'I wasn't getting to report, so I applied for other types of funding' | The Hazel Sheffield Interview

The Interview is a monthly series in which I talk to fellow freelancers about what their typical day looks like and how they make a living freelancing. This week's interview is with Hazel Sheffield, an economics journalist who covers local communities and is the author of Building Wealth, a new book about the power of individuals to create change in their communities.   

Anna: Why did you go freelance?
Hazel: I was working as the business editor at the Independent and we'd just been through a period of closing down the newspaper. I'd been promised a few things that didn't happen and I was feeling a bit frustrated. I felt like I'd worked so hard to be a reporter and I wasn't getting to report, so I applied for other types of funding.

One was a journalism fellowship which was £45,000 from the Friends Provident Foundation. I didn't get it, but they asked me to go through one of their regular funding rounds, which I did get.

Then Brexit happened. I loved reporting Brexit; we were in the office for 16 hours. So I decided to use the grant to get out on the road and meet these communities. I took the leap in August 2016 and I've never once regretted it.

You'd been freelance before.  
I started my career freelance pretty much, but only because I couldn't get a job. I worked in a pub, did loads of internships and worked for free. That was freelance if you could call it that, but mostly it was being unemployed.

What would you say to someone who's trying to get into journalism now – to go freelance or take a staff job first?
If I was offered a staff job at 21, I would have taken it without question. But it depends on your circumstances. When I finished my masters, I had a lot of uni debt and was recovering from a bad accident and I really needed to work.

I was offered a job as a trainee finance reporter. It wasn't my dream job but it was the perfect job for that time so I took it. If you have any kind of resources to support yourself while you try out different types of freelance journalism, that's fine but lots of people don't have that.  

What does your typical day look like?
I get up at 6.30 AM when my partner, who’s a teacher, goes to work. I usually go to the gym at 6.45 AM and am at my desk by 8.00 AM with my cereal. I work solidly in the mornings, at home usually. I break for lunch at exactly 12.00 PM and I always have the same thing, soup and salad.

After lunch, I don't work so well. I often go to a coffee shop and work there. Or go to the British Library, the reading rooms are my favourite place because they're really quiet. You feel like a really bad person if you're not working in there. By about 5.00 PM I'm usually useless to the world and I go home. Unless I'm on a deadline, then I keep working all night.

Do you ever work in your pyjamas?
No, never! I'm not one of these people who wears shoes at their desk, though. That being said, if I have a deadline, I might get up at 5.00 AM and work in my pyjamas until breakfast time and then get washed and dressed.
How do you deal with financial fluctuation?

I've been very lucky to be supported by grants. I would say to anybody to look for those opportunities because not enough people do. There are pots of money out there to do projects and pieces of work. It’s provided financial stability for me and is the equivalent to a wage when it comes through.

What tips do you have for grant applications?
Don't be half-baked about these things. If you have to come up with a year-long project you have to report on, don't give vague ideas about what you might like to do. Find out what those stories are and put them in there. Tell these people you have the contacts and are capable of doing this. People will bank on you if they think you're going to succeed, so show them that you can.

Ask lots of questions of the person you're applying to. It shows that you're really keen and you might get a little more than the application isn't telling you. And always talk to someone who's already had the grant.

What do you struggle most with as a freelancer?
Saying no. I came to this from a place of scarcity. The first time around I never had much work so just took everything. That's still in my nature.

It got to a point where I'd lost my focus; I was trying to take on things to help people out or because I thought it might be interesting. I needed to sit down and chat to myself and say, 'You have a thing that you write about, you're really good at that and people give you money to do it, so do that and start saying no.'

What's your favourite thing about being freelance?  

Being my own boss. I don't have to make any compromises. I'm really passionate about what I do and I get to do it every single day.

I love calling people up and asking really nosey questions. I sometimes find myself asking people questions on the phone and thinking, 'You are an absolute joker. If someone asked me these questions I'd say, "Umm, no".'

What do you think is the big misconceptions about being freelance?
That it's really hard to get motivated. Such bollocks.

For one, there’s the money. I like not being poor. And secondly, why are you doing this? Why would you do this unless you care enough about something to put work into it. I don't get that.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you first went freelance?

You get better. I used to worry about a lot of things – what if I got something wrong, or I didn't check something out properly. As you do it more, you just learn what you need to worry about and what you don’t. You learn to trust your gut.

Something someone told me when I first started, journalism is really hard to get into but in reality, all editors really want is someone to turn in really clean copy on time. If you can do that, you're probably better than about 80% of the people out there.