Freelance Journalist

April 22, 2024 (Updated )

From cutting her chops as a freelancer to securing a staff role at The Times Scotland, Carla Jenkins has grafted her way to the top. Despite not having any formal journalism training, she is firm in her belief that this non-traditional route into the industry made her stand out as a candidate on the job hunt.

We caught up with Carla in 2023 at the Student Publication Association’s National Conference to learn about a day in the life of a social media journalist for a national newspaper, what it takes to make eye-catching content in a fast-moving medium, and how embracing what you don’t know can help you progress.

What’s a typical morning like for you?

All of our top social stories go out before I actually go to the office. We usually have coverage from 7am till 7pm on social media, so I will make sure that we’ve got our top stories out from 7am and I do half-hourly slots.

When I wake up, I check emails, check the news, check headlines, check The Times to see what stories are on, and also to see what stories the home section is doing for The Times that we can maybe have in our section. Check the news cycles, get ready, and go into the office.

What does your typical day involve?

When I was a reporter, it was certainly more varied because you never really knew who you were going to talk to and what stories you were going to cover, but the role that I’m in now is definitely more methodical.

So every day when I get in, I’ll actually set ourselves up for the full day on socials. That means putting all our stories out on Twitter/X and Facebook or putting something out on LinkedIn, getting them all out for the half-hourly slots.

Then I will check all of our competitors and all kinds of news sites in Scotland, even the smaller sites like the Auburn Times, Shetland Times, or The Clydebank Post, and I actually look at the student publications as well like The Saint in St Andrews, and the Glasgow Guardian because we get quite a lot of stories actually from student publications. I’ll check CrowdTangle, I’ll check Google Trends, and I’ll create a report for our editors.

Journo Resources
"I worked really hard; I never rested on my laurels, I didn't have a journalism degree to fall back on. I wasn't walking into the newsroom thinking, ‘I'm completely capable of doing this’, I was more like ‘I've got no idea how to do this – but I know that I've got something’
Carla Jenkins, social media journalist for The Times Scotland

Then I’ll look at the stories from the day before to see what did really well: what had the most engagement? What had the most dwell time? What we could learn? Or whether there are any follow-ups we could do. I’ll be constantly checking throughout the day like: How many views were we getting on certain things? What stories are doing well? What can we do better? What needs a new headline or more pictures, or body text?

Then I’ll turn my attention to Instagram coverage. I will think about what stories could do well, maybe as a reel, a carousel or a picture, and how I can package them up. [I’m] constantly talking to the social team in London, the designers, and liaising with them.

It depends on what day of the week it is, but I also do a bit of writing as well. I’ll do a file on my Table Scraps column, which is foodie news, on Wednesdays. I do listings columns, as well as check on what events are on.

And yeah, some days will be different. If there’s a big story my editor [will be] like: “Can we get on socials and just get as much as you can about that”. But yeah, it’s always different.

A screenshot of some of Carla's stories in The Times
A selection of Carla’s recent stories. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

What makes a good article for social media and what are publications looking for?

For The Times Scotland, we like that punchy, eye-catching thing. People have such a low attention span; when you watch a video, a lot of the time if it’s not vertical and doesn’t have subtitles, people won’t watch it.

So, you need to make it accessible for your audience and entice them — but without giving too much away. As I said, we want people to click through to the website. We want people to read it and think: “I really want to read the rest of that story, how can I do that?”

Did you always want to be a journalist?

I fell into it. I never thought I’d be a journalist. I was always really good at English in school and it was my natural passion. I studied English literature and then I went to Ireland and did a degree in Irish writing, so I didn’t study journalism. I had quite a non-traditional route into it.

I actually came home and didn’t have any plans, [so] I started freelancing. I realised as I was doing it that I wanted to get a job in a newspaper — and I had a whole lot of other things I had to learn. Yes, I fell into it. But I don’t know what else I would do now if I wasn’t a journalist.

What surprises you most about your job?

The Times is such a huge machine and, for me, it was fascinating to find out how it works. The difference between newsrooms is always really interesting; working at the Glasgow Times, Glasgow Live, or The Herald compared to working for The Times is different, because you don’t just have one picture editor, you have a team of picture journalists and photojournalists, and seeing how they work and how you can work with them is so interesting.

It’s pretty fascinating to see behind the numbers and how data-led we can really be, seeing how many people have read a certain story and for how long, whether they’re women or men, or if they’re older, they’re younger. That’s fascinating to me, and it’s increasingly becoming more useful.

Journo Resources
"Take the opportunities that you can, and try to be on top of everything. Collect your bylines like trophies, they're really important for when you're starting out. And don't be afraid to go into the newsroom."
Carla Jenkins, social media journalist for The Times Scotland

What is the most surprising statistic you can tell us about social media and engagement?

The stories that do well for us on socials are the ones that you think would do well. Sometimes you get anomalies — anything to do with wildlife goes crazy for us. We had one about deer that used to wander into this Highland village, and it got hundreds of thousands of page views. We just couldn’t understand why.

