TCB Show Notes: Steve Colquhoun on working as a freelance journalist

by Rachel Smith
12 July 2023

Episode 27, 2023

This week, we’re chatting to Steve Colquhoun – a journo, editor and copywriter based in Geelong, Victoria. He started in media at the age of 17 after leaving school, cutting his teeth on mastheads such as The Age, Herald Sun and Cairns Post. He’s also worked extensively as a motoring journalist – and since going freelance in 2016 has met the content needs of a variety of clients including Mercedes-Benz, Deakin University and NAB.

You can listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts and on Spotify or keep scrolling for the transcript.

Podcast transcript

The following is a very rough / edited transcript from our chat with Steve – it is not the full transcript but rather pulls out some of the key points of our discussion.

Wed, Jul 12, 2023 4:28PM • 35:27


motoring, editor, good, client, work, pitching, journalism, motoring journalist, freelance, steve, writers, week, rachel, journalist, car, freelancers

“Lifestyle motoring is a tough and competitive industry, but there are some incredible perks”


It’s a tough industry, you’ve got to know your stuff. It’s very competitive. And you’ve got to work pretty hard. And it’s just I guess it’s a kind of a first world problem that there’s a lot of flying to other parts of the world where we’re launches are taking place and a lot of time away from home away from family and kids. And, yeah, a lot of very, very long days… [but] some incredible perks in motoring journalism, I have driven some of the most amazing cars on the most amazing roads in the world. I don’t exactly know why the culture dictates this, but they do tend to put you up in some of the most amazing hotels and feed you with some of the most amazing food as well. So yeah, there’s just perks galore, but you do have to work your ass off for it. And particularly in the last handful of years. Since video has become a really big component of motoring journalism, you normally have to go to the launch and get the news story and write the review of the car. But then you also have to throw yourself in front of a camera and tell the world about the same car which is at least doubling the workload if not more. So it’s a really hard tough specialist kind of a lifestyle but my god the rewards are amazing.

“How I got into motoring writing”


I’m not a get-my-hands-dirty kind of guy. I’ve never been one to pull cars apart or anything like that. But I’ve always from the day dot I’ve always been interested in cars, liked them, just intrinsically learned about them… And then I did a little segue into PR and I picked up a junior caught comms role with an automotive manufacturer and that kind of just prized the door open a little bit and allowed me to then start pitching stories to a motoring publication, which then started giving me more and more work. And then finally I became full time and then eventually became an editor. So it was just kind of pursuing that passion and just sort of building on kind of the, the interest in the love that I already had there.

“Women do play a very large role in the decision making process around car purchases”


…I think it’s changing, and it’s definitely for the better. I think that there’s been an acknowledgement at some point, that women do play a very large role in the decision making process around car purchases in most households, and that the media needed to represent them a lot better than it was. And I think that’s been a really very positive change. There are a lot more women in positions to write about cars, and I think that that can only be a good thing. But you know, it is always going to be an industry that has, you know, that appeals to men…

Some of the best writers are in motoring”


Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there’s some of the best writers I’ve ever seen work from major publications, and they just have beautiful turns of phrase. And it’s not just all about, you know, almost 100 times there’s a lot more, there’s a lot of nuance in it. And the best, the best of them are real artists. So yeah, there’s, there’s, there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s a great lifestyle. But for those who are able to maintain that kind of lifestyle on the road, with at the time, I had young kids at home, and it was putting an unfair strain on my partner, so I had to step back from it. So I sort of moved into into other areas of journalism. But yeah, I really did enjoy my time there. And I’ve maintained my my love of motoring as I’ve moved into freelance, it’s become a large part of my, my freelance career as well.

“I was extremely fortunate to have a bit of a nest egg when I started freelancing”


I, as I alluded to earlier, I know I took a redundancy from Fairfax, back in 2016. So it’s just just not quite seven years ago. And now, I think the intention was always to dip my toe into the, into the freelance waters. And I was extremely fortunate to have a little bit of a nest egg to come with me into that journey, which, which made for a soft landing. So that enabled me to, to not have to hit the road at 100 miles an hour to use a motoring euphemism I, yeah, I could, I could pick and choose a little bit to begin with. And one of the good things was coming out of mainstream motoring, I had a good reputation and some good contacts that I could leverage. And that meant that I was able to set things up, take set, take some time and set things up quite well. I was also very, very fortunate that I had a foundation client come on board within the first couple of weeks, who was someone that I had known from my previous work as a journalist who knew that I was leaving and was available, and they said, Hey, we want you on our team come and work for us, we’ll pay you to be on call basically, for us and, and they’re still kind of my, my, my base clients, and probably around 50 to 60% of my workload goes to them. But it’s, it’s given me a lot of security and having the knowledge that that income was was always going to be there. And then that has been sort of the springboard from which I can then pick and choose who else I want to work with to make up the other ostensibly 40 or 50% of my week. I can be a little more choosy. And it’s, I acknowledged, it’s been very, very fortunate that I haven’t really had to hustle in the way that a lot of freelancers do have to, but there is definitely, I think something to be said for trying to establish a relationship with a with a client who you can reliably go forward with and have a, an arrangement in place for a for ongoing work.

