In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: The joys of freelancing

“Half an hour after getting to Intercourse I was in Paradise.”

That’s my favourite of all the intros I wrote in my long time as a freelance.

I had accompanied a trade mission to a conference and exhibition on opto-electronics in Baltimore, Maryland, as a guest of Scottish Enterprise. It provided me with a range of stories, mainly filed to The Herald and Scotland on Sunday.

When the trade mission returned, I stayed on, hired a car and drove to upstate New York. I hummed Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ as I drove along the New Jersey Turnpike, nervously but successfully negotiated a route through Harlem, and reached Fort Ticonderoga near the Canadian border before turning south.

In Pennsylvania, I headed for Lancaster County, home of the Amish and their wonderfully-named towns such as Intercourse and Paradise. You should have heard the commercials on the local radio station promoting sales in these towns.

And they made an easy intro for the weekly column called Inquisitor which I wrote for Scotland on Sunday’s business section.

This episode came to mind at the end of The Effective Freelance course I ran on Saturday in the NUJ’s Glasgow office. The feedback from the course was very good but towards the end of the day I was challenged to say something good about freelancing.

I had rightly warned of the difficult freelance market and the problems that arise in negotiating terms, chasing payment and protecting your copyright. The ten people on the course were already on or about to embark on the freelance path, so I had not felt the need promote it as a way of life.

Yet the best moments in my career so far came while I was freelance. For my two weeks’ drive through the north-east US I did not need an editor’s permission or to fit in with anyone’s holiday rota.

I had only to ensure my freelance commitments were covered and I was able file copy from anywhere with a phone. The US is a columnist’s dreamland of quirky stories and people who open up to you.

On another trade mission, a briefing from the British Embassy’s commercial department in Madrid a week before the Spanish budget provided an instant page lead for that Sunday’s business pages.

In Brussels, I noticed the name of the manufacturer of the British Embassy’s lift and happily wrote: “Yes, I was standing in Schindler’s lift!”

Away from trade missions I covered conferences in Florence and Monaco. Yet, within months of sipping champagne on a hotel terrace, looking down on the lights reflected in Monte Carlo’s harbour, I was a (still-classified) number of metres beneath the Irish Sea in a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine on exercise.

I embarked by leaping from a harbour launch on to the sub’s hull at Faslane and disembarked a week later at Campbeltown. I slept beside a 45ft torpedo in what was unreassuringly called ‘the bomb room’, stood in the control room as we hunted and were hunted by a Norwegian sub, and heard the thud of shock charges being dropped on us by an RAF Nimrod aircraft.

How many editors would have allowed me to spend a week away from the office to produce a half-page feature? I produced two for different papers but from a purely financial point of view it was not the best use of my time.

Yet how else could you experience that without enlisting in the Royal Navy? Or how could you make a midnight amphibious landing with Royal Marines Reserves, as I did, without signing up?

Another plus-point about freelancing is more recent. Tough though the market is, New Media are allowing journalists access to new markets, new ways of making money and new ways to get their stories out.

I deal with that in The Entrepreneurial Freelance course and a new one, funded by the Scottish Government and European Social Fund through the Scottish Union Learning Fund, takes place at the NUJ’s Glasgow office next month.

Francis Shennan is lecturer in Football Business & Media at UCFB Burnley and runs courses in media law and in freelancing, for NUJ Scotland.