Simon Tait on the art of freelancing

Simon Tait is a freelance journalist, former arts correspondent of The Times and co-editor of Arts Industry magazine. You can contact him at www.staitarts.com
 

How long have you been a freelance?

Almost exactly 20 years, a second stint.

What made you decide to become a freelance?

The first time, in the mid-80s, was when I was off-loaded as commissioning editor of the Telegraph Magazine. After a desultory trawl up and down Fleet Street, I saw a market for arts/heritage features, mostly for the Telegraph at first, but then for The Sunday Times and The Times. Then I was asked to join the staff at The Times as arts correspondent which was fine for about four years, then started to become more of a grind as newsdesks became harder to convince with arts stories, so that when I was eventually made redundant in a wholesale dumping it was a bit of a relief. I never thought of looking for another staff job, continued to write features for The Times (after the usual ‘decent interval’), and had developed a bit of a rep on the arts beat.

Who are your main sources of work?
Until about seven years ago I was writing for most national papers but many started to cut down on freelance work. Now, it’s probably The Times, The Independent on Sunday and magazines like The Stage and Classical Music. I write features mostly but also news and visual art reviews. It’s probably cheating, but I was doing a diary for a small arts magazine, then the publisher and I got together with another freelance to create a new magazine, Arts Industry, now monthly. I co-edit it. It takes up quite a bit of time and doesn’t pay much, but it has a dedicated following after nine years.

How much do you charge?
Does anybody ‘charge’ these days? Fees have slumped in recent years so that now it’s a negotiation in which you say what you want, they say what they’ll pay, and you compromise on what they’ll pay. But it depends on the story and the publication, and it probably settles at around £300 for 1,000 words. Tabloids, which seldom take my stuff, pay much more, as do magazines and I have yet to crack the secrets of getting paid for online work. It will come, though probably not for my generation…

What’s been your best ever gig?
In recent times the most satisfying was a piece last year for The Independent on Sunday, when I was in Derry/Londonderry as the city learned it was going to be our first City of Culture in 2013 just as the Saville inquiry cleared the Bogside citizens of any fault in Bloody Sunday. Unalloyed happiness all round in that rather neat little town for a few hours.

And your worst?
Probably the Roy Budd story. He had been a wunderkind jazz pianist turned composer who had written a symphonic score for the original silent Phantom of the Opera movie, what he thought was his best accomplishment. I did a long interview with him for The Observer and on the Saturday night I had a call from his wife saying he’d died. The desk were fantastic on deadline, dumping God knows what and giving me a column to a write a news story cross-reffing to the features pages. I wonder if I got paid for that…

What story are you most proud of?
That’s hard. Probably one I did for The Times about Shakespeare’s Church in Stratford, Holy Trinity, where they’d found the chalice he used at his wedding. It led so deep into the personality of someone who on that level was quite an ordinary man.

Have you ever done anything ridiculous for money?

Being a freelance writer for money is ridiculous.

What’s the secret of keeping the wolf from your door?

Be light on your feet (commissioning editors are notorious for mis-remembering what they asked for), be sure you understand your commissioning brief (they’ll only ask you again if they’ve got you down as reliable) and avoid writing about things you’re not interested in. But most of all, never so ‘no’.

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