“On being established and word of mouth recommendations …and the never-ending jigsaw of re-making your working week”


“… coming out of mainstream media and having contacts and a bit of profile helped me a lot to get established, but that wears off after a little while, and after a certain point you’ve really got to get on your horse and get moving. I work largely on word of mouth recommendations. And as I guess, you know, the point of that is that you do good enough work for your clients that they tell they tell other people about you. And then you get a phone call to say, ‘Hey, are you available, because such and such, told me that they did that you did great work for them’. And that’s how a lot of my my work has come about. But I’m also always looking around. On Rachel’s list, of course, there is the regular jobs board. So I keep a very close eye on that. And similarly, in a few other groups that I belong to, and LinkedIn, just keeping an eye on what’s happening and looking for things that are simpatico with, with the way that I like to work and the types of clients that I like to work with. And just, I often refer to it as the as the never-ending jigsaw, you know, you take bits out, and then you put another bit back in and you you’re just constantly remaking the working week, the working week. Exactly right. And yeah, and oftentimes, you get to the end of a financial year, as we’ve just done, and you look back over the past 12 months, and you realize that only about 50% of the clients that you had four months ago, are the ones that you’re working with now. And you’ve kind of turned over or regenerated or sometimes clients come in and go with as they are their, their content needs to change. And sometimes you don’t hear from them again. And sometimes you do two years later, you’ll get a phone call or something like that, but it’s just for me, it’s just it’s constantly changing with the with the exception of the foundation client. But most of the others, it’s a never ending cycle of change. But But it’s good because it means that you it’s fresh, you’re always doing something interesting and new.

As most freelancers know, pitching to mainstream media is bloody hard work


I started out thinking that journalism would account for a large percentage of what I was doing, because I had come from mainstream media because I had been a commissioning editor myself. And I believe I know what editors are looking for. But having said that, the actuality is as most freelancers know, is that pitching to mainstream media is bloody hard work, it can be very self defeating. At times, you knock on the doors, and you keep knocking, keep knocking, and sometimes you get absolutely nothing back. And sometimes, you know, it can be hard to get good direction, and then you file the story, and then nothing happens. And then you got to really struggle to get paid and all that sort of thing. Look, I don’t want to downplay it too much, because writing for the mainstream media is probably the most fun and rewarding work that there is for a journalist in the creativity that you’re able to unleash. And, you know, and that reward of seeing you’re seeing your finished work appear, you know, in a newspaper or magazine or on a website, there’s nothing quite like it. But I think for me, the rate of pay, particularly with many of the mainstream media outlets, is such that I’ve just started I’ve just gravitated towards more corporate writing, just because it’s not necessarily easier. But it’s, it’s more reliable, and it pays generally speaking, it pays better. In my case, it certainly has done and I’ve just sort of moved more towards doing a lot more of that. So I probably would say I’m probably 20 to 25% media and probably 75 odd percent of corporate writing at the moment and copywriting and that sort of thing, doing speeches and scripts and reports and things.

“Be aware of where boundaries sit in terms of conflict of interest”


I’ve got one particular client, who are a premium mineral water company, and I started out writing about them as a journalist, and I pitched a few stories which got published, and they were so delighted with that, that they asked me to, to come and help them out with writing their website and doing some media release things for them. But then subsequently, as they’ve continued to grow bigger and, and win awards and news stories, they’ve been come back to me and said, ‘Hey, can you write and pitch these things?’ And I’ve said, look, at this point, I actually can’t do that because I’m in your employee. That’s that’s a conflict of interest. And so, there are things like that and there’s been another another client in recent weeks, who wanted me to kind of tell their story. They wanted to be a writer news story about what they about what they’re doing. And I had to just outline to them look, this can only go on your website, it can go under your byline by your company, it can’t appear under my byline, it can’t appear to be credible journalism, because you’re paying me to write this story. And therefore it’s been written in a way that reflects that. So yeah, you just got to be aware. And as someone who’s worked in mainstream media, and being a commissioning editor, I, I am hyper aware of where those boundaries sit in terms of conflict of interest, and I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in being on Media Watch.

“I’m not an expert in the art of the pitch but as a former editor I’ve a pretty good idea of what might fly”


Yeah, look, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an expert in the art of the pitch. But as a former editor, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what might fly and look, as an editor, I was always looking for someone who clearly knew their stuff, and good ideas that I could turn into a workable hook, and someone that was prompt and reliable in the way that they communicated. And when you find as it is, or when you find a person like that, you tend to just grab and hang on to those rare ones. For freelance writers, I think being that person who is able to generate strong ideas that, you know, potentially haven’t been written before, or present old material in a new way. And being a person who can deliver what, what the editor requires. They’re sort of fundamentals, but at the same time… understanding the publication that you’re pitching to, knowing what type of material they’re looking for, and what type of stories they’re likely to run, is just gold, because you’re not wasting the time, pitching them things that are just completely outside what they’re looking for. And just being prompt, reliable, in the way that you communicate. Obviously, good writing skills are important. But having said that, you know, as an editor… you can edit the article, you can make it you can add the sparkle, as long as the basic stuff is there. For me, it was more important as an editor to find people who you could work with, and, you know, who just understood who just got it. And that’s something that when I’m pitching, I tried to be that person myself, just apply the things that I learned being on the other side of the fence.

