Touchy-feely Networking with the Personal Touch


Paul F Cockburn reports on October’s Freelance Salon presented by the NUJ London Freelance Branch.

No one on the fifth-floor of Headland House last Thursday evening was likely to argue with writer Hina Pandya when she pointed out that “the freelance world (of journalism) is changing.” Indeed, everyone (well, at least the half-dozen people I had time to speak with) at London’s first NUJ Freelance Salon was there to “get ideas” about how to continue making a living in the profession – whether they’d been in the industry for decades or had just joined the NUJ the week before.

To digress, “Literary Salons” are not uncommon; in Scotland, the Edinburgh Literary Salon and Glasgow’s Weegie Wednesday have been going for years, with the basic model since exported to Dundee and elsewhere. These are fundamentally networking events “for anyone with a professional interest in literature” – be they authors, publishers, agents, academics or even arts journalists – hosted in a centrally-located bar with some degree of free drinks to set the ball rolling. In part to justify any public funding, they also feature short talks by invited guest speakers on subjects related to publishing. (The Edinburgh Salon’s recent Egg & Spoon Race, admittedly, was just “a bit of fun”.)

While no one has yet attempted to quantify any tangible results from these events, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are at least several novels and reference works now on the shelves of Waterstone’s that wouldn’t have happened – at least, wouldn’t have happened in the way they did – if the people involved hadn’t met or come to know each other through the Salons.

So, in theory at least, setting up a salon for freelance journalists sounded like a good idea, and all praise for Pandya – whose idea this was – for pushing it through the NUJ, with the support of London Freelance chair Fiona O’Cleirgh, Pamela Morton and Phil Sutcliffe.

Admittedly, the London Freelance Branch Salon was advertised as something a tad more formal than most literary salons; as “an event for freelances – with speakers – to go beyond the traditional pitch to editors and help find ways to make journalism pay in new ways, with networking and a glass of wine (or orange juice or water) and some snack food.” Alas the somewhat sterile office location of Headland House wasn’t the most socially-relaxed venue. While the home-baking and pretzels on offer were indeed tasty, the rows of seating implied from the start that the evening was decidedly weighted towards listening to speakers rather than just mingling with the crowd. Which, given the £10 ticket, was not inappropriate: the event had also been advertised as “a more intimate evening-only event” owing not a little to the all-day “New Ways to Make Journalism Pay” conference organised by London Freelance back in November 2012.

With Pandya acting as chair, two guests talked briefly about different journalism funding models they had stumbled across during their personal careers. First to speak was Alex Wood, Editor-in-Chief of new technology website The Memo, which he established to provide, as the site explains, “an intelligent perspective on innovation and how it influences our everyday lives”.

The Memo is barely six months old and Wood was first to admit that setting it up had been “a character forming experience”, not least as he endeavoured to understand what his readers and clients wanted without risking the site’s editorial integrity. Arguably, this was his biggest concern, arising during both his talk and the subsequent Q&A. Wood was adamant about never crossing the line into “branded editorial” – or, as he always insisted on calling it, “advertorial” – despite The Memo being largely dependent financially on investment from the likes of major property company, Canary Wharf Group. (While the site employed some display ads and “Google Exchange”, these contributed minuscule amounts overall; the bulk of The Memo’s revenue currently comes from streaming online videos, and also providing media products for other companies.)

Who pays for journalism was also the core question for Peter Jukes, who was there to explain a somewhat different financial model – crowd funding. Although initially a playwright, Jukes discovered he was “a bit of a news junky”, not least when he began covering the recent phone hacking trial using Twitter, a role he eventually completed 100-plus days later thanks to financial support from interested members of the public. Understandably, Jukes also had something to say about new journalism platform, for which he is an advisor. The site – also, coincidentally about six months old – is a platform enabling journalists to pitch the stories they want to write to the interested public, in hope that sufficient people want to fund them.

Ironically enough, Jukes suggested that often-shared fears about readers in the internet age being no longer willing to pay for journalism were misplaced; in his opinion, people had never paid for journalism, just the means by which they received it. (After all, most of a newspaper’s cover price goes to the retailers, distributors, wholesalers, and printers – journalists’ salaries, he pointed out, were financed by advertisers.) In this new crowd-funded model, he believed that sufficient numbers of people would pay to see something written, but that journalists will need to “think where the constituency is for the story, and go and find it”. The plus side is a direct engagement between the journalist and their readers.

Following the talks and Q&As (which, if nothing else, showed how few print journalists in the room appeared to have any comprehension of microphone technique) there was a second short opportunity to chat with other attendees – if only to find out their names, given an unfortunate lack of name-badges. Alas, the demands of getting everyone out of the building before 9pm so that the staff could go home somewhat curtailed matters, with only a relatively few attendees opting to cross the road for some more relaxed “networking” in The Lucas Arms. Just a suggestion: costs notwithstanding, perhaps even that pub’s upstairs function space might prove a more convivial venue for future Salons?