Welcome to Episode 8!
For STIMY Episode 8, we have Barbara Woolsey – a Canadian freelance journalist currently based in Berlin, Germany at the time of this podcast interview.
Who is Barbara Woolsey?
Barbara Woolsey was raised on the Canadian prairies in a culturally-vibrant family. She is of Filipino, Scottish and Irish heritage – a unique background that meant that she was quite unlike anyone else she knew while growing up!
We explore the question of identity, particularly as a first-generation immigrant in Canada, as well as her first exposure and reconciliation with the Filipino part of her identity while carrying out an internship with Bangkok Post – Thailand’s leading English daily.
Prior to becoming a freelance journalist, Barbara worked for the Bangkok Post, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as a television and radio reporter, and In Channel (formerly True Visions 92), a former English-language channel in Bangkok. Some of the things we discussed included:
- working in a country where she was not versed in the local language; and
- the realities of being on camera and being exposed to harsh criticism concerning her looks on social media.
Life as a Freelance Journalist
As a freelance journalist, Barbara has covered a wide range of topics, including lifestyle, culture, food, travel, and politics, for a variety of publications: Reuters, The Guardian, The Telegraph, USA Today, AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, Tasting Table, Thrillist, Time Out, Roads & Kingdoms, Vice, and others.
She has also interviewed a wide range of people including politicians, Berlin DJs, hotel maids, Venezuelan gang members, transgender sex workers in the Netherlands & Bernard Trink (who wrote weekly column “Nite Owl” for 40 years in Bangkok World – a publication then known as Bangkok Post)
If you have ever wondered what it’s like to become a freelance journalist, then this is the episode for you!
Other Things We Discussed
- How Barbara reinvented herself time and again while living in Thailand and therefore, Germany;
- Being submerged in the local journalism scene;
- How she uncovered writing opportunities for herself & established herself as a journalist;
- Fees generated as a freelance journalist;
- Some of her more “dangerous” writing assignments (hint: hanging out with Venezuelan gang members!);
- How she crafted a work/life balance for herself;
- How Barbara stands out with her writing;
- The impact of COVID-19; and
- Whether journalism work done virtually is as good as when done in person.
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:
- Richard Lui: MSNBC & NBC News Anchor; Peabody team award winner
- Austen Allred: Co-Founder & CEO of Lambda School – a coding school that lets you attend for FREE using the Income Sharing Agreement (ISA) scheme, where you have to pay back only after earning above $50k/year. Graduates of this Y Combinator backed startup have gone on to work in Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Google & IBM
- Rahul Chaudhary: Managing Director of Chaudhary Group – a 140-year-old family business empire that is currently headed by his father, Binod Chaudhary (Nepal’s 1st & only Forbes billionaire)
- Lincoln Lee: Founder, RICE Inc – which won the prestigious USD $1 million HULT Prize award for social enterprises (organised by the UN & former President Bill Clinton)
- Guy Kawasaki: Chief Evangelist of Canva & Apple
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- Barbara’s Fodor article: I’m Quarantined With a Michelin Chef, It’s Kind of Annoying
- Barbara’s investigative piece on Bernard Trink
- Barbara Woolsey: Website, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook
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Ep 8: Barbara Woolsey - Freelance Journalist
Barbara Woolsey : My personal goal is to find a different angle that nobody is expecting on something.
One of the best compliments I ever got, was a story about the head of Godiva chocolates.
There were other journalists covering the story and they went a really linear route on it. But I found out that he actually used to be a chemist.
And so I decided to cover it from the side of, what does chemistry have to do with chocolate making and how does being a chemist, how do you create flavors with this background? When we did the interview, he was like, wow, these are questions that nobody's ever asked. And I have to really think about it.
And for me, that was just such a compliment. And so I always really try to find an emotional angle or something kind of weird or quirky.
Cause I think everybody has a story to be told, and people, they're just such landscapes. Over the course of a lifetime, you have so many moments and experiences and I just really love to kind of unravel that and tell personal stories.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone. Welcome to episode eight of the So This Is My Why podcast.
I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah, and today's guest is Barbara Woolsey.
Barbara is a Canadian freelance journalist that I first came across through her FODOR article, which was intriguingly entitled: I'm quarantined with the Michelin chef. It's kind of annoying.
I was completely drawn into her narrative and also her extensive body of work. She has covered everything from Berlin DJs and Finnish artists to Venezuelan gang members, wrote for Reuters, The Guardian, the Telegraph, VICE, and USA today, while also contributing to the Lonely Planet guidebooks and the Michelin Green Guides.
In this interview, we talk about growing up as a first-generation immigrant in Canada, and her struggle with identity. Being of Filipino, Irish, and Scottish roots, she always found that she never quite fit in and it's been quite a journey for her.
We talked about what she learned in journalism school, the glamorous life of hanging out with celebrities on the red carpet versus sleeping among Venezuelan gang members with guns under their pillows, as well as what it takes to be a freelance journalist in this day and age.
If you're looking to make it in this world as a freelance writer, or just want to know how to craft a compelling story, then this is the episode for you.
I'd also like to give a small warning in advance, the recording for this episode was a little patchy at times, and I hope you bear with it.
And before we start a quick shout out, Laar's Head's Supernormal for this review: Great podcast, obviously a passion project for Ling. Very varied guest spots from musicians to artists, to the occasional stunt woman means it's always fresh and always surprising, highly recommended.
