Case study: Aela Callan, freelance broadcast journalist

Aela Callan is a 29-year-old Australian producer and broadcast journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand. She works freelance for AlJazeera English and Channel Seven Australia.

She kindly consented to a 20-minute Skype interview ( (Part 1, Part 2) for a case study presentation to a group of lecturers and undergraduates at Taylor’s University College’s School of Communication on Wednesday, Aug 11.

In the interview, Aela provided useful advice to those planning to embark on a freelance career as a broadcast journalist.

Here are the edited highlights:

Aela: I was working for AlJazeera English in Hong Kong. They had a need for somebody in Bangkok and so that was the reason I came here. I’ve been here just over 12 months now.

Bangkok is a good place for journalists to be based especially if they’re going to be freelance because it’s sort of a hub for Asia, you can easily jump on a plane and access anywhere else in the region pretty quickly.

Owing to the fact Thailand has been in the news so very much over the last 12 months, the workflow has been really steady.

My main two clients are AlJazeera English and Channel Seven Australia and pretty much they keep me busy most of the time, although occasionally I do pieces for other networks as well especially when a big story is breaking like the Red Shirts, I’ve been able to be on the other channels as well.

Q: So are you doing this all by yourself, all the recording, all the production, all the editing and submitting all the stories?

Aela: No, I am not a video journalist. I am correspondent/producer so basically I research the story myself, then I employ a fixer and a cameraman/editor to come along with me and basically shoot the story and then I package it up and sell it as a complete cut story.

Most of the time my commissions are driven by ideas I pitched but also I accept commissions based on what a newsroom wants. They might ring up and say, “This is happening”, or there’s a breaking news event on that day and then I basically roll with the punches as it were.

Q: Can we roll it back a bit and perhaps you can explain to us how you became a freelance journalist?

Aela: Well, I was a journalist for 10 years before I went freelance — five years of that was in radio and five years of that was in television — both in Australia. I decided to go out on my own because I wanted to do the kind of stories that made a difference to me. In Australia, news became very parochial, a very cyclical thing.

I knew I could do it. But I didn’t know if I could do it on my own or not. And many people at the time said to me it would be really tough. It is really tough. But it’s also immensely rewarding when you know by the end of it you can land in any country pretty much and function as a journalist.

You become very streetwise very quickly and also learn how to use the resources that are around you to help you with the story, and to keep you going on the road. You know you need networks of people. It is something you really can’t do on your own.

So building those networks is a lot of what I do because I am in television but, really, you can’t do it on your own, particularly if you don’t have the language skills. So you really do need to rely on most networks that you establish and the longer you’re in a place, the more you establish those.

I think because of the limited jobs that exist in the journalism field at the moment a lot of people are choosing to strike out on their own much earlier than what I did. I think that’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing.

It’s never easy when you are trying to do this job on your own. It’s always, of course, much easier when you have a network or a news room that can support you in various ways. However, I think, the emergence of video journalists in my field is a good thing for young people to learn a lot of different skills all at once.

It really is throwing yourself in the deep end but you do learn to diversify and that definitely is the way the industry goes. You no longer just have one role. You are a correspondent and you’re an editor, or you’re a correspondent and you’re a producer, or you’re a producer and you’re a shooter, or you’re a cameraman as well as a fixer, something like that.

So, you really do need to think about diversifying yourself when you’re freelance particularly because budgets are tight. People won’t throw thousands of dollars for the story and sometimes you are doing the story on your own and funding it yourself. Because you know in your heart it’s a good story and that you will sell it at the end of the day. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.

The further you get into it, the more you learn what each newsroom wants and what specific needs of your clients are. And that is something I would suggest to anyone who is thinking on embarking on a freelance career does.

Pick a few specific clients that they target and tailor their needs to them. Because it’s no good if you’re going to be pitching to a huge news network, if you don’t have a budget. You really do need a budget. If you are going to be doing a 20-minute documentary and pitching it for a news channel, quite obviously it needs to go to another slot that has more time to pull that story.

