Freelance Alliance Spotlight: Charles Thomson

What freelance services do you offer?

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I'm a freelance writer/reporter, which entails news writing, investigative journalism, feature writing, interviewing, copy writing and comment/opinion pieces. Most of my experience is in music and celebrity journalism but I've also done a fair amount of local/regional news and worked in specialist areas like finance, property and cars.  
 

How long have you been freelancing and what did you do before you became a freelancer?
 
I have been freelancing for around two years but only got serious last spring. Before that I was still studying journalism at university, so just wrote in-between assignments to bolster my portfolio.
 

What triggered your decision to go freelance?

In short, I graduated into the worst recession for 50 years. When I began my degree in 2006 there were jobs advertised at the local paper almost bi-monthly but it's now been around a year since I last saw a position advertised and that was for a receptionist. There are very few graduate jobs in the media at the moment. The main problem that I and many of my classmates have encountered is that every employer demands several years' experience but no employer seems willing to give you those first couple of years. With PAYE jobs so hard to come by, I turned to freelancing. I had some existing contacts from freelance work I did at university so fortunately have been able to earn a crust that way. 
 

Being on your own, are there any difficult gaps to fill, knowledge or skills wise?
 
I was lucky in that my degree was quite vocational - we were taught by working journalists who sent us off to find and write stories all the time. Regular work experience at the local paper also helped me develop my skill set. I understood early on that journalism was a competitive field and that I would need something to put me ahead of other candidates once I graduated, so I used my practical experience to start freelancing before I was even halfway through my degree. So whilst I'm not an expert, I have more experience than most recent graduates. If I do get stuck on anything, I am fortunate enough to have some great friends and mentors - journalists with decades of experience - who can help me out. I'm learning on the job, which most reporters cite as the best education.
 

What were your goals when you started your business? Have they changed? 
 
When I left university my freelance work was just supposed to tide me over until a job came along but it has been almost eight months since I left and there are still very few graduate jobs available in the media, so I'm taking it more seriously now. I've also been more successful than I anticipated, which has inspired me to really make a go of it. My freelance work began almost as a hobby, but my goal is now to make a success of my freelance business by increasing my contacts and my portfolio. 
 

Were there any crisis points early on? Any moments when you wondered if the pressure of making your business a financial success outweighed the benefits of independence?
 
When I first started I had fairly limited contacts so I didn't sell regularly. There were weeks, sometimes several weeks in a row, where I sold nothing at all. It didn't bother me too much as I wasn't taking my freelance work entirely seriously back then. I saw it as just tiding me over until a job came alone. I still get periods with little or no work to do but I'm still young - I don't have a mortgage to pay or a family to feed - so it's not the end of the world if I don't sell anything for a week or two. 
 

What are the best mistakes you've made? (i.e. those you've learned valuable lessons from.)
 
I learnt my most valuable lesson early in my freelancing career, which was never to give away too much info when you first pitch unless you know and trust the organisation you're pitching to. I once pitched a feature to a magazine, who said they loved the idea and they wanted to run with it. I researched, wrote and turned in the article but the magazine emailed me back saying that they no longer wanted the piece as it wasn't quite right for their publication. In the next issue they ran their own version of my proposed feature, written by a staffer. I later spoke to another freelancer who said that the magazine had done the same thing to him on multiple occasions and he'd never work with them again. 
 

What is your most triumphant moment so far? 
 
My most trimphant moment was probably winning my Guardian Award in November.
 
Around one month into my journalism degree I wangled my way into a press conference with James Brown, where he told me about an album he'd been working on. He died shortly afterwards and I began to wonder why the album hadn't been released posthumously. Brown was widely considered to be one 
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of the most, if not the most influential musician of the 20th century. Why was his last ever recording being secreted away somewhere? I thought it had great historical significance. I did some initial research and then contacted a magazine with my pitch - the story of James Brown's final work, lost and gathering dust in an archive somewhere. They told me they were very interested and to keep working on it.
 
I completed all of my interviews - of which there were close to 20, most of which involved lengthy transatlantic phonecalls - and got back to the magazine, who seemed to have lost interest. They said they'd consider the piece but gave me a word count that could never accommodate the story. Moreover, my per-word fee at that word count would barely have covered the phone bill I notched up during my research. I believed in the story and felt that it was more important than the magazine was giving it credit for, so I self-published. When I won the Guardian Award for that article I felt totally vindicated and incredibly relieved that I hadn't compromised my story to suit the magazine.
 

Looking back on your freelancing career now, is there anything that you would do differently?
 
I think I would have started earlier. Back in March I had a big scoop - I received insider info from a member of Michael Jackson's camp, telling me when and where he would be landing when he arrived to announce his O2 concerts. I passed that info to the Sun, who used it to snap exclusive pictures of his arrival. Since then I've been contributing regularly to the Sun as a Jackson expert. If I'd realised that the Sun was interested in the type of Jackson info I've long been privvy too, I would have got in touch with them far sooner. I'd probably be a millionaire by now!
 

What things do you find personally rewarding and satisfying as a  freelancer?

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As a freelancer you are exposed to more variety in your job than you are as a staffer. You can also pick and choose the stories you work on - a privilege you don't really get as a staff reporter. But what I enjoy most is that I can work on smaller projects to tide me over while I put together the pieces I'm really passionate about. For instance, as I worked on my James Brown piece, I was tiding myself over with finance and property work. What's most satisfying to me is seeing the stories that I'm passionate about getting published. 
 

What are the rewards, risks, and trade-offs?
 
The primary risk, particularly if you're not a seasoned or full-time freelancer, is that you simply won't earn enough to live on. It's a competitive market and the media has been hit by the recession just like everybody else. You need to be offering decent stories, but you also need to have successes under your belt and a decent portfolio. The hardest part is establishing yourself. 
 
The other big problem with being a freelancer is that you have to chase payments. I remember writing a piece for one magazine and chasing the payment for months. They kept telling me I'd be paid soon but the cheque never arrived. One day I sent them yet another email and they wrote back saying they only paid by money transfer, so 'if I wanted to get paid' I would have to send them my account details. So the whole time they'd been telling me I'd get paid soon - that was nonsense because they'd never even asked for my details. Why didn't they do that when they first received my invoice? If I hadn't pursued them so relentlessly, there's no doubt in my mind that I would never have been paid for that work.
 
The rewards are freedom, independence and job satisfaction. You also have more time as a freelancer. In his book 'Flat Earth News' Nick Davies talks about the pressures and constraints that staffers have to deal with - how they are robbed of the time they need to fact check properly because they have so many stories to write every day. As a freelancer you work at your own pace so avoid mistakes and you also take some of the heat off of those overworked staffers.
 
The only trade-off I can think of is that once you've turned your work over, you lose control. Whoever is paying you can then do whatever they want with it. There have been a few instances where I have submitted stories - particularly Michael Jackson stories - and by the time they hit news stands they were a lot less accurate and objective than they were when I sent them in. Of course, that can happen to staffers too, you're just less able to argue about it as a freelancer because you don't want to risk losing future work.
 

What have you been working on recently?

I've got mixture of things going on at the moment. In the last week I have helped to track down a married popstar's mistress, been contacted by a music company to write biogs for all of their artists and written several specialist stories in the financial sector. I've got a few pet projects bubbling away in the background too, which I work on in-between other jobs. Those are the projects I'm really excited about, but I can't say much more than that at this stage.

To contact Charles, or to see more of his work, please see his Freelance Alliance profile.

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Feb 10, 2010
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