Well, thank you so much for the review.
If you'd like to leave your own review, just head over to Apple Podcasts. And so at short, so this is my why. I love hearing back from our listeners and knowing how I can improve as well as the kind of guests you'd like to see featured on this podcast. And who knows, I may give you a shout out in the next episode, but until then this is episode eight of the So this is my why podcast with Barbara Woolsey.
Are you ready?
So I actually came across you because I was reading this Fodor article you wrote recently. And I just loved the title of the article because it really drew me.
And you said, I'm quarantined with a Michelin chef. It's kind of annoying. And I wondered if you could share a little bit about what that is like with your quarantine life in Berlin, why it's kind of annoying.
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah. My boyfriend is a chef. He has a restaurant here in Berlin called Coda, which he just got a second Michelin star for a couple of months ago, which was really exciting.
And one of the things just, you know, chatting with friends, they've been asking me is, Oh, well, you know, you must be so lucky to be quarantined with a chef.
You must be eating so well.
And the reality is we do a lot of cooking and I am very fortunate to get to have my boyfriend cooking, but it's also not a total walk in the park either.
We have three different lifestyles.
He works a lot of nights. I travel a lot. So to be actually spending time together, 24 seven, both working in our apartment, it's been quite difficult.
Ling Yah: I imagine that it's quite a struggle for a lot of people. Cause a lot of people have been used to like seeing each other maybe once or twice or never at all and now suddenly you're just forced into this one place, 24/7.
How long have you guys actually been here in a lockdown for though?
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah, since the middle of March. So the restaurant also closed down around that time as well. Now we're in May and things are starting to open up again, which is really nice.
We've definitely been very fortunate here in Germany. We haven't had such a high mortality rate in other countries. So we're finally getting to see things start to open up again here and life returned to a bit of normal, really.
Ling Yah: And you didn't actually grow up or spend all your time in Berlin.
You actually grew up in Canada. But you also have a really interesting cultural background. You are Filipino, Irish and Scottish. So I was just wondering what it was like, just growing up and having this really diverse kind of background.
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah, it's something that I struggled a lot with as I grew up.
So my mother's from the Philippines. And my father grew up in Canada, but his parents are from Scotland and Ireland respectively, and they came immigrants at the beginning of the century of the 1900s. So it's definitely something that, you know, we didn't ever really talk about, like really addressing the idea of, okay.
You know, you have a lot of family in the Philippines, but you're here in Canada and it's something that I really had to come to understand over the years, like, living in Canada and I have a huge Irish family. Like my father is one of 12 and I've got tons of cousins and aunts and uncles, but nobody that looked like me.
And of course my mother's entire family was all in the Philippines. My mother's one of nine, and again, tons of cousins and aunts and uncles. I didn't really know any of them.
We talked on the phone, but a lot of them also don't speak a lot of English. So it was really something that I had to think a lot about, over the course of my life and as a child, sometimes that was also quite hard to understand, like why things were like that.
Ling Yah: And was that love or stories, which I understand is with you. Is that something that came about as a result of your family background or influenced by a culture as well?
Barbara Woolsey : I always just loved stories and reading. I remember being a small child and my father would read to me and my mother would read to me every night.
I was even in the bookstore yesterday and just looking at books and remembering I used to read Huckleberry Finn or hunchback of Notre Dame or all of these books. And that was just something that I always loved. And one story that my dad always tells me is that when I was little, I would draw pictures and then I would tell him, okay, these should be the words to the story.
And then he would write the story for me. So I was already coming up with stories when I was four years old, five years old, and I couldn't even write really yet. So that's just always something that I've been really interested in somehow.
Ling Yah: So that love for storytelling just informed your entire life. Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do when you grew up? And how did that internship come about?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, I always thought that I wanted to be an author.
When I was quite young, I then started writing a lot of stories. And then I think in high school, I started working for the high school newspaper. And then I started to find out about journalism, and learn about that as a career. And I thought, wow, this could be a way to make a living.
Like you can write every day and write something new every day. So then I started to really think about that. And then from that, I worked for the university newspaper and , yeah, it just always was something that I wanted to do.
Ling Yah: And you also mentioned briefly earlier about your Thai family, and I think you didn't get to meet them until you were 13.
So what was that experience of traveling literally halfway around the world to meet people that probably don't even speak your own language?
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah, so I went to the Philippines for the first time when I was 13 with my mother. And it was a very formative experience because I don't really speak Tagalog and I didn't really know what to expect.
And all of a sudden, I went with my mother to the Island where she grew up and where people have very basic life. You know, living in kind of tree houses and not really beds for everyone. And it was a very humbling experience to see, how I get to live here, Canada and how I grew up and where my mother came from.
She worked very hard to come to Canada. She left home at 16 actually, and started working. So, yeah, that was incredible. And then also to meet my grandmother. Who's the only living grandparent that I ever got to meet. It was amazing.
She didn't speak any English, she's passed away now, but just sitting there with her, it was an incredibly surreal experience to just spend time together and not really need, even words, but to just connect.
So that definitely, made me really fall in love with the idea of, you know, different cultures coming together.
Ling Yah: And how did you decide that you want to do journalism and that process of deciding and actually going to university, can you share with us the experience?
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah. So where I grew up in Canada, I was quite lucky that there was journalism in that city. And it was known for being the best journalism school in Western Canada.
Where you could also study the small group, you know get an internship as part of the curriculum. So that already was very attractive to me.