“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage being located in a regional area”


I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. Particularly depending on what type of journalism you’re in, if so, where I’ve come from in motoring and luxury lifestyle, you’ve tended to need to be there to go to wherever the the product or the or the thing is, so therefore, there’s obviously more travel involved if you’re not if you’re not in a big city, but I think these days, most of us understand that you can be anywhere you can, you can deliver great journalism from pretty much anywhere, you know, as long as you’ve got a laptop and an internet connection… and you know, speaking from here in Geelong in the in the depth of Victoria winter, I kind of wonder why am I not sitting on a beach in far north Queensland right now? Just as easily could be!

“I’ve got a spreadsheet running that tells me how much money I need to make in a week to reach my end of year goals”


I use Asana and Trello as a tool for just moving things around and just making sure that I’ve got something allocated to each day of the week. I’ve got a spreadsheet running that tells me how much money I need to make in a week to reach my end of year goals. I don’t know whether this is the right word, but I sort of I’ve gamified the whole thing in that, you know, setting myself that that goal and then trying to make sure that each day I’ve got, I’ve got something that pays something that reaches those goals, and make sure that by the end of the week, I’ve got X amount of money through the door in billables. And which then adds up to the right number per month, and then the right number per year. And for me, that keeps me motivated. That keeps me on track. For the first couple of years as a freelance, I didn’t do that. And I sort of got a bit lost not knowing in any given week or month, whether or not I was ahead or behind my my targets. And oftentimes you’re pulling up at the end of the month and going okay, well, where’s the money, actually, I don’t actually know. And because it is very easy to just lose track of time and just, you know, muddle along and get very little done if you’re not focused enough. So that sort of helped me a lot. I use Rounded for all my accounting. I know a lot of people in the Rachel’s List group, absolutely love it. And for very good reason. I think that’s been absolutely crucial for me to help keep track of the financials. And in terms of tech, the only other thing that I would recommend – well, months ago, now I bought a digital notepad called a reMarkable and that has absolutely changed the way that I that I take notes as well, because I used to be an old school journal, you know, massive piles of them on my desk that just sat there for years. And then you know, every now and again, you would have to find something and you just be going back flipping through notebooks, after notebook, trying in vain to find that thing. Whereas this digital notepad, everything is in there. It it syncs to my laptop, and it also has optical character recognition. So the notes that I take, I can then translate to into a Word document. It’s just fantastic. So yeah, I can definitely recommend the reMarkable as a note taking tool, especially for people who are doing interviews, or needing to take minutes and that sort of thing.

The kind of work I do


…I do video scripts and I do speeches for one of my clients. A lot of what I do is medium form journalism, sort of 800 1200 word, color pieces. Telling stories is what I pride myself on doing, finding the hook… the gold within an interview … then expanding on that to turn it into a really readable sort of color piece. That’s what I really love to do.

The advice I tend to give to people just getting started”


The advice that I tend to give to people who are just getting started:

  • get published. Even if you’ve got to self-publish, you need to be able to show the prospective editor that you’re going to be pitching to what you’re capable of. So I think it’s really important just to have something, even if it’s on your own website, something that shows what you’re able to do.
  • Remember persistence pays off. As someone as we’ve talked about it, being a former editor, there were a lot of people that I said no to first, second or third time they came to see me but then the fourth time, they came with a really good idea that just was the right thing at the right time. And, you know, some of those people have ended up being regular contributors, you know, they’ve been those ones that I’ve grabbed hold up, because you can see that they’re that they’ve got all those attributes, that mean that they’re going to be going to be a good writer. So yeah, knock on as many doors as possible, be persistent, don’t be deterred.
  • Think about whether or not there’s a specialty, a special subject area that you’re really interested in and passionate about, because editors are always looking for, for specialists, for people who can knowledgeably talk about something and who can be relied upon to know their stuff. It’s a hard one, because when you specialize you’re narrowing your field somewhat in terms of the publications that you can pitch to, but at the same time, you can become an absolute golden resource for those particular publications. And you don’t have to do 100% of your specialty, you can allocate 25% of your week or 50% of your week to your specialty, like I like I do, and then the rest of your week can be, you know, whatever work you’re able to get or whatever work comes in. I think it’s good to have a specialty, something that you’re known for something that you can build a reputation around. And you know, it could actually turn into something that you can go 100% and become really, really known for. So that would be something that I would encourage people to think about.

Find out more about Steve:
Steve’s guide to freelance retainers:

Rachel Smith

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