Freelance Stockholm Correspondent, Podcaster and Producer
Stockholm is a wonderful little hub of startups that in recent years, has really shown the world what we’re made of. But let’s not forget that this relatively small hub of startups is also a part of something bigger; an entire ecosystem of business.
This ecosystem is as rich as it is deep and there are many many people that each play their part in building and sustaining the life within. One of those very people is Maddy Savage. A British-born journalist, Maddy has in part been responsible for turning the international spotlight on Stockholm as a place where startups can thrive.
I first came across Maddy over on Twitter, scrolling through the latest #STHLMTech tweets, and recognised her name after reading some of her articles on the BBC. I quickly learned that Maddy was also the brains behind the local podcast, The Stockholmer.
Now, while I knew of Maddy and her contribution commentating on the Stockholm tech scene both locally and abroad, it wasn’t until I saw that she was also an active user on Lunchback that I realised I could actually know her too! It wasn’t too long before I was able to snag her for a Boss Lady lunch.
London’s loss, Stockholm’s gain
Maddy and I were to meet at Scandic No.53 in my week off between jobs. I’d recently finished up at Ungapped and was graced with an open week before starting at Springworks. I took this time to work on Eat 52 Lunches and it was such an amazing feeling to be able to give it full-time focus, even if just for a week.
In true Scandic style, lunch here was a buffet with so many choices that it’s not possible to sample a little of everything on the one plate. You need at least two.
If you have been to Scandic No.53 for lunch or for a work session, you’ll likely have experienced the buzz that this place gets precisely on the lunch hour and only on the lunch hour. From seemingly nowhere, the line of hungry, talkative professionals starts to form for the maître d’. One after the other, their cards are swiped and with a polite gesture from the maître d’, one after the other they fill their eyes, plates and stomachs with today’s buffet.
With plates well-stocked, we grabbed a small sofa in the cosy lounge area that at this time of year, was bathed in sun thanks to the skylight. Armed with a knife and fork, we jumped into our meals and our conversation, firstly by touching on Maddy’s working background.
A journalist for over 13 years, Maddy cut her teeth on reporting as a trainee at the BBC. Quickly climbing the ranks, Maddy hopped stepped and jumped into local reporting roles, local radio, national news and then on to flagship news and news channels.
For a period of around 4 years, when her focus shifted to global news, Maddy was a resident presenter on a number of news shows. It was during this time that she started pitching stories that featured Scandinavia. It’s here that her love for the Nordics were first kindled.
As a foreigner myself, I’m always naturally curious to hear what brought others to Sweden, and how they have built a lifestyle in the years since coming here.
It was in 2014 that Maddy took the leap, moving to Stockholm to work for a news startup which other members of the English speaking community will no doubt recognise; The Local. The Local was one of my first sources of news when I first moved here and I realised that perhaps I’ve read Maddy’s work even earlier than I thought.
Maddy goes on to explain that working for a news startup gave her a really good dose of news media management and commissioning but ultimately she came to realise that her true passion was story pitching and reporting. So she decided to pull herself up by her own bootstraps and start freelancing full-time.
Freelancing is hard work. If you’ve freelanced before, you’ll feel that reverberate in your entire body and come to rest on your chest or mind because that’s where the stress rests when you’re a freelancer.
If you’ve not freelanced before then try to think of all the things you don’t need to worry about at work because other people fix it for you (salary, accounting, client list, sales etc). All the stuff you don’t need to think about in a full-time role is actually what you also need to think about as a freelancer, plus the task you’re selling your services on.
Of course I am ignoring many of the wonderful things that comes with freelancing; flexibility, independence, freedom to choose your salary, freedom to choose your clients and freedom to choose your hours. All of these are wonderful things but freelancing is not for the faint of heart. I have the greatest admiration for those who first choose to go freelance and then are able to make it work for them. Maddy is of course an example of this.
It’s been a few years since Maddy added the title of Freelancer to her LinkedIn profile and in that time she’s returned to her roots reporting for the BBC but has also found the space in her life to create and produce one of my favourite local podcasts; The Stockholmer. Much like this blog, The Stockholmer seeks to highlight inspiring locals in our city and the huge advantage, at least from where I’m listening, is that it’s in English.
Navigating the ethical seas of modern journalism
We start to dissect some of the freedoms that come with a freelancing lifestyle. It is true that Maddy has the freedom to choose which stories or projects she takes on board. Right now, that includes working with the BBC as well as some small moderating and editorial work that she explains as a way for her to work a little more creatively whilst within the constraints of being an impartial journalist. But freelancing is not as easy as simply saying yes to some stories and no to others.
“It’s been a challenge since going freelance – a nice challenge. A lot of PR firms and copywriting agencies have approached me and ask me to do things but I’ve been very clear about my boundaries of what I will and won’t do because the journalistic ethical code is really important to me.”
Full-time journalist jobs as we know it are changing.
I ask her if it’s quite common practice now for journalists to be walking such fine lines between corporate and community.
