Jill Foster, freelance writer and editor recently popped to Faith HQ for a coffee and a chat about her exciting career and the changing face of journalism.
Tell me a bit about your career path to date and your current freelance work, what does a typical day look like for you?
There’s no such thing as a typical day. I work across so many different stories and speak to so many different people, there is always something new to sink my teeth into.
My career took off when I won a scholarship with Cosmopolitan after finishing my degree and my post-graduate diploma. From there, I went on to working on the features desk at the Daily Mirror for four years, then I moved to the Daily Mail where I became Associate Editor of Femail. In 2008, I made the decision to go freelance; I wanted to get back to the traditional journalism I love – interviewing people and writing their stories – rather than working my way up the editorial ladder.
What do you love the most about your current role?
The variety. I meet new people from all walks of life and hear interesting stories every day. It’s a huge privilege.
You have interviewed a lot of people in your career, what is your most memorable interview to date and why?
In 2002, the Daily Mirror sent me to Yorkshire to interview an incredible lady who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, yet she was about to run the London Marathon. That lady was Jane Tomlinson, who went on to complete several more incredible feats of athletic endurance to raise money for charity.
I really clicked with Jane and her husband Mike and we kept in touch and became friends. We ended up writing three books together – one of which, The Luxury of Time, was a Sunday Times bestseller – and I’m still on the board of directors for her charity, Run for All. I even take my kids to volunteer at some of the events held in her name. So far, her legacy has raised over £10m for good causes. Meeting her and getting to know the family was a real highlight of my career and it’s an honour to say she was my friend.
Writing for the Daily Mail, I imagine you receive a lot of press releases. What makes a press release stand out to you?
I hate to break it to you, but I rarely read press releases and prefer a clear, concise email explaining the main angle of the story. Add the release to the bottom of the email – I prefer it cut and pasted rather than as an attachment – and make sure key telephone numbers for contacts are included. I’m amazed how few PRs give out their telephone numbers at the moment. How are we supposed to get hold of you if it’s urgent?
Would you consider a strong press release if it had no image to accompany it?
Absolutely. In fact, I’d say that if the story doesn’t hinge on a visual – i.e., a great ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots for a weight loss story – then please don’t send me unsolicited images. They clog up my inbox. Staff writers and editors might think differently but they have huge IT teams who can clear up storage on their computers. As a freelance working in my little office at home on an ancient laptop, I don’t have that luxury. If the story is strong enough, we can always arrange photography.
Do you have any pet peeves when speaking to PR agencies?
I have a lot of respect for PR agencies, but if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to make sure you know your media lists before you send out any press releases. I can spot a blanket email a mile off and I’m afraid I simply delete before opening. I am still getting random emails from PRs about features I wrote years ago. Keep up to date with your contacts and build up a relationship with them.
How would you say your role has changed since the world went digital?
In terms of writing stories, it really hasn’t changed that much for me in terms of where my features are published. I still write for mostly for print audiences, but my copy is loaded online. There has been a lot of talk recently about the ‘death of print’ and it’s true that newspaper and magazine circulations are falling. But some people will always prefer to hold a physical copy of a publication rather than read it online on their iPads and Kindles.
Of course social media has changed the way we work in terms of finding stories and potential case studies – Twitter and Facebook are invaluable in that sense. In 2012, my colleague Sadie Nicholas and I co-founded ‘FeatureMe! UK’ a Facebook group with a community of over 10,000 members who are all interested in being in the press. Journalists post their media requests and if you fit the brief, you apply to be in the story. It’s simple and even we have been surprised by its success. Hundreds, if not thousands of our members have now appeared in newspapers, magazines and on TV. They’ve earned £££ but that’s not their only motivation – some have wanted to highlight a charity or good cause, others have wanted to shout about their business or blog while some just have a really good time being pampered on a photoshoot. We’re about to be joined by two other very experienced journalists – Victoria Lambert and Kate Stewart – and will be developing courses and workshops to help PRs and small businesses with their press. Anyone who wants to find out more can join our Facebook group for details.
What advice would you give to PR agencies wanting to get their stories picked up by you?
Know your media list and tell me in the first sentence exactly what the story is. I receive dozens of emails every day, so I don’t have time to sift through them to find the ‘line’. I need to know the main story and if there are any key spokespeople or case studies who can be interviewed.
How does freelancing differ from your former full-time role as Associate Editor at Femail?
Freelancing allows me to have variety. I can write for several publications and be choosy about which stories I cover. That keeps it fresh for me. I loved being an editor, but I’d spend all day talking to other journalists about what stories THEY were working on and I always felt slightly envious. I also love the flexibility of freelancing. When I was editing, I’d leave the house at 9am but sometimes wouldn’t get home until nearly midnight because we were busy laying out pages and putting the paper ‘to bed’. It was exhausting and I found my work/life balance suffered.
You made the switch to freelance back in 2008, what inspired you to become freelance?
I wanted my life back! The hours were a killer in my old job and while I was well paid and there were lots of perks, it got to the point where I realised life was passing me by. Today, freelancing helps me balance my work and family life. Although I didn’t have children when I first took the leap, I’m incredibly lucky that I can take my six-year-old twin daughters to school every morning and shuffle my work schedule to see them in plays or on sports days. That flexibility is priceless as I’ll never get this time back. But there are downsides too. When it’s quiet, it would be lovely to come to the end of the month and open a PAYE slip. There’s no sick pay, holiday pay or even maternity pay when it comes to freelancing (having twins was never part of my freelance plan!) but would I swap my role for a lucrative job in an office? Certainly not at the moment.
What advice would you give to somebody looking to follow your career path?
Work really hard! Don’t expect jobs or stories to land in your lap. When you’re starting out, don’t ask mum or dad to apply for work experience on your behalf – do it yourself. In journalism, you can’t be afraid of speaking to new people, so pick up the phone or go into an office and ask politely if you can have work experience. I’m astonished by how many young people are afraid to speak to people on the phone – they prefer to text or email. You’ll really stand out from the crowd if you speak to people. I remember getting a stint of work experience at Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus when I was only 17 because I’d gone up to the Assistant Editor at a school function and said how much I wanted to be a journalist. I sent him a handwritten letter afterwards and he said it really stood out from all the other applications for work experience.
Young people have got technology on their side too – get in touch on Twitter with journalists you admire. Obviously don’t stalk them but take a genuine interest in their stories and make comments or ask questions on their timeline or blogs. Ask them for advice. Be polite! Journalists have egos like everyone else and most of the time people will be only too happy to respond.
How do you prefer to receive information from PR agencies, via email, social media or telephone and why?
Always email me in the first instance, but make sure you provide your contact details so I can hold of you if needed. I don’t mind you chasing me up, but if you don’t hear back, please don’t take it personally. It simply means the story wasn’t right for me.