Freelance Journalist

November 21, 2023 (Updated )

Breaking into journalism is never easy, never mind when you’ve moved to a different country and are not a native speaker — but that is precisely Kristina Völk’s story. Born in Germany, she moved to the UK after a few years working for a local German radio station; she has since worked as a freelance broadcast journalist and producer for BBC World Service radio, as well as for the London outposts of the RTL group and German television broadcaster, ZDF.

Still getting used to British life, she co-hosts the podcast English Breakfast with Katharina Delling, which introduces German listeners to the joys of English culture and asks questions like “who even is Boris Johnson, anyway?”

We caught up with Kristina earlier this year, ahead of a speaking slot at the Student Publication Association National Conference.

What is your typical day? You wake up, roll out of bed… What do you do first?

It’s so hard, because every day is so different! But every day, I do have a routine I do after waking up. I speak to my smart speaker and ask it to tell me all the daily news — UK news, international news. And, then, I put on a podcast.

What’s your favourite podcast?

Global News Podcast, [from the BBC World Service] in terms of news! It gives you a good overview of what people are gonna be talking about during your work day. Obviously, with 24-hour news, each workday is so different. Like when you sleep, people are working. So it’s nice to catch up on that.

Yeah, you can wake up, and so much has happened overnight.

Oh god yeah! And then I make myself a coffee. And then, [after that] each day is different! If I’m producing, I’m going somewhere. If I’m working from the studio, I head to the studio. And then I look through Twitter [now X], sadly!

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Kristina Völk reporting in London (L) and collecting radio interviews (R) (Image: Kristina Völk)

Everyone says to get off Twitter/X, but it’s just impossible.

Yeah, I mean we need it! You meet so many people on there as well — speak to them! I find so many people through Twitter. And then I look through Reddit, and other social media, just to get an idea of what people are talking about and what the stories might be. Everyone knows what the big stories are— I can’t influence them — but I can find treatments around those stories.

But I’m also looking for those smaller stories that no one has covered yet, but are being talked about, bubbling to the surface.

Have you ever caught something like that, that ended up going on to be something big?

A couple of smaller things, like the Spanish Equality Ministry put out a campaign that was like ‘All Bodies Are Beach Bodies’

Oh my gosh, I remember this!

So I was put on for my show at the World Service to just get voices from Spain. And I was looking on social media and someone was saying “hey, this person looks like this body positivity model from England”. So I reached out to her, and I found out that those pictures were stolen. So then the BBC updated their reporting, and we put out a right to reply to the Spanish government like, ‘What the hell is going on?’

It was so wild that they’d just found this person and used their photos.

Yeah, so many people in the photos had had their photos used without their consent. And I found out from a comment on one of the photos in Spanish — I put it through Google Translate!

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“Be annoying and don't be embarrassed. Keep pitching and pitching and pitching. It pays to find your niche, especially at the beginning.”
Kristina Völk, freelance broadcast journalist and producer

So we’ve talked a little bit already about how you’ve got to where you are now — it sounds like it was a lot of grinding!

Yeah, it is. Sadly that’s the state of things, especially in this country. It’s kind of expected that you will do a lot of unpaid internships and work experience where you’re not getting paid. Which is a shame, because I feel like it deprives the whole journalistic sector of so many more ideas from people who can’t afford to do that. I did it for a year, and it was the most tired I’ve ever been. Working in a coffee shop or in a bar, studying full time, doing internships — I was just falling apart at the end of the year!  I don’t know how much longer I could have kept going.

One thing I will say is, just be annoying. Don’t be embarrassed! People keep telling you, keep pitching and pitching and pitching, but no one ever tells you what happens if you show up in a newsroom and no one is speaking to you. You just sit there, they give you a little piece of paper with your jobs, and then no one is talking to you. I had this before, and I kept just talking at my editor and then eventually they came back!

It wasn’t like a conversation, it was “oh, we have space in today’s newspaper, tell me again what you were talking about?” And then you get an article published. But it’s just so much hard work. I feel like people sugarcoat it sometimes […] you also have to want it.

What drew you to the UK? Because obviously, you have language skills, you could be doing this in other countries. Why here?

In the beginning, I just wanted to get out of where I grew up! [I grew up] in the south of Germany, a small village of 800-900 people. So, tiny.

I worked in local radio in a city there. But then I wanted to do something different than talking about the new animal baby born in the local zoo! I did learn so many things there — I learnt the basics, and I loved every single minute of it — but as my background is in studying politics, I wanted to do more of the bigger stuff. I applied in Germany a lot, but then I was like, I kind of want to get out and see something new while I can! It was scary, it was really scary. But then I came over here, and it kind of worked out, I guess!

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Is there anything you would have done differently up until now? If you could go back and tell your younger self, do this, or don’t do that, would you?

No — even though, I mean… I came here as an au pair, and [while that meant] I had housing and I had a tiny bit of money, it was not the best experience. But, even that made me into the person and journalist I am now, because I learned what I can cope with. I saw a different life, I saw a different place outside of London (I lived in Essex) and I would have never gone there [otherwise]! Most of the people who come over here to be journalists, go straight to London and then that’s it. So I got a bit of a different perspective.

And then I did my GCSE English qualification, in a community college — so with a lot of people who didn’t do it the first time round, which was a really diverse environment. I met so many amazing people there and got so many new viewpoints. I learnt to see the world not as one-dimensionally. I realised each person comes to different decisions because of what’s going on in their lives, and I think that made me more understanding of where people come from, which helps a lot with journalism as well.

If you could distil your advice into one main point for people looking to get into journalism, what would it be?

Each way into this is different, and it’s all equally valid. There’s not one way you have to do it. If it feels right for you, it probably is right. Don’t try to be someone else. Also, it pays to find your niche, especially at the beginning.

If I work for a UK broadcaster, I’m the Germany expert! Which is weird, because, are you the expert on the UK? So anything that comes out of Germany it’s like, can you do this? Which is okay, because it gives me work, and I can branch out from there. And it’s important to play to your strengths, don’t be embarrassed to do that. And don’t be embarrassed in general!

Kit Sinclair
Kit Sinclair

Kit Sinclair is a final year Modern Languages undergraduate at The University of Nottingham, as well as a veteran student journalist, having been involved with the student magazine Impact for coming up on four years. A freelance journalist, her work has also appeared in magazine Are We Europe and the What IF? podcast.

She has been awarded the SPA Regional Award for Best Journalist in 2023 and attended her first ever SPA Conference in Glasgow.

Header image courtesy of Kristina Völk