“You would be surprised how many journalists these days, both out of financial necessity and the way that the market is changing, are going down that road” Maddy says.
I probe a bit further because I’m curious to know how this will affect the young journalists studying right now. What will a journalist role look like for them if this is only just the beginning of a changing market?
Without hesitation Maddy says “Full-time journalist jobs as we know it are changing.”
She continues “Because people don’t buy print newspapers anymore there has been a reliance on advertising and native advertising. I think that’s where a lot of journalists are moving in to because (as a journalist) you know how to write a good article and you know how to tell a good story.”
Maddy is quick to emphasise that this kind emerging journalism is still a really great way to get into the field if you’re not able to find a full-time job in journalism. “If you’re starting out and you’ve trained in journalism and you’re passionate about writing and you love storytelling…that does make sense.”
Reflecting on her Maddy feels that she was very privileged to have built a reputation before going freelance. “I did have a reputation and contacts. Having lived in Sweden for two years before going freelance I had the knowledge of a country where I could be called up and asked to comment on things as an expert.”
Continuing on this line of thought I’m curious to know what Maddy’s thoughts on what should comes first; experience or living abroad. Her own success has been of first experience and then living abroad. Is that what women new to journalism should also aspire to?
Immerse yourself, wherever you are
It’s a hard choice to make; should you wait until you have experience and reputation behind you before moving? Or should you take the leap when the chance comes?
“I was also that person asking those questions for years and years. It’s tricky in the journalism field because no-one really has the same set career path. Which makes it exciting and challenging and gives you a lot of freedom but it’s scary.” Maddy explains to me.
She goes on to say “If you’re a junior reporter, you could look up to a senior reporter but that senior reporter might have been on a trainee scheme, they might have worked their way up from work experience, or there’s still nepotism in the industry; they might have been recommended by a friend. It’s not always a set path.”
“What’s been great for me working here in Sweden has been that I’ve really immersed myself in the culture and what’s going on here.”
I probe for an example of when this cultural immersion has paid off and Maddy shares her experience of working during the Stockholm terror incident. “I was working for the BBC but they also parachuted in a team from Brussels, one of whom had never been to Stockholm. So I was able to provide that analysis and background context and that’s really invaluable as a journalist.”
“Something that a lot of people told me when I was first starting out was to develop a specialty and develop a niche. But unless you have that solid background, whether you studied science journalism or tech journalism, persuading people to trust you…it can be tricky.”
I think the danger in journalism is that you can end up not specialising in anything.
Maddy further adds how important it is to develop a broad set of skills that allow you to deal with anything that’s thrown at you. This broad skills set is what continuously leads Maddy to opportunities at publications like Monocle, Nordic Business Insider and national radio in the US. “The skills of working in breaking news are really invaluable and I found them really transferrable to freelance. I think the danger in journalism is that you can end up not specialising in anything.”
So from the looks of it, while neither experience nor living in new cultures is advantageous over the other, it’s more about immersing yourself wherever in the world you are in order to learn key skills that you can take anywhere and in any role.
Make your early days about transferable skills
I ask Maddy what key skills journalists new to their field need to know as soon as they pen that first article.
“Check your facts. If you get something wrong you will be remembered for that. I have seen careers ruined after announcing deaths of people that are not dead or because of a leaked document that wasn’t the final document.”
“You must have determination and tenacity. It’s a tough industry and it’s not for everyone; I don’t think my eyes were really opened to how 24 hours it really is. Which means you have to make a lot of sacrifices in your personal life.”
What about journalists thinking about going freelance?
“You need to have good time management and discipline. You have to say “By 6:00pm today this has to be done”. While you should never strive for mediocrity, you have to know when you’ve done a good job within the time you had and for the amount you were paid.”
Is there anything that a journalist new to their field need not worry about?
“Some of the reporters I know are really creative. Those creative ideas often take time. Be creative and always think about telling a story in a different way but it’s more important to be factually correct and authoritative.”
Yes, nepotism still exists
In the previous part of the discussion Maddy had touched on nepotism in the UK and I wanted to hear about her own comparisons between living in Sweden versus living in the UK. Once again, this curiosity stems from me being a foreigner too.
“Because there was no clear career path at the BBC that (nepotism) was certainly a factor; it was sometimes about who you knew and what your profile was as well as your skills.”
Maddy tells me that the mantra for a new journalist was to “Take the weekend shifts and the overnight shifts because then you’ll get your work on the morning shows, which is what the bosses are watching.”
“It was about exposure and finding champions and I find that quite hard because I wouldn’t say that I’m somebody that’s naturally confident. If you’re already worrying about “Am I good enough?”, to then go and constantly sell yourself…it felt a bit unnatural.”
It took me a while to win over some people but in the end I did it through my work.
“I’ve always been someone who likes to prove myself through my work. It took me a while to win over some people but in the end I did it through my work.”
Comparing that to life in Sweden, Maddy’s observations have been that opportunities are ripe for young people, and that news and business is very relaxed.
