Great interview with Greg Lowe…

I was very fortunate to find such an accomplished journalist to interview.

Greg Lowe is a Bangkok-based editor and journalist with 11 years publishing experience. I found Greg in a LinkedIn group for journalists, I requested an interview and he kindly accepted.

I began by asking Greg if he could tell me a little about himself…

I’m English, I come from Romsey, in Hampshire on the South Coast of England, but got into journalism in Bristol, my university town, where I lived for about nine years. Basically, I finished my Masters degree (in Ecology and Society) and there was a big political demonstration being organized in London, one of the groups I had covered in my research was involved and by serendipity I met the senior news reporter from a regional weekly (The Big Issue) had a chat with him about it and he suggested I write a feature on it.

Fortunately they liked it and I ended up writing weekly news and features from then on. This was 1999. A few months later I wrote the first feature to be syndicated by the group’s flagship paper in London from our metro edition in the Southwest which had been running for about eight years at the time.   

Before I left the UK in August 2001, I was the senior news reporter; I had a couple of other strings and occasionally subbed at Future Publishing, which was the largest independent magazine publisher in the UK. I edited a local music magazine for free, essentially to get more experience, but mainly because it was good fun. I was also offered the position of news editor at The Big Issue in the North, but I had already made plans to go travelling for a year, so turned it down. I’m sure my career would have taken a different trajectory, but I have no regrets.

I and have been living in Thailand for almost ten years. I arrived here on my mountain bike having cycled around Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and then Thailand with a friend from August 2001 till May 2002. We ran out of cash. I got a job on a local magazine where you could smell the rubber burning and me and an American colleague got sacked after demanding that we and the rest of the editorial/design team got paid some three months later.

[I met my long-suffering girlfriend Mint around the end of 2002. We got married in Kanchanaburi overlooking the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (not the same one in the film) in 2007 and our daughter, Isabel, was born in January 2008.]

But after that I was offered a job as managing editor of a local books magazine which had a minimum two-year commitment. I stuck that out for three-and-a-half years. It was generally a good job and I interviewed plenty of leading authors, business people and thinkers, as well as covering off quite a lot of local travel and lifestyle features. Human interest was generally the name of the game. I also helped brainstorm ideas for the company’s book publishing programme too.

After that I was headhunted to lead the English language buying team for a local chain of bookstores that was expanding. I was also meant to be starting a publishing programme, which was what was most interested in, but the whole thing was a nightmare. It took 18 months for us to part ways, after which I went back to freelancing (having just bought a house and with my daughter’s birth due two weeks later).

Never matter how bad that job was, I picked up many useful skills. One was a much more in depth understanding of the worlds of business and finance from both a technical and operational level. This would provide invaluable as I ended up working as a business journalist. The other matter was understanding the world of book retail, i.e. what sells, which helps me in my other line of work, publishing consultancy/literary rights management.

* You have been in the journalism industry for over ten years, what originally inspired you to begin writing?

As I mentioned earlier, it was serendipity. I had planned to continue my academic career with a PhD in politics/social sciences, but after writing my second dissertation I wanted to get out into the real world and use what I had learned. Journalism was a good channel for that.

* What has been your favorite topic to write about? What has been the biggest story you have written about?

That’s a tough question.

When I first started out, I wrote a lot about politics, social exclusion, homelessness and I started to develop solid expertise on drugs use and drugs policy. I’ve always been linking big picture events and political or social dynamics with the people who either cause the problem or live with the consequences of them. At the end of the day, whatever the story is, if it involves people, then it comes to life through those people.

If you look at drug use, for example heroin addiction, then talk to the people who live with it. Find out what an addict living on the streets goes through to feed their addiction. Look at what it does to communities and families. Interview doctors who work with addicts and find out what they think about the effectiveness of the related criminal justice and health service policies. Get them to provide the analysis and discuss the issues.

The same approach works well for any feature story, be it hard news or a piece on gay rodeos (my friend had a ball writing and shooting that story for Maxim).   

Last year, I wrote a fair bit on the political situation in Thailand, but that’s become quite depressing of late.

Without wanting to sound glib, I like writing about anything that gets me excited. Flying down to Singapore to interview Jeffrey Archer, a former British politician who did time for perverting the course of justice, but was also a phenomenally successful author (of terrible books!) was great fun. You would probably have to jump through fewer hoops to get an interview with Gadaffi. It was great fun. I was completely disarmed by his charisma and force of personality, but I still managed to write a very sarcastic feature about him when I got home. So it was a win-win situation.

I’ve interviewed Paul Theroux face to face a couple of times. He’s fascinating. As are many authors I’ve interviewed, including Malcolm Gladwell, Iain Banks (an all time favourite) and Michael Palin.

I don’t really know what the biggest story I’ve written on has been, but I was one of the first British journalists to start writing about hepatitis C (in 2000). I was proud of that.

* What has been your biggest struggle in writing?

Discipline. Time management. Making sure you get paid as a freelancer, which is not easy.

I wish I had done an NTCJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists ) course as shorthand would save a lot of time transcribing tapes.

But I think the biggest issue is my dyspraxia (it’s similar to dyslexia but without the vocab. and grammar issues, most of the time). Sometimes the mechanics of writing can be a real chore. But it’s always worth it in the end.

* What do you think will be the future of journalism?

Journalism will always be around in one format or another. A free press is the bellwether of democracy. There are many problems though. The corporatization of news is seriously affected the way people report. Too few powerful magnates (i.e. Rupert Murdoch etc), have too much power and can manipulate the news agenda to serve their own agendas. This has resulted in a dumbing down of reporting around the world. These issues are not new, but I believe the global media power wielded by a small group of people has never been so disproportionate.

