Journo intel: Kim Thomas, freelance national journalist on Nye Bevan’s birthplace and the Birth Trauma Association
Kim specialises in health and education and writes often for The Guardian and other national and business publications. We spoke to Kim while working at home recently, to find out more about her background, and how the pandemic has impacted on journalism.
How did you first get into journalism?
In 1995, I was working as a technical writer for Ernst & Young. I’d always wanted to be a journalist but didn’t have the confidence. In the end, I just took the plunge, leaving my job and taking a three-month journalism course at the London College of Printing. After that, I spent about three years doing freelance technical writing, which paid the mortgage, while building a portfolio as a journalist. In 1998, I took a job as a staff writer at the newly launched IT Week and worked there for a year before going on maternity leave. I’ve been freelancing ever since.
What do you enjoy most about journalism and what advice would you give a journalist who is just starting?
The best thing about journalism is that you’re always learning. It is a great job for anyone who is intellectually curious or has an interest in people. You can be commissioned to write about a subject you know nothing about, and then persuade experts to spend 20 minutes of their time explaining it to you. In the early days, I used to get quite a kick out of seeing my name in print – though that doesn’t deliver the thrill it used to!
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I’m afraid that compared to many journalists, my daily routine is very dull – no travelling to war zones or meeting celebs at the Groucho. I’m usually at my desk at about 8am, and work till 5pm, doing phone interviews, sending emails, and writing, not to mention wasting time on Facebook. As a freelancer, I do take time out to do things like attend a yoga class or go to the gym, so that’s definitely a bonus of being my own boss.
What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the profession?
At present, things are really difficult. For the first ten years of my freelance career (1999 to 2009), I was a technology journalist, and there was always plenty of work. I made a reasonable living despite having to combine work and parenting. The crash of 2008/9 changed all that, and many publications I wrote for either folded or stopped using freelancers. I managed to move into writing about areas such as education and health care, which has mostly worked well, but the pandemic has affected the industry severely. Many publications are now closing, and The Guardian, which I’ve written for a lot, is closing sections and laying off staff. The amount of free content on the internet has hit print publications very hard, and online publications are struggling to make money – about 70% of advertising spend goes to Google and Facebook. It’s actually difficult to see how publishers can find a business model that works.
How do you prefer PRs and brands to work with you?
This is a tough one because when I was a technology journalist, there were particular PR agencies with whom I used to have an excellent relationship. The best ones were always those who knew the publications I was writing for and could send me a pitch closely aligned to what a particular publication was likely to be interested in. These days most of the work I do comes from editors asking me to write on specific topics, so I tend to be less interested in approaches from PRs. Having said that, I did have a pleasing experience in the past couple of years that I’d like to share. I was writing a piece about Tredegar, Nye Bevan’s birthplace, to celebrate the NHS’s 70th anniversary. I contacted the press officer of a think tank to talk to one of their policy officers about the NHS, and she happened to mention that her partner’s mother grew up in Tredegar. She put us in touch, and the interviewee turned out to have particularly rich memories of the town in the 1960s that gave the piece some extra colour. It was a good example of going above and beyond.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a journalist?
In a way, I’m already doing it. Because I have a particular interest in mental health, birth and parenting, a few years ago I started volunteering for a small charity called the Birth Trauma Association, which supports women with postnatal PTSD. I now work as their CEO, though I’m only paid one day a week. The work is significant to me because it feels I’m doing something worthwhile – so many women with mental health problems after birth tell us they didn’t feel heard until they came to us. The second edition of my book on birth trauma is coming out this September, and I’m also writing a book on postnatal PTSD aimed at health professionals. It’s been good to use my skills as a journalist to support a cause I believe in so strongly.
What advice would you give to a journalist just starting in the industry?
My advice to any journalist starting out is to always meet your deadlines, always check your facts, and always write to word count. And don’t be intimidated by editors – they’re only human.