Wednesday, March 10, 2010...10:11 pm

Tales from the trade press: ‘soft’ features can be harder than you think

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I suspect that most journalists and journalism students assume that the toughest feature assignments are for the nationals – hard-hitting investigative exposes of political corruption, say – or for dirt-digging celebrity magazines. All that hanging around in the pouring rain at 3am to catch Ashley Cole in a compromising SMS incident, maybe, or pretending to be from Interflora to get access to Simon Cowell’s hallway.

I know nothing of this. For I write feature articles for the trade press.

In the pantheon of hard-nosed journalism, my work is fairly soft. For a while I was known as the king of the show preview, as I grabbed hold of any opportunity to churn out (read: carefully craft) 2,000-word articles about promotional marketing exhibitions, or regional shows about outdoor event services. You probably don’t even know what those are, and your life is infinitely richer for it.

There’s a simple reason for my choice of journalistic path. In terms of pure money-for-time reward (a self-employed tradesman’s key calculation) they offered by far the most bang for my writing buck.

Show previews were great – especially after the arrival of email. I could call in a whole lot of information with a mailshot and then write the feature around my other shift-based commitments. And then send in my invoice – the best bit.

I also enjoyed writing features about promotional badges (yes, really) and direct mail. There was nothing so dull or trivial that I would not eagerly accept my £200-£240 per thousand word commission to write it.

Because one of the key attractions was that they were relatively easy to research. Aside from the odd case study about a brand owner, as opposed to an industry supplier, most of the people I tried to talk to for a quote or background information were happy enough to speak to me. We were part of the great trade press symbiosis – they threw me some crumbs of information in return for the oxygen of free editorial publicity.

Case studies were a bit trickier, as consumer brand-owners had much less incentive to play ball. But the suppliers who wanted their trade press publicity could often persuade one to cough up something I could use.

I know. It’s hardly the Washington Post breaking the Watergate scandal – but they were often fun to write and they did pay the rent.

Somehow, however, all that seems to have changed.

I’ve written before about how hard it’s been to prise information out of some recycling companies who really ought to have been falling over themselves to parade their green credentials to a member of the fourth estate.

I’m finding the same thing happening now in the top secret world of oral care.

It’s weird, frankly. I’m writing a harmless feature about the changing face of toothpaste tubes, but no company involved with making or selling toothpaste has seen fit to talk to me about it. Either they’re in mid-product launch, or revealing whether they use plastic laminate or aluminium laminate in their tubes is commercial suicide.

The suppliers aren’t much better. I’ve had a few responses (for which many thanks). But several are simply not bothering. Which is fine – but strange, when a few lines on an email, or a five-minute conversation could get free column inches.

It makes me wonder whether this kind of back-of-the-book ad-driven feature writing has much left in it for me. I still enjoy the writing – but the research can be like drawing teeth, and word rates are starting to come under intense pressure from cost-conscious publishers. And – let’s face it – it’s not like I’m bringing a corrupt government to its knees.

Any freelance writers have any experience with this? What’s been your hardest “soft” feature? I’d love to know…

2 Comments

  • I know this is belated, but I’m in trade feature hell. You are absolutely right that the more insignificant the sector or topic, the more up themselves the individuals you need to speak to are.
    At present I’m writing about the heady subject of trophies. You know, the sort of gaudy items that they hand out at the annual golf club dinner, or at various business awards ceremonies. However I think I’d find it easier to write an indepth expose of the upper reaches of Opus Dei given the run around I’m getting.
    Apparently it’s catalogue time of year for this beacon of the UK economy, so nobody can speak. What nobody at all? It seems so.
    You really would think that this backwater of business would be grateful for the slightest interest shown on it, especially in a feature designed to tie in with its annual show – yes, there is one, and an awards ceremony too I don’t doubt (“The trophy for best trophy goes to…)
    But these are obviously busy times in the light industrial estates and warehouse of the West Midlands, so I’ll go away and sob gently into my 1979 Douglas Water Gala Day 5-a-side champs shield…

  • I feel your pain. Do you think this type of feature is harder to research than it was 10 years ago? I get the impression people are less forthcoming than they were – perhaps because they have become used to being able to control whatever they say online…

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