Ling Yah: And what was your big takeaway from those 4 years at university?
Barbara Woolsey : I mean, studying journalism in a university setting really gave me the tools I would say on the ground. I mean, we had classes that were entirely about the art of interviewing and how to conduct interviews and how to ask questions.
And so we had classes on the legalities of journalism in what situations are you and your sources protected? We studied photojournalism and, you know, production of television and radio and print.
I mean, it really is such a comprehensive view of this career that I can't imagine having jumped into it. I really respect people that haven't gone that road and then they jump into it from other directions.
Ling Yah: You mentioned earlier the art of interviewing and I find that so interesting.
Like what about it? Do you have any tips for this interviewing process?
Barbara Woolsey : Hmm. Yeah, I would say, I think it's good to prepare for an interview to have an idea of what questions you wanted to ask, what you hope to get out of the interview, but then on a certain point, it's good to just like, take that, throw it away and completely go with the flow of the interview.
I mean, I think there's nothing worse than when somebody sits there with a list of questions and just follows it because you just never know what kind of nuggets people are going to throw it at you. You have to be listening actively.
You have to really hear what the person is saying because you know, something might come out of that and think, Oh, that's really interesting. Like you can never go into an interview with the story already written, basically, because it could just take you in such a totally different direction. You really just have to be open, I think, in the situation and it's something that you just learn with time and with practice.
Ling Yah: And is there anyone in particular you think who does this really well and you admire and look up to?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, I think that there's a lot of people that do it really well. I mean, especially like on television, for example, maybe like Christian Amanpour or somebody like that. When you're doing radio interviews, that's kind of a whole other art form.
it depends on the medium, for sure.
For example, if you are interviewing for television. and you just need a certain short 30 second sound bite to fit into the news program for the evening. Then it's a totally different art, you have to know exactly, okay. How am I going to chop this up later?
Sometimes you might have to re ask the question or even say to the person, you know, sorry, I love what you just said, but that's too long. Is there a way we can shorten that up?
So I think you have to always just be thinking about the medium as well, how it's going to translate basically at the end of the day.
Ling Yah: So you decided to go to Bangkok Posts. What was that like? Because I read that you went everywhere from Opera premiers, award ceremonies to even meeting a Buddhist monk, which is pretty incredible.
Barbara Woolsey : So I was very lucky to have that opportunity.
The university that I went to has an international internship. And one of the teachers there, she had worked with Bangkok previously, so she still had a connection and then came the idea that they should send an intern every year to the Bangkok post.
So I was really lucky to be the first person to do it. And since then, there's been, you know, at least five, six, maybe or more people who have done it, which is amazing. And sometimes we keep in touch and we share our experiences. And like, I think the apartment that I stayed in back then, that's the same apartment that everybody stayed in since then, which I think is really funny.
And I remember that one of the things that the editor told me, she said that, , what we just loved about you is just that you were up for doing anything, we could send you to the opera and you would cover it, or we could send you to this or send you to that.
And you never said no. And I think that has been something that's really helped me throughout my whole career. Is just being willing to, and to try different things.
Also. I mean, having boundaries, of course, no, in that respect, but when it comes to trying something different , I've always just been happy to jump into things.
And I think that as a journalist, that's something that can be really helpful to you, especially today in journalists. And when it is so hard to make a living, it really helps to be versatile.
Ling Yah: Isn't it hard for someone to say no, particularly as an intern? I mean, you would want to show that you can cover everything, basically. Any story in any industry that they throw at you.
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah. I'm not sure. I think that, especially as journalists. You know, get further on in their careers, I've definitely met a lot of them that get to be jaded with the whole thing and are kind of like, okay, this is what I do, and this is my box and they get just really into the motions of it.
And I think that that can be really dangerous because that's just, when you kind of fall in love with the beautiful spontaneity of this profession. So I do really try to just keep allowing myself to be surprised and to lend in the unexpected, I guess
Ling Yah: So as an intern, were you basically treated as a proper journalist and they just basically said, cover this event, just go and you just went and did it.
Barbara Woolsey : Yes. They often just kind of threw me into things.
It was like, okay , give Barbara one responsibility and she did it all right. So we can give her something else. And then they just kind of kept adding on to the point where, you know, I was sent actually to Malaysia to cover a story.
A lot of newsrooms these days, there aren't that many bodies anymore to cover stories. So they were also getting offers for stories, and other places. And a lot of things that couldn't be covered with the team.
So they were like, okay, send the intern. That's great. So I was getting to do a lot of things. And I think that's why it's so great to do internships these days. You can really get to try a lot of different things.
Ling Yah: Is there a particular kind of piece that really stands out for you and that you loved?
Barbara Woolsey : There were just so many moments where I just learned so much about myself and about this profession.
One of the things I had to do was I had to climb a mountain in Malaysia . I had to climb Mount Kinabalu. So they sent me there and that was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.
And it was one of those things where they were like, Oh, we've got this offered. For someone to go next week, do you want to go?
And it turns out that people train for two months doing stairs and all this kind of stuff to do this mountain, but I didn't know that at the time I just said, Oh yeah, great. I've never been to Malaysia and why not.
And then it ended up turning into this whole first person narrative about making this climb and just, you know, constant self-doubt of, Oh my God, can I do this? And then the big payoff at the end of getting up to the summit and then just the whole anticlimax having to go the whole way down.
