The Ten Commandments for the freelance life

Rob Steen finds that determination can count for much when trying to start a career in sports journalism

Ahmer Khokhar and I met a decade ago in the Lord’s press box. I had overheard a young Asian man sitting quietly at the back being harangued by an experienced journalist who had objected to his presence as a “non-journalist”. The reporter in question, while a good friend, should, I felt, have known better than to trample on a young man’s dream, and duly apprised him of this.

First, though, I went over to introduce myself and tell the young man. A recent university graduate, he kept me abreast of his myriad troubles. I have never met anyone more determined. Come 2006, Ahmer was earning a decent living from Melbourne, reporting for a variety of national and regional titles in Britain, India and Australasia. A precarious, hand-to-mouth existence had blossomed into a regular supply of commissions. In pursuing his goal, he has observed the essential unwritten tenets of the freelance.

I could fill another book on this subject alone, but, for now, here are the Alternative Ten Commandments:

1, Don’t go for the obvious angle, or even the second most obvious – the newspaper’s staff correspondents will probably have both covered;
2, Once you have had one article published in a particular newspaper or magazine, and established a working relationship, keep offering more ideas
3, Do not, however, bombard desks with so many ideas that they invite suspicion as to depth of thought or, worse, you are labelled a pest (the tell-tale sign is silence: as somebody, probably Woody Allen, once observed of the movie industry, this is not so much a dog-eat-dog world as dog-doesn’t-return-dog’s calls);
4, Look for niches in which you can specialise, the more the merrier;
5, Recycle and re-angle stories for different markets, always ensuring every client receives something different;
6, Never kick up a fuss when your copy is rewritten – accept and move on;
7, Never, unless you have ethical objections, or the fee is too insignificant or offered by an unreliable source, decline a commission;
8, Always chase payments (which can be notoriously and disgracefully slow), targeting the accounts department or even the managing editor if necessary, but not so forcefully that you anger and alienate – unless, that is, your bank manager absolutely insists;
9, If one door closes, batter down another;
10, Treat rough and smooth with equal mistrust

“I started by interviewing Australian cricketers playing county and league cricket and selling the results to the corresponding regional newspapers in the UK,” relates Ahmer. “It was hard work but proved to be profitable as I was able to write follow-up articles and also season previews and reviews. I suddenly discovered a niche market for my work that nobody knew existed.

“Also, in Australia there are several high-profile former Gaelic footballers at Australian Rules football clubs. In general the Irish broadsheets had very few if any writers in Australia so I started to freelance for the Irish daily and Sunday papers which helped to establish me as an Australian correspondent for both Irish and British regional papers.

“At this stage my focus was purely sport but a reduction in the numbers of Australians in county cricket and a lack of work from British nationals – some of whom still insist on receiving copy on spec – resulted in my expanding into news, politics and business stories.

“I now have regular customers in the form of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English papers who agree – as well they ought – to pay kill fees for unpublished work. Last year [2005] I was also published on a weekly basis in one of Australia’s biggest Sunday papers, the Sun Herald. I discovered there was a huge demand for interviews with Australian cricketers, many of whom knew me from my days of interviewing them for British regional papers.

“It’s been an amazing turnaround when I consider that less than five years ago I was living in Manchester as a frustrated medical sales representative. Despite the difficulties – no holidays for one thing – I have no regrets and I know that I am one of the lucky ones who is doing a job he loves and whose dreams have come true.”

Sports journalism – a matter of degree?

SJA member Rob Steen is a senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. This is an edited version of a chapter from Steen’s forthcoming book, Sports Journalism – A Multimedia Primer, to be published by Routledge in August

One thought on “The Ten Commandments for the freelance life

Comments are closed.