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Journalist Spotlight | Interview with Caroline Zielinski, Freelance Journalist and Media Specialist

29 May, 2024

This week, Medianet is joined by Freelance Journalist and Media Specialist Caroline Zielinski. Caroline shares her experience as an Australian journalist currently based in Denmark, and shares her insight on pitching and writing for multiple media outlets.  Screenshot 2024-05-30 095125

Hi Caroline! Firstly, thank you again for giving me the opportunity to ask you some questions! I know that you’re now based in Denmark, and I’m curious about how this has affected your freelance work, particularly since you are still largely being published in Australian publications?

I moved to Denmark in January for 5 months to support my partner (also a journalist) in completing a fellowship at Aarhus University. We are now nearing the end of this time, gearing to come back to Australia at the end of July.

I won’t lie, at first it was very hard, even though I’d already prepped before leaving for Denmark by reaching out to many Australian editors across various verticals (travel, general news, world, lifestyle, health, science, etc), and telling them I would be going to Denmark. I also made it clear I would be available to travel around Europe if need be.

I also tracked down English language editors and journalists working in Denmark, as well as read up about the country in both local, international and Aussie presses, which all focus on different parts of Scandinavia (what is interesting to an Australian audience about Denmark won’t be to a European audience, so it’s important to get your head around those nuances).

To add to this, I routinely posted on LinkedIn that I was in Denmark and looking for work, and many lovely Aussie journalists reshared it, eventually catching the attention of editors.

At first it was very slow going, but as I became more enmeshed in the society here, I started to see potential stories everywhere. While in Europe, I have also been taking short trips to different countries, and I always make it a point to read airport and aeroplane magazines for interesting story ideas. I actually got a commission based off something I read in a WizzAir mag recently, so you never know!  

I met some editors for coffee in Copenhagen, which eventually led to commissions in local publications such as the Copenhagen Post and Farsight magazine. I attended events that I knew were significant on a hunch, such as the disbanding of the famous drug “pusher“ street in Freetown Christiana, and some art exhibitions, and wrote up articles about them before pitching them out in the hope they would get accepted. I eventually got one through to a major publication which will be coming out later this year.

Honestly, my freelance career has seriously benefitted from this move, as has my understanding of media and how to get ahead.

As someone who publishes in multiple outlets, what are the biggest differences in how each plan/produce content? How do you navigate these differences?

I write for so many different verticals on so many different topics that it can be hard to switch mindsets sometimes. But I find it suits my personality better than writing for one place or about one topic area.

I love the variety that comes with writing about lifestyle, science, health, women’s issues, essays on beauty and other features, but it can be tough adjusting to different style guides and remembering whether this publication wants an honorific or not.

Editors also have vastly different personalities and approaches, and sometimes the organisations they work for are more bureaucratic than others, which can mean very delayed payments and publication dates. You just have to be flexible and understanding to make it work. 

As a rule of thumb, I try to write at least two articles a month for editors and publications I’ve worked with for years, as well as to reach out somewhere new at least once or twice a month. It’s important to have a range of publications you can go to at all times, but also to deliver good pieces to editors who have already invested in you. 

Even though there’s more opportunities for writers and journalists to be published, do you think that pursuing a degree in journalism, or its related fields, is necessary? 

Not really, but the reality is you have to have a degree these days to be considered even for an internship.

I think everyone should do a more generalist Arts degree instead, with perhaps a journalism subject here or there just to give you an idea of what you’re getting into and to make contacts within the industry (lecturers and tutors are often former or current journalists, and they can help you get a leg up if you’re smart about how you approach them).   

All the random subjects I took throughout my degrees, such as political studies, history, creative writing, etc, have been more helpful in giving me ideas about what to write, and understanding the contexts behind so many different events and situations than a straight journalism degree.

The caveat here is that doing a master’s in journalism was useful in that it really honed my writing skills and put me in contact with great reporters, who then put me in contact with editors. I think if you’re doing a postgrad in the field it shows you’re pretty committed to being a journo, so you get access to more industry opportunities.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers and journalists? What lesson/s have you learned throughout your career that you wish you’d known sooner?

If you really love it and want it, just keep going and never give up.

It’s not easy, and I still struggle, but I never thought I’d get a front page of the Good Weekend either. Being a journalist, let alone a freelance feature writer, is tough but it’s not impossible because clearly there are people doing it.

Sometimes you’re going to have to work for a lot less than you want to. Other times, you’ll have to take high paying jobs that are boring yet put food on the table. None of that matters if you know that deep down, all you want to do is write/make videos/be on radio/podcasts, etc for a living.

Also, a friend who is a former commissioning editor once told me that editors look for this “holy trinity” when it comes to freelancers:

  •       Can they deliver on time?
  •       Are they easy to work with?
  •       Is their work good/can they write?

Shockingly, the being able to write well bit is the least important out of the three (I don’t mean you can just write total crap and be fine, though) because it is always easier to fix a not-so-great article than it is to write one quickly from scratch.  

I have since taken it as gospel to always deliver on all three.

What’s been the proudest moments of your career and what else do you hope to achieve? Alternatively, is there any project or writing of yours that we should be on the lookout for?

The aforementioned Good Weekend cover story about two young Melbourne mayors was my proudest moment, as I have always loved the publication and dreamt of being published there.

I have since been commissioned for some other incredible work, including a couple of long-form essays by the Scanlon Foundation about political participation of minority groups in Australia (published in 2022) and another one about what it’s like to really give birth in Australia if you don’t speak English well (coming out at some point later this year).

I am also in the process of writing a few long feature pieces for some major Australian magazines, which will hopefully be finalised soon, as well as an essay on the future of beauty and technology for the Copenhagen literary magazine, Farsight, which is coming out mid-June.

In the advent of AI, many journalists and creatives have felt that their jobs are further undervalued, if not under threat. Do you have any thoughts on this? Have you been affected or how have you used AI in your own work (if you have)?

I have tried to use AI to help me generate some ideas and edit this or that, but honestly, I have so far not been that impressed. It’s useful when it comes to scraping the internet for information that would usually take me hours to find, but I found that I have to check all of the references as many of them are made up. 

I don’t think AI is anywhere near taking over high quality writing work, but I do see it taking over simple copywriting and marketing content.

Finally, what makes a memorable pitch? Have you encountered one recently and why made it stand out to you?

It takes me anywhere from 2-8 hours to put a pitch together, depending on its complexity and where I am pitching it. You can be more relaxed when pitching editors you work with often who already like and know your work, but even then, it is integral you research the bejesus out of your topic and even speak to a few experts before even pitching the story idea.

It may seem obvious, but also Google what has been said about the idea recently in general, and in the publication you’re pitching to.

The most memorable pitches I get always refer to previous work I have done in the area. They are current, sometimes (but not necessarily always) exclusive, or they offer something new to a story I’ve already published.

Also, if it’s a big pitch, work on it over a few days and don’t just fire it off when you think you’re done. Read over it the next day, make sure you haven’t accidently included the wrong publication name, and only send it after it’s been edited.

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