Oh my gosh. It was so intense. And I had the guide that goes with you and he would just go so fast and just be at the next point, like smoking a cigarette, and it was just, I was always just like, Oh, this isn't fair, but I remember him saying he did it twice a week for 10 years or something like that, which is insane if you think about it.
Ling Yah: I know. And I don't know if you saw like when you just enter it into the park, they actually have this big wooden plaque and it shows there is this marathon where people go from the bottom to the peak and back, and it's a race and they finished around four hours.
Barbara Woolsey : That's wrong. That's so wrong.
Ling Yah: I saw that and I thought, Oh my gosh, I'm not doing that.
Barbara Woolsey : Oh my God.I couldn't walk like a couple of days
Ling Yah: Did you love your whole experience? Do you feel like, okay, journalism, this is what I want to do?
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah.
Growing up, I never really felt like I fit in.
Culturally, racially. I really struggled a lot with my identity. And then for the first time in my life, I think it was at the Bangkok Post, that was really the first time ever where I felt like I fit in or not even I fit in, but I don't need to fit in. Because it was just such an international group of people with stories that were just so colorful culturally, you know, there was another journalist who was half Philippino just like me, but he grew up in Germany but now he lives in Thailand and just people that lift in Japan or, Thailand, but studied in America, studied in the UK.
So it was just such a vibrant place that I started to feel like, wow, this is totally okay that I have this story. And not only that, but it's interesting.
It's beautiful to have all these kinds of cultural pockets in your life. That made me fall so in love with Thailand that I ended up going again and that I started to just feel comfortable in my own skin.
Ling Yah: I find it so interesting that you said you felt like you were more accepted, I suppose.
And I wonder if it's because the issues with people highlighting the fact that you were different and that's why you struggled so much as you were growing up there .
Barbara Woolsey : So where it comes from in Canada, it's quite a conservative place. People are wonderful and lovely, but I didn't exactly have that many examples of people to talk to that had my same story where they had parents from two different cultures and to grow up in a household like that.
It's a really interesting story growing up as a first generation immigrant, where you have parents from other places and growing up in Canada where it is so diverse, there wasn't necessarily a conversation about that.
It wasn't necessarily something that I think my parents even thought about. So I think it's something that I'm definitely aware of. There just weren't a lot of examples of that.
Ling Yah: So you finished your internship, then your degree, and you actually continued staying in Canada rather than going overseas by working at CBC. Could you share why that was so and why you decided to leave in the end?
Barbara Woolsey : Wow. So I was very lucky that after university, I got the opportunity to work for the CBC which is an organization that I really respected. That was kind of a dream. So I started doing TV reporting for them.
I just wanted to get experience. And then I ended up going to Thailand for a three month break. I did a little job there in helping a website get off the ground. And during that time I went to an audition for what was going to be a new TV channel.
So forgot all about that and went back to Canada and then ended up getting a call saying, okay, We'd love for you to be involved with the channel. It wasn't even really clear that I was going to have anything there, but at a certain point, I can always continue on here and work here, but this, maybe I should just take a risk and see what happens.
So I went to Thailand, I had been emailing the TV channel. And then they said, okay, come in the next day. This time, we want to see you. And so I went there and then they were like, okay, great. We would love for you to be involved. We're going now to the photo shoot in a couple hours to do the promotions for the new channel.
So are you coming or what? Kind of thing. And then it just went off like that. And from that point on, it was like full power. So I definitely didn't regret the decision to go and try that.
Ling Yah: So I understand that your time at True Vision really molded and impacted you. Can you share why it left such an impact on you?
Barbara Woolsey : So in contrast to the Bangkok Post experience, this was an experience where again, I felt totally out of my depth in a way.
I think perhaps just me and one other person that were actually not Thai. So we were working with a fully Thai team and a lot of the people that didn't speak a lot of English.
So we had to really try to find ways to communicate. I was taking Thai lessons. That was definitely a challenge.
And it was also such a different world. It was a different world that I had never experienced. So my former boss had been in Singapore for many years. And so he was so kind of putting us in touch with Singapore and putting us in touch with a lot of celebrities and we were going to events, fashion shows, and I'm doing red carpets and this was something that I'd never imagined myself being a part of. That was definitely a challenge.
It was also sometimes very difficult, especially being in front of the camera and that way we were open to criticism on the internet.
There were times when I felt myself becoming so conscious of how I looked on camera and how my makeup was being done and what we were wearing and stuff like that, that it could be very difficult sometimes to be strong minded about it.
Ling Yah: Do you have any tips, like what was your way of handling those kinds of criticisms and just doing good work?
Barbara Woolsey : It was just very difficult and in the end you just have to not pay attention to what people say, because there's always going to be somebody that's a hater, you know?
At times I would let myself be very unhappy about that.
And I think that that's, you know, life's too short. It's not worth it to conform yourself or to edit yourself according to the ideas of the faceless people behind Instagram handles or behind, you know, whatever. So I think you just have to really stay true to yourself and know what you're about.
Ling Yah: And in any event, you were living a really exciting life and just meeting really interesting people as well. Was it difficult for you to adapt to so many different scenarios and different people and mold your interviewing stuff in a way and make sure that you have done the proper research?
Barbara Woolsey : Yes.
I was different because I was also doing production as well as home hosting. Um, so that was again like a very different art form like writing TV segments. It was much more off the cuff. We knew what we wanted to talk about in the segment, but we didn't know how that conversation was going to go.