“Younger people are given opportunities to do high-profile stuff quite a lot here in Sweden; you see lot of young reporters in the field. Whereas I found that the fact I look young for my age really counted against me in my 20’s; I was seen as not having enough gravitas.”
If those 20’s had of been lived in Sweden, perhaps it’s not a judgment Maddy would have ever encountered.
It’s hip to be young
The conversation naturally flows on to the role of gender in journalism, coupled with age, since we that’s where we are diverting from. In the UK, do you want to be young or old? In Sweden, is it the same?
“For me it was a catch 22.” Maddy states without too much wait and I ask why.
Sweden is an amazing place to be a woman; I feel very strong and independent here.
“Parental leave is very different in UK. It was assumed by colleagues and by myself that I would want to get married and have kids and be the primary caregiver. The sentence that was always uttered was “It’s hard to be a women in journalism” because the assumption was that you couldn’t leave the job to go and pick up kids”.
With a societal pressure to mark your life first with a career and then with family only, I ask how that affected her as a journalist new to her field.
“I was racing to achieve all I could. In the end I didn’t settle down, I moved to Sweden.”
Comparing the UK and Sweden, Maddy says “I do think journalism is tough whether you’re male or female but no-one has ever said to me in Sweden, “It’s tough being a women in journalism””.
So is it improving in the UK since she first became a journalist?
“The BBC is putting resources into diversity but that wasn’t the case as much 10 years ago when I started. Sweden is an amazing place to be a woman; I feel very strong and independent here.”
You and me both, Maddy. You and me both.
Hunting for gold dust
I start to ponder about whether given the chance to do it all over again, would Maddy have stayed at the BBC or would she have still come to Sweden?
Describing it in a near perfect simile, Maddy says “Jobs at big media companies are like gold dust. But if you stay at the one company or in the same network for too long, you run the risk of always being seen as the young 20 something even if you’ve gone on to cover big breaking news stories”.
“I have those three letters on my CV and I have disproved the theory that once you leave you can’t continue to work for these big organisations. I don’t have that fear of being unemployed or made redundant.”
It’s clear that Maddy is both proud and extremely happy with her choice to move abroad and turn freelance and I’m feel pride on behalf of her too.
Stockholmer; a new definition
We change track a little and start to talk about her side project, The Stockholmer podcast. Why was it something she decided to do?
“I kept coming across these individuals who didn’t quite fit in traditional articles but they were a story I felt were important and interesting to tell. It was also about showcasing the innovative side of Stockholm.”
What I really and truly love about The Stockholmer that I think so many other platforms miss is to tell these stories in English. For the whole world to see how inspiring it is here, I do feel that we need to produce this content in English.
“It’s another platform for international people living here to find out about the people living here but also to find out what it means to be a Stockholmer. It’s an increasingly diverse culture.”
I’m blown away by the sheer productivity of Maddy. How does she manage to fit in work, The Stockholmer, her running club, anti-office, and whatever else she has going on.
She is quick to respond with a laugh “I’m not an expert in work-life balance.” Compared to the UK though “Wellbeing is so present in every day life here.”
“I feel less pressure from society to work all the time. London is a unique city where it’s not just about working hard it’s about playing hard. It’s a bit about bragging and social climbing – which isn’t really me. I think I will take my more humble experiences from Sweden with me forever.”
I can absolutely feel that too. The glorification of busy is something I need to actively work on every single day but I do recognise the reduced pressure to be working all the time.
Finding support in a new home
Stress manifests very differently in different people so it’s only normal that we manage it differently. What I do think we need to do more of is share what those strategies and tactics are so that women new to their field can try different tactics to learn what works for them.
I ask what Maddy’s support network is like in Stockholm given that she can count the number of years she has been here on one hand. I wonder whether her network was purposefully constructed or has simply evolved over time?
Through a series of fortunate events, Maddy and Malin ended up living together for 2 months and has come to be “A really amazing person and friend who shares a similar background to me.”
Apart from her guardian angel, Maddy is involved with the French-speaking community, a running club and the startup network.
“The flip side of making friends with expats is that they sometimes leave but so too do the Swedes.”
“Working by myself and living by myself has been a challenge. I make sure I have interaction on a daily basis.” When interaction isn’t possible, then technology helps out to keep in touch with family in the UK and her best friend from her journalism Masters who lives in Paris.
I notice that the buzz of people that swarmed around us at the beginning of our lunch has quietened to a low hum. It’s a sign that we too should wrap things up.
I ask what’s planned for this Boss Lady in the next 12 months. Maddy tells me that she is moving into a new coworking space and has a couple of personal goals she’d like to achieve before year’s end.
“I set myself a goal to get bylines in 3 new publications this year and a private goal to visit a new country.”
With a byline already in one publication before the summer, another scheduled for publication in August, and the month of July spent in NYC with new clients, Maddy is well on her way to making 2017 her best yet.
You can follow Maddy on Twitter or head on over to The Stockholmer.