It was picked up on Google Discover which is probably one of the reasons why, and it had a great picture as well. But you always have anomalies and outliers and they always keep you on your toes.

What qualities did you have as a journalist that got you the job you have now?

I think, for me, being in that non-traditional route into journalism, I had to prove myself as worthy and capable. I did that through absolute graft; I worked so hard to start my career — and still work hard on it now. I will be honest, [it was often] for very, very low money. I’ve actually managed to double my salary in the last five years from being strategic with where you go and constantly looking for other jobs and keeping an eye out on things.

But I think your work speaks for you. I think I’ve managed to get where I am now because I said yes to everything. I worked really hard and I never rested on my laurels — I didn’t have a journalism degree to fall back on. I wasn’t walking into the newsroom thinking: ‘I’m completely capable of doing this, I know how to work this, this, this, and this.” I was more like: “I’ve got no idea how to do this, but I know that I’ve got something”.

I’ve got a way with people and I can persuade people to speak to me, I can write well, I can write clearly, and I can write interesting stories. So [I ask myself] what else can I learn, how do I learn how to do everything else everyone already knows? I think having that ambition and hunger for the job and also just not being afraid to work really hard.

What are you most proud of achieving?

I’m really proud that I won the Young Journalist of the Year Award. When I won, it was a big surprise and I was really proud because I wasn’t anticipating it; I didn’t have a lot of stories. And I’m proud of where I work now. So [I’m really proud] to have got to where I am, because I think it’s been a culmination of a lot of years of hard work.

I actually ended up writing a story about my gran. She used to sing this song about the Shell — it was a monument which used to be in Glasgow Central Station. Jackie, who works in the station, actually ended up finding it after she read the story and put it back on the station. I thought that was really lovely. I was really proud of that.

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If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently?

Sometimes, I wonder whether or not I should have stayed freelance for longer, because I think I would have built up a bit more momentum behind my career. It’s really hard being freelance and I took a staff job because they paid for me to do certain NCTJ modules. I wish maybe I’d spent a bit more time freelance — but I don’t regret taking the job that I did.

I do wish I’d stuck with shorthand. I left my job in the middle of my course and I never finished the course because I didn’t need it. I think it would have been a great thing to have.

What advice do you have for budding journalists?

My advice would be to work really hard, say yes, take the opportunities that you can, and try to be on top of everything. Your work will speak for itself, but you need to look for the opportunities because they don’t always present themselves. So make sure you’re writing all the time. If you’re writing for a student publication, there’s nothing stopping you from pitching that to a newspaper, a magazine, or a website. Collect your bylines like trophies, they’re really important for when you’re starting out.

And don’t be afraid to go into the newsroom. It’s amazing the conversations you have when you’re making a cup of tea in the kitchen, or when you’re standing at the water fountain. Be consistent in your work, show up, make sure you’ve got good ideas, and make sure you’ve got pictures.

Take care of yourself as well. Everyone obviously wants to impress, and you want to be the one to get the story and to get the scoop. But I think you shouldn’t compromise your journalistic integrity, your own dignity, or your safety. Sometimes, there are stories where people will run straight towards a burning building and stuff like that. You want to be a help not a hindrance, so being aware of that is really important.

Also, take care of your mental health. It’s a very difficult industry and can be really harsh; you don’t get paid very well and you work very hard. So I think creating boundaries for your work and making sure you’re taking care of yourself is really important.

Carla winning Young Journalist of the Year
Carla collects her prize for Young Journalist of the Year.

Is there something about the industry that you really want to see change?

I would like to see more diversity. I think in London, especially, there’s a lot more diversity and inclusivity and representation. In Scotland, we’re moving towards that, but it’s a bit slower.

I would like to see more respect for journalists and journalists’ work. I think a lot of people think because things are free, they don’t need to respect it. But even for websites that aren’t behind paywalls, it can be really tough.

I would like to see journalists get paid more, to be honest. We are an industry that’s been slightly eroded. Once you’ve got a phone in your pocket, everyone can be a journalist or reporter or video journalist — you can film anything.

But journalists have a better understanding of codes and regulations we have to stick to. I think there has to be a change in the public perception of that stereotypical journalist that’s lawless and it’s just not the case at all.

What do you do to unwind after a long day?

I love spending time with my family, my friends, and my partner; they’re not a journalist and it’s lovely to be able to speak to someone whose day is not about the news.

I like to read, I like to cook, and I like to go out for dinner. I’m a big foodie. So a lot of my weekends revolve around where we’re going for food. I listen to a lot of music, and I try to turn off the news and I read. I read all sorts of things, but lifestyle articles on things like Refinery 29 and other websites like that. And I love watching Corrie.

Waseem Mohamed
Waseem Mohamed

Waseem Mohamed has spent over a year being the news editor at Durham’s student newspaper Palatinate, covering breaking news, investigations, and interviews. He also has numerous bylines in The Guardian, The Observer, and The Telegraph.

Waseem’s interests lie particularly in foreign affairs, politics, and data journalism.

Header image courtesy of Carla Jenkins