I mean, if it's too planned and it just sounds really bad. So that was definitely a lot of lessons learned in being spontaneous. And sometimes we would just, you know, try things and just be silly. And I really liked that. I felt like that was definitely something that I learned to do from that is just to kind of like put me in front of your camera. And I could talk to you about whatever or whatever amount of time.
Ling Yah: So you were in True Vision for about a year. And could you tell us, like what happened between that period before you decided to move to Berlin, which is again, almost on the other side of the world and decided to switch from a proper monthly paying job to a freelance life.
What were your thoughts behind that decision?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, it wasn't really a decision that I thought. It was more forced upon me. So the TV channel ended up closed. And I then was faced with the decision of, okay, what am I going to do? Should I stay in Thailand, look for other things.
And the opportunity to move to Berlin presented itself, I'd been before on holiday, but I'd never really spent that much time in Europe.
I was very curious about Europe and my partner at the time had a company there. So I just thought, okay, you know what again, the same idea of leaving Canada, like I can always come back to Thailand. So this time, why don't we try something different again and go to Germany and yeah. And so then the freelance life started immediately.
Everything up until that point , things had fallen into place quite easily. I see now . But Germany, that was definitely something I had to really work hard at, was to create a life for myself here, create a network and find work here. Because I was coming to this country that was speaking the language without knowing anybody.
So that was definitely very difficult. The first year was quite difficult. Especially, you know, going from having a somewhat glamorous lifestyle of working in television and getting to go to all these events and knowing all these people and then coming to a place where you don't know anybody.
And it's also just such a different vibe. Berlin is really laid back. People don't really dress up here to go out . That's so not the scene here. So it was definitely an adjustment.
Ling Yah: And did you speak German at the time or were you just coming in fresh and you had to learn from scratch?
Barbara Woolsey : No. I mean, it was a very humbling experience. I started going to a language school and I was in classes with quite a few new immigrants to Germany, refugees.
And I was just back to square one, working the same with everybody to speak German. And I just recognized it as something I had to do.
I mean, there's a lot of people here that, you know, after 20 years they don't speak German here. But for me, I knew that was something that I really had to do for my profession, but also just in terms of feeling good about things, I didn't like going to the bank and not being able to talk to someone directly about my own personal things, or for example, you'll find in your apartment.
I felt like a silent player in my own story. So learning to speak German was really important in order to be in charge of my own story.
Ling Yah: And I wonder, how did you begin to even find work when you didn't know anyone, you can even manage to speak the language in those initial days?
What was going through your mind? How did you even begin?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, I mean, just, the same philosophy of just try everything. See what sticks. I mean I did things in the beginning. For example, I taught kindergarten classes. I taught English in kindergarten. I did little jobs here and there for startups.
I did things for very little money just for by-lines. And I did an internship here with a magazine. I just really tried to meet people and get to know things here. And eventually it was just, again, like one step in front of the other, you know, getting to the point where I am now.
Ling Yah: Did you ever feel at any point that it was just too hard and you just wanted to move back home and just do something else?
Barbara Woolsey : I definitely thought about it. I mean, I would say that was a pretty low period in my life when I was really trying to figure things out here. Especially knowing I moved back to Canada, I would have a good resume to kind of work with.
I had a friend for example, that had just moved to the UK at the same time. And was getting a lot of opportunities really quickly. And it was like, Oh, well, you know, if I went somewhere where English could get me through, then, you know, absolutely. But I was committed to making it work here. So I just thought, you know what? Just keep going. And if at a certain point you want to throw in the towel, then it's okay.
But things kept getting rewarded. Like I'd try something and Oh, that maybe didn't work, but you know, tried something else. And it was just one thing after the other, I just kept the door always open and a lot of editors in the States, for example, got to see that I was reliable and that I could do the jobs they were giving me.
And so I really just started to build a network. So I just didn't give up.
Ling Yah: So where were you even finding these opportunities? Was it online on job boards and you just apply for all of them and hope that something sticks and you just do the very best every time?
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah. Um, in the beginning it was a bit of that, but then it really just started to work through word of mouth.
Like the English journalism scene, it isn't that large at the end of the day. So, you know, you get to know someone and they'd be like, Oh, I can't do this job. I've already booked something ? Would you want to do it? And it just really started to function that way that people started recommending me for different things.
So I also really believe in paying it forward and also helping other new journalists, because back then there was really a couple of quite seasoned journalists here in Berlin that were like, yeah, sure. Let's go for a coffee. I'll tell you what I know. So I just really believe in the karma of that whole situation.
Like if you are reliable and if you are good it'll start coming back to you and it's important to also pay that forward to others.
Ling Yah: Do you remember a turning point where you thought, yeah. Okay. I've made it I can make this work.
Barbara Woolsey : I don't know if there was one moment where it was clear to me.
I think a proud phase was just when I started to do interviews in German and really be able to start working in German. That was really a moment when I started to feel like it's what I've been doing and what I've been putting so much effort into finally working. I'm finally starting to see the benefits.
Ling Yah: And could we talk about the finances?
I imagine with freelance work, every time you apply for something, even with the same people, you have to negotiate your rates over and over again. And if you're an unknown entity, you start from the very, very, very bottom and you have to build it up, even when you've been spending a decade that your rates could still be considered quite bad as well.
What is the scene like and how did you even begin to negotiate ?
Barbara Woolsey : Well it depends like in the beginning I was doing things for not a lot of money , just to kind of get my name out there. So it's still always a work in progress.