So you really do have to think about what you want to do, who you want to sell to, and talk to them, go over what their specific needs are, watch their content, listen to their content, read their content, whatever the medium that you are working in. Make sure that you are looking very specifically at where their needs gap is and what you can do to add value to their newsroom.

Q: Do you find sometimes when you are on your own, doing work for one organisation, is it hard then to pitch stories to other organisations?

Aela: In television, certainly, because correspondents are a brand effectively. My contract with AlJazeera prevents me from, say, selling a story to BBC or CNN but it doesn’t mean as freelancer I don’t have contacts with them that I can’t help them in other ways — in a producing role or a behind-the-scenes role –if I am not working for AlJazeera. But because I have a specific contract with them (AlJazeera), they are always my first go-to point.

It can be difficult (at times). I know in the past when I haven’t had a contract, it can be difficult to pitch to other news organisations when your face is on camera because, a correspondent is a brand, and you can’t be popping up all over other different stations, they just won’t do that with their direct competitors.

But I wouldn’t be afraid of shopping a story around if you’ve got a good story. It always doesn’t hurt to have good contacts with all news organisations because then there will other ways and other roles you can help them out with, particularly in radio as well as in print, it is quite easy to transfer these skills. So that is something, if you’re in those mediums, you can do much more easily than in television.

There’s definitely more space for freelancers. I think more often than not, particularly big organisations, are deciding at the products they can get from freelancers, it may be more cost-effective than setting up a huge bureau, having staff, paying overtime, paying superannuation, or things like that if they exist in the countries that you are working in.

So definitely there is more space for freelancers. Having said that there are more people graduating from journalism courses who don’t have jobs who are hitting out on their own and trying to be a freelancer. There’s also another crowd of people that are kind of ‘romantics’, if you like, they had some other job and quit it to become a foreign correspondent and try it out on their own. They’re trying to, you know, fill a gap there too.

It’s definitely not the kind of job you can start without some basic knowledge and some basic contacts. It’s really a lot about who you know. A lot of my contacts come through people I have worked with before, so it’s a bit of Catch-22 situation. You need to have a body of work that you can show people, this is my body of work, this is my experience, this is who I worked with in the past. But without having started on that, it’s a pretty hard space to crack into.

So I definitely recommend starting in a job. I really maintain that I learnt more about being a journalist by actually going out and being a journalist than I did from any university degree from any course, from anything you can read, or do.

I think the biggest thing is just to get out there and start doing stories and start pitching stories, watch a lot of media and if you are trying to become a freelancer also it really pays to look at what the need is.

It’s no good going into a market with 50 other freelancers doing the same thing. If that need is being met and if you can see that there are some other niche that you can offer, or something else you can offer, by all means do it.

But, generally, it pays to do your research on what is needed. Go and meet with news bosses, if you can get the time, and talk to them about where they would like to add coverage — what locations they want more stories from. It’s those little bits of background information that could really be valuable to you when you are pitching a story.

Q: Is there any parting advice you would give to a person who is just graduating from journalism or who wants to get into media or who wants to get into the broadcast field?

Aela: Ummm, I have lots of advice that I could probably give. Don’t expect it to be easy but do expect it to be fun. Never, never give up. But don’t be so persistent that newsrooms are gonna think: “Oh no, not this person again”.

I said to a producer who came to me at the start of the year in Thailand, and she said: “Look I’ve moved here, I’m not gonna get any work, what am I gonna do?!” And I said to her: “Look, the biggest thing is to just stick it out.” A lot of the time, is to sit there and know your patch.

If you’re not getting any story commissions, do your research, go and meet with other journalists. They’ll often be quite generous with their time and giving of advice. Work with people, try not to work against them. A lot of freelancers come in and start thinking: “Oh I want to sell these stories and so I am going to take work off someone else.”

You really do work together as a community of freelancers, there’s enough stories to go around. And people will be quite generous with that. So don’t abuse that.

