic was Yazidi families who had fled Mount Sinjar in Iraq, only to find themselves in another remote, ill-equipped camp on Mount Olympus in mainland Greece. She asked me to rework the pitch. I did, cutting it down massively in length. She took the idea, and I sold the story. I have been lucky enough to work with numerous such editors, who recognise the stresses of freelancing and that not everyone gets a regular pay cheque or staff benefits.
Other times, stories that I was convinced were compelling just didn’t sell. That left me feeling sad and guilty about interviewees whose time I had taken. One story about a Syrian torture survivor who had gone on to work in a Ben & Jerry’s café in a Swedish theme park was rejected time and time again before I eventually sold it to a willing outlet. It was disheartening, but I knew it was something I was going to have to get used to.
It paid to heed the lesson I had learnt many years before, back in the newsagent’s shop in rural England, on giving people what they wanted in a way they expected it. In the journalism context, that meant knowing the sorts of things that various outlets publish. I read voraciously. I didn’t pitch death and violence stories to lifestyle magazines, or touchy-feely colour pieces as news stories. Giving outlets what they wanted, presented and written as suited them, meant I needed to be quick to adapt. Although I wanted to focus on news and what I call “hard features”, I soon realised that lifestyle sections seemed to have much bigger budgets. If I wanted to eat, I would have to cast my net a little beyond the stories of suffering — that I knew were very real, immediate and important — but which often proved hard to sell.
I relied a lot on the kindness of others. I relied on friends who would transcribe interviews conducted in Arabic into English at knock-down rates, when — as so often happens — publications wouldn’t give me expenses. I relied on the kindness of other reporters, who gave me lifts in their cars back from assignments. I relied on my parents and sisters and friends. It was a lesson I had sadly been expecting: I learned to have little spare cash, and to be constantly checking my banking app to see if late payments had come through.
While I loved my freedom and independence, I was often lonely. From that came another key lesson: sometimes, it takes two to tango. It seemed to become much easier to sell packages to more prominent and/or better-paying outlets when I worked with a photojournalist colleague. She would take the pictures, and I would write. By travelling together, we minimised our costs. It also made the job more fun, and eased the grimmest moments. I once had a near breakdown from exhaustion in a graveyard in Nabatieh, a major city in south Lebanon. My colleague quite literally picked me up off the floor, and got me back into a place where I was fit to report the story we‘d been assigned. Lesson learned: sometimes, to be able to sell and survive, you need help.
I now have regular gigs, and have taken a slight backseat from journalism to complete my MA in Middle East Studies at AUB. But I am still a freelancer, and it is still really tough. But working in this way and — just about — making ends meet has allowed me to discover what I love about this job. I love writing stories and telling them. I also really like the thrill of pitching and selling my work.
Sometimes, I think back to the early lessons I learnt as a shop assistant. I enjoy chatting to people who have experiences different from and greater than my own. I hope I’m kind and polite and warm, where such feelings are due, and firm when and where I need to be. It’s the lesson I learnt: be a human being — one that people want to talk to.