I know a lot of writers that kind of finance their life by, you know, doing a bit of, you know, writing about the passion projects, the things that they love, but then they also have to do a bit of, you know, corporate writing on the side or copywriting, like things that aren't necessarily their passion, but it kind of pays the bills.
So I think I'm lucky because I also just love the art of writing, of putting words together the idea of a really beautiful sentence to me is something really interesting. So I've definitely been able to find interests or find fun in a lot of things that maybe weren't necessarily what I wanted to be doing.
And I think that that's just important.
And also just knowing your worth. I think that's something that I've had to really learn as I've gotten later in my career is also not be afraid to say, you know what, I would love to do this, but I need to have a bit more money for it.
It takes a lot of time also just calculating okay. How long is this gonna take me?
And there's nobody that tells you how to do these things. Like that was something that I really struggled with also in the beginning was properly calculating, you know, rates and stuff like that, but I think you start to get a feel for it.
And the thing is it just depends so much on what markets you're working in. And you can't really say there's no blanket answer but I think that you kind of talk to other journalists and you get to know other people and you start to get an idea.
Ling Yah: So I imagine for instance, like travel would pay a lot less than writing about current affairs and a big publication.
Could you give us an idea of what the rates are roughly for someone who's just entering and someone who might be in the field for five or 10 years?
Barbara Woolsey : Honestly, it varies so much between the different countries and markets. It's so hard to kind of put a number to it.
I mean in the States, a good publication , people say, Oh, a dollar, a word, but to get a dollar a word.
Especially nowadays there's a lot of layoffs . I've just seen so many ebbs and flows in this industry over the last few years, just you know a wave of layoffs here or, Oh, a new publication starting and they've got a fantastic budget and then, okay.
It didn't work, lay offs. With everybody that I've worked for.
So you really just get used to it and just kind of learn to be on your feet and kind of having a lot of different contexts.
You know, there were times as a freelancer, especially in the beginning when I thought, Oh my goodness like I never want to be in a position where I don't have enough work, but somehow work has always found me in a way, which I think is I'm really lucky, but also it's kind of like the proof is in the pudding.
If you prove that you are reliable and good to work with then, you know, people will come to you.
Ling Yah: So clearly a lot of your success has to do with the fact that you just know how to maintain good relationships with everybody. And they just keep in mind that, Oh, you know, Barbara is a really great person to work with.
How do you manage to keep those relationships alive? I mean, I don't think you get to meet them and see them in person all the time.
So how do you make sure that you're in their mind? And I also understand that editors get replaced quite a lot. So you might work for the publication only to find out that the editor has changed again.
Barbara Woolsey : I mean, that's the thing. It can also work the other way too. Right? Where I've had editors that worked at one pub and then all of a sudden they're working somewhere else and wow. Okay now I've got a connection to them over here. So I think in this day and age, it's also hard to really stay in touch.
Everybody's so busy, but I think social media is a really good way to see what everybody is up to you know, who's working on what stories who's publishing what, and I think that's kind of the way that I see what other writers who I admire are doing what colleagues are doing.
Ling Yah: So do you look at the social media to know what's happening in the world? And then you realize that, oh, certain publications haven't covered it.
And so you pitch it with your own twist. Is that how you would go about doing things?
Barbara Woolsey : Yes. I think it's very important to be sensitive to the landscape
I mean, you have to, if you are a writer, you have to be a reader.
You have to see what else is going out into the world, what you publish and what you actually get to write about. It also doesn't necessarily have anything to do with that either. Like, you know, a story might get taken, it might not get taken, because they've already got something that's kind of similar to that.
Or there's a million reasons that you don't know, but I think it is really important to be in tune with what's going on in the news
My personal goal, always as a writer, is to find a different angle that nobody is expecting on something, but that's a really fun challenge.
One of the best compliments I think I ever got, without it even being a compliment was I did a story about the head of Godiva chocolates, for example.
There were other journalists covering the story and they went a really linear route on it. But I found out that he actually used to be a chemist.
And so I decided to cover it from the side of, okay, what does chemistry have to do with chocolate making and how does being a chemist, how do you create flavors with this background? When we did the interview, he was like, wow, these are questions that nobody's ever asked. And I have to really think about it.
And for me, that was just such a compliment for somebody to say, wow, I've, nobody's come up with that. And so I always really try to find an emotional angle or something kind of weird or quirky. Cause I think that you can find that anywhere.
I think everybody has a story to be told, and I think people , they're just such landscapes. Over the course of a lifetime, you have so many moments and experiences and I just really love to kind of unravel that and tell personal stories.
Ling Yah: And one thing that I'm really interested about is how do you even get to meet these people to interview?
Barbara Woolsey : Sometimes honestly, one of the best ways to find stories is just small talk.
I've had so many little brainwaves of like, wow, that could be a cool story by just chatting with people, which is really amazing. One story that ended up being totally viral. And it's still something that I see getting shared, like constantly, even though I wrote it a few years ago, I went to Scraybal, which is about an hour from Berlin to do a story about pickles because they grow cucumbers and make pickles. It's kind of a large industry there.
And I ended up meeting this guy who worked for a pickle company and part of his job was actually taste testing the pickles. And I was like, Oh, that's just so weird that it's such a weird, interesting thing.