This producer who came to me and said: “What am I going to do?” I said: “Really, 90 percent of it is just staying here, and waiting for the story to happen. If you’ve done your research, if you’ve done your background, when a big story breaks, you’ll get work.” And sure enough when the Red Shirts happened, she was really busy and flat out and now I employ her quite often as well.

It’s definitely something you need to stick out. Don’t expect to just turn up on the scene and say: “Here, I’m a freelancer. Look what I can do” and click your fingers and get work.

A lot of it is being there and meeting people so that when something does happen and there is a need — a gap to be filled — they think: “Oh that person was here and gave me their card and is around.”

That’s important too. But, like I said, it’s also important too make sure that you’re not unduly hassling people to the point that they are not going to use you, if they do think of you.

You’re able to work with much more flexibility as a freelancer. You can drop in and out of stories. You can continue to follow angles after all the big news organisations have pulled out and forgotten about it.

You can find things and spend time on things that people with a fulltime job do not have enough time to dedicate to it, so enjoy that, use that. Fill the needs and the gaps. Be maneuverable and very flexible in what you can offer.

You might want to be on camera, but you know you may be able to offer producing skills and that might be a way in as well. It’s just a matter of finding what the need is in a client and tailoring yourself to fit that need.

And never really saying no when the phone rings. It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and you don’t feel like getting out of bed but making sure that you still do bother to go those extra lengths and prove to people that you are willing to be there, and you are willing to do the hard yards.

Q: Perhaps, we can end with you just telling us what your Day In The Life was, say, in the last two days, what you actually did in the last two days and what’s it like.

Aela: OK. The last two days, I have been shooting a story in Cambodia which was fairly stressful, as the story changed quite dramatically as we arrived and we had to adjust our needs to be able to continue to do the story. It involved a five-hour trip out of Phnom Penh and I worked probably two seventeen-hour days. I’ve just spent the morning editing those stories, and trying to get them out before I head to Southern Thailand for a couple of stories in Pattani.

Right now It’s pretty manic. And generally for some of the year, most of this year actually, it has been pretty manic because Thailand’s been such a news hub.

However, there were days when I started that I, literally, would just sit there, willing my phone to ring. And sitting by the pool, going: “Oh no, what I am gonna do?” Or sitting at home, you know.

Use that time productively. A lot people get trapped in this sense of “Oh my god, I’m not working, what I am going to do?'” and they really do nothing with their time. You know, I’ve used that time to take some language courses, to try and go and have lunch with people that could be potential contacts in the future and it’s only, over time, that that actually pays off. And, like I said, a lot of it is about being in a place and sticking it out and knowing your stuff at the right time when the big stories break.

But also look for ways to diversify yourself and fill those times when you don’t have a break or a lot of cashflow. That might be writing a blog that can generate some income, that might be selling some photos if you are a good photographer, it might be something completely different, not related to journalism but you can use that as a backup. Definitely, when I was just starting out, it felt like I had my fingers in all sorts of different pies and it wasn’t until, probably, two years in that it started to settle, and I started to have my own clients and get a workflow happening.

It’s nice to know I’m at a point where I do know I have some work coming in. I’m in a pretty privileged position as a freelancer at the moment — being so busy. Having said that, it would be nice to get a day off!

That’s the other thing about being a freelancer, because you are your own boss effectively and you have to decide when to pull the plug and say: “Hey, I am taking time off”, and then there’s always the fear that: “What if they don’t call me when I get back from holiday,” and you have to get yourself into a rhythm again.

You know, that all just comes with time. I really, really enjoy what I do. I would recommend that people do it. As I said, don’t expect it to be easy but it can be immensely rewarding.

Interview, Aela Callan, part 1
Interview, Aela Callan, part 2
Aela Callan Show Reel
Aela Callan: Services and Contact
Thai ‘Orange Shirts’ a transport tool
My presentation on Journalism Entrepreneurship and being a freelancer

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