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Get it in writing....and always ask for more

Nick McGowan-Lowe at the NUJ freelance conference  -  © Mark Thomas

25 January 2016

 Ask for more.

This simple message on Nick McGowan-Lowe’s slide was a pithy but important piece of advice to freelance journalists and photographers. With “get it in writing” and “don’t work for nothing”, “asking for more” is one of the essential rules when negotiating payment for work.

His presentation was aimed at staff photographers who are now, not necessarily from choice, self-employed. However, it contained plenty of crucial advice and tips for anyone starting out in freelancing or seasoned operators dealing with their clients.

The NUJ’s conference, Boost your income and maximise your professional profile, was part of the union’s Union Learning Fund project. Changes in the media market have led to an increase in the numbers freelancing and also the type of work available.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, opened the event, saying the trend was evident in the proportion of new union members who are freelances. While about a third of the union is freelance, 42 per cent of the most recent entrants are from the sector. She said:

“Being a freelance today often involves creating a portfolio career; as well as writing, editing and broadcasting, today’s freelance journalists and photographers are likely to be also working in PR, as a consultant and in training. The growth of social media requires journalists to keep in touch with the latest technology and new ways to reach audiences and clients.
“Today’s event is a practical day and I hope you will all go home having learned new skills and a few more strings to add to your journalist’s bow.”

There were almost 100 attending and they divided into groups for three workshop sessions.

Nick McGowan-Lowe, chair of the NUJ’s Freelance Industrial Council, is a Scotland-based editorial and commercial photographer specialising in corporate photography. His session covered organising commissions: getting everything in writing and agreeing the brief; the deadline, terms and conditions and usage.

He also covered finances; being freelance means being self-employed, having to control budgets, keep abreast of payments and filling in tax returns. His main message was: “Know your worth.” If you are professional and have expert skills, they must not be given away cheaply.

Paul Sterritt has been a newspaper photographer for more than 40 years and was on the staff of the Bolton News until Newsquest had one of its regular culls. He is now freelancing on local papers and is in the second year of a BA in photography at the University of Central Lancashire.  He said:

“I’ve been in photography forever and I’ve been an NUJ member forever. I’m self-taught and received no training from my employers. I now intend to be an educator and give others the benefit of my expertise. I am taking the course because I want to be sure I am teaching to industry standards.
“Nick’s workshop was enormously helpful; I learned something new and useful on every slide. It was great to be able to pick his brains. Unlike my course, I was getting practical advice from someone who is out there in the present field.”

Chris Coneybeer is a journalist and film maker. He has worked for the BBC as a television reporter, mainly with the regional news programme South Today.  He now freelances and teaches broadcast journalism skills to students at Winchester and Bournemouth universities.

For many of those attending, when they left journalism college the only kit they needed was a pencil and notepad or a camera. Today, making videos is increasingly an essential skill, either to add to a package on the website or for promoting the journalist’s profile and work. His taster course gave tips on how to get good shots, how to tell a story and the use of apps, such as the live streaming app Periscope.

hayley cook freelance conference
Hayley Cook 

Hayley Cook used to be a print journalist working on the Sunday Post. She left journalism, has had a family and now works for the Big Lottery Fund. She said:

“I am hoping to get back into journalism, but things have changed so much while I have been away. There are so many media platforms. I wanted to learn to use video. Chris’s workshop gave me the basic details and has encouraged me to take it further.”

Hayley is fairly media-savvy. She has her own blog singlescottishmama and writes about life with her three children, current affairs and her latest attempts to lose weight – completely winging it on a daily basis is how she describes it. Hayley is active on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, but she wanted to know how to use them to drive traffic to her blog.

For this, Janet Awe’s workshop on how to maximise your profile on social media, was perfect. Janet, head of Awesome Communications, is a PR and marketing professional with more than 20 years' experience working in the fashion and music businesses, print and broadcast media, the public sector and charities.

janet awe freelance conference
Janet Awe on maximising your profile

She took the class through the range of apps and media sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tweetdeck, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+, Vine and Pinterest. She showed how they could be used to maximise a professional profile and organise ideas and pitches; one of the most intriguing slides was “social media explained through wine”.

Louise Bolotin, an experienced freelance journalist, runs the NUJ’s Pitch and Deal course. To demonstrate the art of negotiation she used a clip of Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. Research, she said, is very important: a features editor will not be impressed if you try to flog an idea that appeared in the last edition.

Hina Pandya’s  Freelancing in recession or media crisis workshop covered similar ground. She discussed pitching to the void, the art of persistence and selling your work multiple times, for example to the foreign media.

This was just the sort of advice Valma James was hoping for. She is a nurse and social worker and presents a show on a UK radio station. Her ambition is to write about health policy and she is particularly interested in starting a newsletter and magazine to promote community self-help. She said:

“The workshops were excellent. They really gave me more confidence about how to go about getting commissions and negotiate. I have always been a bit scared about using social media, but now I realise its value and how I can use it to promote my knowledge so I can help others.”

freelance conference
The PR option 

Mark Whitehead runs his own PR operation following a career in local and national newspaper and magazine journalism. His workshop was about adding PR skills to a freelance portfolio and he explained how journalist skills could be used in media relations and to produce publicity materials. He said:

“Content is king. Many organisations need good writers and you can sell your skills as editorial experts.”

His workshop also included ethics; how to wear both journalist and PR hats. The NUJ’s PR flier has some useful tips.

After the workshops, John Toner, NUJ freelance organiser, told some cautionary tales from the freelance office. He said that apart from advice on sorting out divorces and marrying Kylie Minogue, the freelance team managed to help with most of queries they received. Common problems include copyright issues and late payments. “My advice,” he said is “if someone is not paying you, stop working for them. Don’t let it drag on…and get everything in writing.”

freelance conference
The expert panel                                  

The conference ended with Tim Dawson, NUJ vice-president, chairing a lively Q&A session with the experts’ panel. He used his experience as a former commissioning editor to give tips on how to sell stories to busy editors and joined the discussion on how to monetise blogs, what to do if a commissioning editor nicks your story, how to be interesting but not too interesting on Twitter and what to when asked to do work for nothing – answer, never to do it.

The NUJ runs a range of professional courses to help freelances with their careers and puts on a range of events. The London Freelance branch is showing a screening of Still the enemy within on Monday 1 February and the Guardian's star cartoonist, Steve Bell, will be addressing the branch meeting on Monday 8 February.

anna lukaka freelance conference
Anna Lukala

Anna Lukala said it had been an inspiring day. She is a photographer and was laid off by Newsquest just before Christmas. She said:

“It was horrendous. I am just starting to get work and this event has really helped my confidence and made me appreciate the skills and experience I have; plus I have come away with a lot of ideas and feel a lot more positive.”

It was good to see members making good use of their social media skills after the event: "Thanks to everyone who gave their time and energy into making NUJ Freelance Conf @NUJofficial such a worthwhile event today!" tweeted  @PeterRealf and  @KaterKalo  added: "NUJ conference on freelancing. Such a great day."

All photographs © Mark ThomasI find more than 10 ways to expand the career as freelance journalists! Thank you @hinapublish I find more than 10 ways to expand the career as freelance journalists! Thank you @hinapublish

Tags: , freelance, event, training, pr, video, finances, Nick McGowan-Lowe, john toner, Chris Coneybeer, Louise Bolotin, Hina Pandya, Mark Whitehead, Tim Dawson, pitch and deal, ulf