So I ended up interviewing him on what it's like to be a pickle taste tester. And that story ended up getting like thousands, I dunno, tons of views, even like consistently I saw it posted up again a couple months ago. And I just thought love it's really funny, but then I think that you just be open to that situation and like, oh, okay.
That's also a really interesting story, like tangent to the story that I started working on. I think that there can always be all these splintering off , stories that you just have to really be open to and tuned into that.
Ling Yah: So, how do you actually build rapport with someone that you're meeting for the first time and get them to open up and really share where you get over the juicy bits that you can put into the stories?
Barbara Woolsey : Yeah, I think I'm a very emotionally intelligent person and I think that I'm just naturally quite good at making people feel comfortable.
Also I'm very sensitive to the way I ask questions , the kind of reactions that can come from that, or perhaps asking something in a different way to get to what I want to, or the order of the questions that being said.
I do think it's something that can also be learned to a certain point. I think that you can definitely work on that sensitivity , by just listening to a lot of interviews.
Ling Yah: You cover everybody like recently you were covering the DJs in Berlin, but you've also covered like politicians, even interviewed Latin American gang members.
And I wonder how do you even find these people in the first place? And was it for a piece that someone had commissioned you? Cause some of these, I imagine what took quite a while for you to even prepare and get material on.
Barbara Woolsey : I mean, a lot of what I do is just a cold call. Even with the pitching, like just, you know, writing publication and saying, you know, I have this idea and I've worked for so and so.
And what do you think? And I think that's still the way that things work today. You know, a lot of research, I kind of look for what I'm looking for in the story, but also kind of talking to people, being like, Oh, Hey, do you know somebody that might know about this through that.
Sometimes it takes you awhile to find the right person. You might do an interview, I think, oh man , I can't use that , but I don't know. I think it's just being open to that spontaneity, just being really open.
I think it's quite important having fixers when you're working in a place that you're not familiar with somebody that has those contexts on the ground.
Ling Yah: Did you ever feel like there was a point where your life might have been in danger?
Barbara Woolsey : It's tough because there's definitely been a lot of moments where I look back on it now and I'm like, Oh my God, this was very unsavory.
there's definitely been those moments.
But at the moment, I don't know. I don't really think about it. I think that you just have to have common sense and know, okay if something is going to legitimately, put me in fear for my life, then you can't do it. But there's definitely been situations where I think, wow, that could have ended up as so much worse.
But you have to still kind of be okay with that and take breaks. Like for example, I was just working on the lonely planet guide book and the large part of that was kind of getting off the beaten track and me jumping on a motorcycle for the first time in my life. Otherwise there's no way I would have been able to do it.
And so I just had to kind of, you know, say, okay, I'll just have to be careful I do the best that I can. And I think also in this situation is that you really learn a lot about yourself and what you're capable of and gain confidence. I would never recommend somebody to put their life in danger, but I think it's important to take risks.
Ling Yah: Can you think of any particular moment where you thought that was the craziest thing I've ever done?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, I mean, the example that you mentioned, I went to Venezuela quite a few years ago now, when you know, things were different. I mean, they were on the verge of how they are now, but it was still not a situation where it was very dangerous.
And the fixer that we were working with had grown up in a slum outside of Caracas. And I guess for background, Caracas is what many considered to be the most dangerous in the world, you know, got a very high murder rate. And he had grown up with gang members basically. So he had longtime connections to these guys.
And so he said, how about, we go down there and we'll do some interviews. So the photographer I was working with actually got sick in Caracas. So it was like, okay, I'm going for myself now.
And so I ended up spending the night there and spending time with these gang members that he'd grown up with and they were guys that legitimately sleep with guns under their pillows.
But it was a very interesting look into their lives because they live in a slum area that's very dangerous. And so some of them felt like not something they chose, but it was something that had been pushed upon them, to protect their area, protect the people that they love, that they needed to resort to violence.
So, wow. That was pretty intense. I spent the night there. I slept in the bed with his eight year old sister and at his parent's house and that was something I'll definitely never forget.
Ling Yah: And how do you manage the balance between life and work? I mean, last year you spent 20 weeks on the road, which is quite a long time.
Barbara Woolsey : It's a lot. The reality is when you're living like that, there also isn't that much balance.
I mean, you're coming home for one day and then you're off to another place the next, and it is really exhausting and it gets to be a lot , always speaking in a different place every night and airports and you look at in times of Corona and you think, wow, you know, um, you do miss it.
But I definitely consciously said to myself actually this year, even before we came into this crisis, that I wanted to spend a little bit more time at home.
Because it's really hard. You're just kind of spinning the whole time. Like you're not really , coming into a quiet place where you can really be creative and have time to think.
So I definitely see both sides now. And I want to really try to do better at that in my life.
Ling Yah: So I'd love to go back to the current a bit later, but one more question before that, how do you manage to ensure that you properly look after yourself with this kind of a hectic schedule, especially on the road?
Barbara Woolsey : Oh, I think that as I get older, I also just pay attention more to what I need to be able to go out the next day and work on a story.
When I was younger , I used to kind of be like, okay, I don't need to get that much that you can order to go in and do what I need to do.
But these days, yeah, I definitely get to bed at a certain time. If everybody else is out partying other journalists, I definitely sometimes, you know, have to listen to myself and say, you know, This is what I need.
Quiet time is really important. Like especially, you know, when I'm working on the Lonely Planet stuff, those are really long days of going to different places and talking to people and in the evenings sometimes I just like totally shut off and just have some me time. And I think that that's really important.
