Meet the Editors

One of the most popular sessions held at last year’s WCSJ will see commissioning editors meeting freelancers and other journalists to outline their editorial priorities and direction.

Speakers: Robin McKie (Observer); Kim Shillinglaw (BBC); Graham Lawton (New Scientist), Mark Peplow (Nature), David Rowan (Wired UK), John Travis (Science-International). Chair: Jacqui Thornton (freelance journalist).

Session Review

Marion Dakers, MA Newspaper Journalism, City University

"My advice is to be a pest.... I'm probably going to regret saying that." Graham Lawton from New Scientist probably didn't want this quote at the top of an article for ABSW, but he did say he welcomes more pitches from freelancers.

The word was out on the Meet the Editors session, following its success at last year's World Conference of Science Journalists, and latecomers were forced to stand at the back by the leaflet-covered tables to hear advice from the panel of commissioning editors.

First to speak was Kim Shillinglaw, commissioner for science and natural history at the BBC. She has worked with series such as Bang Goes the Theory and Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe.

The most common pitfall for freelancers to avoid is sending radio ideas to Kim's TV-based team; the BBC keep their media strictly separate and even great ideas might get lost.

To scientists hoping to move into the media, she advised: "Get some work experience, and find out if you really want to communicate science for a living."

John Travis, Europe news editor at Science magazine, said his publication uses over 70 freelancers, who write around a third of editorial content each edition.

He said the Random Samples section, which includes 250 word items on quirky subjects like the "helluva" unit of measurement, is a good way to start.

However, writers must angle articles to Science's expert readership. "Keep in mind the audience, and that it is tough for freelancers to get on our books. But I did this talk last year, and I was disappointed that I didn't get more pitches from people who attended - so get writing."

Robin McKie from the Observer has spent 28 years as a science editor. He said the location of science stories in the paper makes a difference to the tone of articles, and freelancers should take note. "Our science section is now welded between pop music and theatre, and it's all the better for it."

First-time freelancers should try pitching ideas for a large picture story, accompanied by 400 to 800 words, or for the My Bright Idea section. "There is also room for you to come and suggest news stories. It's got to be new, interesting and controversial - there's no simply following up on the daily news from the past week," he said.

As well as telling budding writers to hassle editorial staff, Graham Lawton said freelancers tend to write features for New Scientist, rather than news. "But paying freelancers is the biggest budget in the whole magazine, so you're pushing at an open door in that respect," he added.

He also said the magazine is looking to commission more participatory journalism, "partly because it's much more difficult for other magazines to copy".

David Rowan, UK editor of Wired, told hopeful freelancers to follow the innovative mindset of the magazine's founders. They are prepared to devote up to 5,000 words to "epic, ambitious features. But it has to be based on data; we have no room for your theories".

He said most of the magazine's budget is spent on sending writers abroad to report on big stories, and that ideas for Wired's new iPad app are more than welcome (though there is no money set aside specifically for multimedia content).

"My main advice is to read the guidelines on submitting copy. It sounds simple but it will go a long way."