The second part of our exclusive interview with the Foreign Manager of the Daily Telegraph, Paul Hill…
Freelancers looking to get their work published in papers like the Telegraph must also consider existing coverage, page space and relevance, Paul says.
“We’ve only got about three foreign pages. Out of the 60 stringers we’ve got, plus a dozen staff, plus all the wires, we’ve got pretty good existing coverage!”
That doesn’t put off the pretenders though.
“We’ve got an awful lot of wannabe stringers on file,” Paul continues. “We have people asking where they can be our stringers and where the holes in our coverage are. But in many of these places there’s no UK interest and unless there are Brits involved I would wonder why the hell the story was in the paper, and so would my readers.
“But if say President Mugabe was shot, we’d expect reams of coverage because there’s a huge British interest in that country. So, it doesn’t have to have a British angle as such, but there must be a British interest at least.”
Any freelancer worth their salt has written on-spec and tried to sell their story by cold-calling a foreign desk. What does Paul make of this?
“We get stringers who send stories over to us exclusively, on-spec and un-ordered. If they don’t get in the paper, they don’t get used anywhere else. If I see a good story from someone who’s done this I usually pay them a few quid because it’s probably not their fault the piece didn’t make it in.
“We don’t consider work from agency-focused stringers who send their stories to everyone.”
If you consistently make the grade and manage not to upset the paper you’ve aimed your work at then you can become a super-stringer, Paul explains.
“It means you almost become staff on that paper. You get a paid retainer and we pay for your travel and send you on assignments.”
“But for everyone else out there, it’s a tough life,” he says. “And unless you’re a super-stringer who’s retained by one paper, write for as many papers as you can.
Just watch who you approach and make sure there aren’t any crossovers, Paul advises.
“Filing to both The Telegraph and The Sun is fine because there’s no conflict between the two. But you can’t write for The Times and The Telegraph or The Guardian and The Telegraph, that’s not going to win you any friends.
“But build up your base and if one paper doesn’t take it another might or a TV or radio station might – and there’s your money.”
So how does one make the leap from moving from freelancing to the holy grail of becoming staff?
“You need to be able to have a good story, be ready to travel, don’t give us much grief, make sure you get there and get the story before anyone else and write really good copy,” Paul says.
“Our Thailand stringer came on staff on the foreign desk two months ago, he proved himself over a number of years and is now no longer a humble stringer.
“You have to be able to go anywhere at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it’s a case of tapping them on the shoulder and telling them to be on the next plane from Heathrow. There’s no room for ‘My wife’s having a dinner party tonight”. Tough luck! I’ve lost count of the holidays I’ve destroyed.
“If a major event breaks and we have a freelancer who speaks the language or has a special knowledge of the country, then bang, off they go and if they don’t drop everything and go then we won’t use them again.
“If they’re getting married we might let them off. But the story has to come first, that’s the dedication of journalism.”
Paul shrugs off would-be journalists who approach him waving their academic qualifications as proof of their capability.
“Just because your grammar is good and you can write an essay doesn’t mean you have a nose for news,” he explains.
“When the story broke about a homosexual MP, caught having sex with a rent boy the news editor of the day looked round the newsroom and told this young journalism school grad to go and doorstep him.
“The lad looked blank and the news editor painfully explained what it was. Then the lad, still bemused, asked how to find out where the MP lived. Any other professional would have been out the door before the news editor had finished giving them the assignment.”
Paul remembers the requisite two-and-a-half years’ experience on a local before a national would even consider a graduate as an applicant.
“CVs went straight in the bin if you didn’t have that experience. But then Conrad Black came in and wanted to cut expenditure so they sacked about 40 journalists and hired a bunch of boys and girls clutching their diplomas. It was a complete disaster and they lost all the experience the old staffers had gathered over years.”