Ling Yah: Could you share with us that whole lonely planet experience, like how did you end up being linked with Lonely Planet? And do you tend to work in a team or just by yourself just to get some insight?
Barbara Woolsey : Um, yeah, it's again, another example of just trying out for something and proving that you can do it.
So a couple of years ago that there was a call out for new writers, they were looking for writers. So I just did a resume. I ended up going through a whole test and interview process, then they selected me. And at this point I've worked on maybe five or six different books. There's another book I should. be working on after, you know, when things like a little more settled after this whole crisis?
Yeah, I guess it just kind of happened that way.
Ling Yah: Your entire journey has been so fascinating. You've been everywhere. Met so many people, but I think one of the main features of your career so far is the fact that you are meeting people. You're going there to their houses, sleeping in their mother's houses.
And now with Corona, I don't think you can do that anymore. So I was wondering, what is going to be like in the future?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, it's definitely changing the nature of journalism because we're doing a lot more. Interviews on zoom and you're not necessarily meeting the people. And I think that's kind of the way that I've been used to is actually sitting down with someone and you just get such a better connection, better feel for them and who they are if you're actually sitting down together.
I mean, on one hand, being able to work the other way using zoom calls and WhatsApp calls that definitely opens up I think the industry and the possibility for talking to people, and maybe we'll all become more comfortable with communicating in this way, but I really hope that we don't lose that actual face to face interaction either.
Ling Yah: Do you feel that the quality of the kind of things you're getting is not as good because you're not meeting in person, but rather over some kind of virtual system.
Barbara Woolsey : Oh, that's a good question. Hmm. No, not necessarily. I mean, a lot of the things I'm doing right now , are stories that are Corona related. So anyway, it's fit to kind of the template of what our lives are right now.
I guess we'll just have to see how things are further down the line.
Ling Yah: Do you think that going to journalism school is a very important thing? Or that people can just do something else before becoming a journalist.
Barbara Woolsey : Well, I think for me, I really got a lot out of going to journalism school. I mean, that really gave me on the ground experience and gave me tools, but I also know plenty of other journalists that came to it from history degree or an English lit degree.
So I would never say that they should go to journalism school, but I think that it probably makes your path easier and advice, I think it's really important to have mentors.
Like I've definitely learned a lot from speaking to other journalists and respecting what they have to say and talking to other people, both the art of things and incorporating things that worked for me into the way I do things and just being aware of all these different ways to do things, I think just the most important thing is just being open minded in industry.
Just never judging a book by its cover. Never going into an interview saying I know exactly what this person is going to be about because you never know the story that you're working. You think you're working on that. It definitely might not be that story or it might be some other story and then you just don't know it.
So I think you have to really accept and then to love the Unexpectedness of it all.
Ling Yah: Barbara, thank you so much for your time. I always end with three questions.
So the first one is do you feel that you have found your way?
Barbara Woolsey : Yes. I think I've found fundamentally my why.
Like, I think that, you know, getting to know other people and sharing their stories and bringing their stories into the world and hopefully the stories creating a more tolerant , diverse place. I think that's fundamentally the why of why, but I think that there's still a lot more out there.
I'm working on novels right now and I'm always kind of being open to what else could come. So I think the core idea is there, but I think that there's definitely more out there.
Ling Yah: What would your legacy look like ideally?
Barbara Woolsey : I just would love for it to be a tapestry of like, sharing people's stories and lots of things, little moments that kind of create this cultural vibrancy that I was searching for, but that I had all along, if that makes sense .
I would like to write books. I'm working on a novel right now and that's something I'd really love to continue on and just trying different things really.
Ling Yah: And finally, what do you think are the most important qualities required to succeed in your field the way you have?
Barbara Woolsey : Well, I think being open minded, I think that's probably the most important. Just going into something without any expectations, any judgments, and just seeing where it fits.
Ling Yah: Well, thank you so much, Barbara, for your time. It's been really, really fascinating.
Could you share where people can find you, contact you and just follow what you're doing?
Barbara Woolsey : So I guess on my website, I always update it with articles. It's barbarawoolsey.com or also on Instagram and Facebook.
You just have to search my name.
Ling Yah: Amazing. And I will also add those links onto the show and so people can easily just go and click and find. Thank you so much, Barbara.
Barbara Woolsey : Thank you so much, Ling.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 8.
The show notes can be found at sothisismywhy.com/8 including the transcript and links to everything we just talked about. And don't forget to head over to Apple podcast to leave your thoughts.
I'm just blown away that we've reached just on the 800 downloads. And I would love to know who's listening and how you think this podcast can be improved.
And stay tuned for episode 9, which drops next Sunday. Because in our next episode, we will meet a social enterprise founder based in Kathmandu, Nepal, who after studying in the U S felt a deep calling to return to his country to help his fellow countrymen.
And he did so by establishing a social enterprise that helps to sell the most gorgeous local handicraft, like nettle bags and foldable treasure chest.
We talk about how he began his social enterprise, the challenges and how his work has impacted the community.
It is an amazing interview. And I had so much fun learning more about the diverse communities and landscapes of Nepal.
And as mentioned, this episode will drop next Sunday, so stay tuned, and thank you for listening.
2 thoughts on “Ep 8: Barbara Woolsey – Freelance Journalist”
Such a relatable interview, Thank you very much for this both of you! Looking forward to more content 🙂
Glad to hear that you enjoyed this interview! 🙂