The changes in media and communication (internet, social media etc) means everyone wants everything for free. Journalism costs money and it always will, but the impact of the e-revolution has weakened the profession. It started with the so-called democratization of photography via digital cameras and the internet. That does mean more people take better pictures, but the overall effect is a reduction in standards.

As you can see with video, photography and now comment, news agencies are using so-called citizen reporters and comments from bloggers a lot more. Why? Because they are free.

However, I do think convergence devices such as tablets (iPads etc) will give magazine style journalism and newspapers a shot in the arm, once the businesses work out how to effectively monetize these platforms.    

* How do you use social media?

I use my website as a digital portfolio more than anything else. If I pitch stories a prospective editor can check me out by browsing my site and decide whether they want to commission me. Twitter is useful at times, e.g. when the riots and crackdown took place last year it was one of the best channels for keeping up to date in real time. I also use it to drive people to my blog. This helps with SEO so I now beat other Greg Lowe’s (founder of Lowe Alpine and an American jazz musician) in the Google rankings. This helps when people search for journalists in Bangkok and I have been offered work by publications which found me this way. 

Facebook is more for friends. I have very tight security settings on my account. Anyone can search it otherwise and any HR department will look at your page when you apply for a job, so I’d suggest having two accounts to separate church and estate, so to speak.

While social media and the internet have revolutionized communication and the dissemination of information, they are not magic bullets. In many ways they have opened the flood gates and allowed a sewer of half truths and hyperbole flood the world. 70% of stories nowadays may have been sparked by a blogger or some comment on a social networking site, but that does not make the story. A credible journalist needs to verify the facts and work out if there really is something newsworthy in whatever was said. Verifying such facts is challenging, but this is what separates news organizations from bloggers. 

* What do you feel would be the biggest mistake an upcoming journalist could make?

To think that you’re owed anything or that you’re entitled to anything. The belief that you know more than other people, especially you’re interviewees and readers. To think that you are the story (save for really good gonzo/immersionist writers).

Journalism is a job. It is a vocation. If you take news, your job is to provide accurate, verifiable information as quickly and accurately as possible, in an engaging way that makes people want to read what you have written. You are not there to educate people or tell them how things really are. Your job is to inform.

In the UK, journalism degrees are generally looked down on by the news industry. This is because the job of a reporter is not to deliberate on or debate the philosophy of the media. The job is to get out there and find stories. Back in the day people were trained on the job. Some of the best people I have ever worked with never went to college, they never went to university. They started on a paper when they were 16 and were brought up to speed by hard news men and women. If they didn’t make the cut they lost their job, it was that simple.

 In the UK the NTCJ is the benchmark vocational qualification and it is tough. I now wished I had taken that course, but my editor at the time said there was little point as I was working and doing fine learning on the job. The point is that learning how to write and report is a visceral process. You learn by doing and technical theory has nothing to do with it.

I have seen no correlation between someone having a masters in journalism and them being especially capable or skilled when it comes down to getting on with the job. It may help them get a job, but I don’t believe it makes them any good at it.

At the end of the day, you’re only as good as the stories your write. That is how you must measure yourself.

* What piece of advice would you give an upcoming journalist?

Listen to what people say when you interview them. Don’t prejudge them or any other aspect of a story. Give voice to all sides and be balanced in doing so. This means you do not let your own views or agendas dominate your reporting. It’s harder than it sounds and in my early days I definitely fell foul to this. But I learnt quickly enough. Nothing’s more boring than a preaching sanctimonious journalist. Objectivity is a myth, but balanced writing and reporting is essential.

 Also listen to your subeditors and be willing to learn. Most of the time people change your stories it is for a good reason. I have had some very annoying people rewrite my work to make it sound like them and put mistakes in the copy at the same time, but those experiences are few and far between. If a sub or editor changes your copy significantly, don’t take it personally, simply ask them why. They are likely to be very frank, but learn from your mistakes. It’s the only way to really improve. Everyone has been there, and the copy editors and desk editors will notice when you listen to their advice and learn from it.

Develop a specialism. I used to be specialist in drug policy, but over the years I’ve held a number of posts from features and literary journalism to news and finance reporting, with some lifestyle and political analysis mixed in. Part of that was due to my circumstances and what the market had to offer. But even if you don’t get paid to write on your specialism, stay sharp with it. I think this is where having a blog can be very useful. If you have time outside of you paid work, you can create a platform for focused reporting and commentary, even if you cannot always successfully sell the story.  

You also need to be flexible. I took up an opportunity as a bookseller mainly because of the chance to start a publishing programme. I love working with content and writers, so I’d be happy doing that and it’s not to far a step from magazine type journalism. While that opportunity evaporated when the reality of the job came clear, the publisher I previously worked from was sold three weeks after I jumped ship. If I had have stayed I would have been out of work.

During the financial crisis I did communications consultancy and copywriting as well as journalism. That proved prudent when many of my strings were cut as advertising revenue plummeted at the papers and magazines I worked with which meant the cut freelance contributions (as with my gig as the Thailand correspondent for The Business Times, which took a year to get back), or they just stopped paying.

As a freelancer I would always recommend having some non-journalistic work to spread your risk.  

__________________________________

Greg, thank you so much for the inspiring interview *

Take care & good luck with all of your future endeavors *

Live in joy * Live in Love * Live in peace

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. unfathomableruckus
    May 23, 2011 @ 01:35:14

    This person is very smart and I’m going to take his advice to heart. Having something that you are so good at that it is truly exceptional is useful even if you will never be paid for it in money. Also, the idea that all of our creations are reflections of ourselves and must be treated as such as opposed to nonchalantly and halfheartedly. I really liked this interview and think it had a down-to-Earth vibe while being very professionally done. Thanks for the great insights.

    Reply

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