The brains behind the popular Fionaoutdoors blog, Fiona Russell has combined a freelance writing career - now mostly online - with her passion for outdoor sports. So what does the job involve, how does she engage with the internet and social media, and what does she think the future holds for outdoor writing in the digital age? We tracked her down - via email, naturally - to find out.
What does being an outdoors journalist and blogger entail?
I work, write and play with the focus on the outdoors, and especially Scotland. I'm a widely published journalist (traditional and on-line), a professional (ghost) blogger and an engaging web copywriter. I am also a princess of social media engagement. I run my own blog www.fionaoutdoors.co.uk and also a Facebook group, Munroaming, for people who like walking Munros.
In addition, I am mum to my teenage daughter (who is not particularly sporty but loves horses) and I live with my partner, who is a keen climber and has completed a Munro round.
What do you like best about the job?
The combination of work and play in a healthy – and very friendly – outdoors industry. I like the flexibility of being a freelancer and I have been fortunate to be able to enjoy a good career while bringing up my daughter as a single mum. I value the opportunity to test lots of new gear, try different outdoors pursuits and travel as part of my work.
"I like the combination of work and play in a healthy – and very friendly – outdoors industry"
Outdoor blogger, ghost blogger, copywriter, gear tester… what proportion of your time do each of the roles (and others?) take up?
Ten years ago when I left the Herald newspaper to become a freelance journalist, 95% of my time was taken up writing features for newspapers and magazines. About 50% of these were about fitness, health and the outdoors.
Now I spend about 10% of my time working for traditional media and almost 99% of that is about the outdoors or fitness.
The other 90% of my work time these days is taken up as a copywriter for business websites and ghost blogging for clients, and most of this is outdoors or fitness related.
My leisure time (if you can call it this) is spent outdoors, walking, cycling, running, skiing and more. During this time I also test gear and I spend a vast amount of hours (I don’t dare add them up) writing my own blog.
I have had a blog for almost a decade and I call it my guilty pleasure because it’s what I love to do but don’t really have the time to do. Increasingly, however, I am focusing on this site because it is starting to become a revenue stream through sponsorship and advertising.
I have not specifically promoted my website, or employed a marketing strategy, but rather it has grown organically. I think because I write about all kinds of outdoors activities, my own enjoyment of the outdoors and kit reviews it has gained traffic more naturally and this tends to be “sticky” (that is, people like what they read and come back for more). No one is forced to link to my site and it is not artificially promoted, readers simply find it and hopefully some like what they read.
What was your route into outdoor journalism – did the journalising come first, or did the outdoors?
I have always been sporty and as a teenager I competed in judo at national level and enjoyed running and canoeing.
But I guess, in work terms, the journalism came first. I landed a job as a trainee journalist at the famous Dundee institution DC Thomsons and worked my way through – and up – regional newspapers and finally to The Herald as assistant editor.
I was taken on by the then editor, Mark Douglas Home, as launch editor of a weekly lifestyle magazine and I bravely told him that I wanted the job but only if I could have fitness and outdoors as integral platforms. He agreed, although he had no knowledge himself of these fields. He simply trusted that I might know what I was talking about!
Throughout all these years I continued to enjoy sports such as walking, running and cycling but this increased at the same time as I joined the Herald. This was partly thanks to an ex-partner who was a sports fan and also because my passion was ignited by all the activities that other people were writing about in the features in the magazine.
I was also fortunate to be invited on press trips to try outdoors activities and pursuits such as skiing, trail running, mountain biking etc.
Then, when I took a redundancy deal from the Herald and set up as a freelancer, I chose the email address email@example.com. Combined with my general passion for Scotland’s great outdoors and my blog a “sort of” brand started.
Now my passion for the outdoors and writing go hand in hand.
Is it a good way to earn a fortune? (OK we can guess the answer to this one)
I don’t earn a fortune but I earn well enough. I have wanted for very little across 30 years of being a journalist and am fairly comfortably off. (At least I feel lucky to be comfortable enough.)
Freelance can feel insecure at times but in 10 years I have never been without work on a daily basis. I work hard and aim for good quality and I think that has paid off.
How much of your working week can you spend actually outside, versus the time at a desk?
If differs each week. Some weeks I am out for an entire weekend and a day in the week. Other weeks I rarely step out the door, except for a quick run with the dog or a bike ride. Sometimes I am away for a week or more cycling, skiing or doing some other travel jolly! My average working week ideal would be one day outdoors, four at my desk and then the weekends to do as I wish. My general rule is to forget about writing work at weekends, but that’s not always possible.
"You have to be able to adapt to the next new thing. If I had not adapted when the newspaper feature commissions started to die off about six or seven years ago I would have not been able to earn money. I am not obsessed with keeping up with new technology and advancements on-line but I do keep a watchful eye"
You’re currently working through the Munros: what are the chief attractions of bagging them; do you have any particular favourites so far; and how many do you have to go?
I started walking the Munros when I met my partner Gordie six years ago. He had about 100 to go for his first round and it turned out that if I wanted to spend time with him at weekends I needed to walk with him.
I enjoyed the big days out and challenges but I didn’t bother to tally how many I had walked. Gordie finished his round a few years ago and then became obsessed with climbing. We still walk some Munros together but not as frequently.
Last summer I began to wonder how many I had bagged. I sat down with Gordie and we worked out I had walked more than half of the 282. I knew then that I would most likely set myself the goal of one day finishing them.
However, I am not solely focused on this and will happily walk mountains I’ve done before. But, if there is an opportunity to walk a new one I grab it. My Facebook page, Munroaming, has been great for this and for meeting new people to walk Munros with.
The attraction of the Munros is the challenge of many great mountains and also visiting places across Scotland that I might not ordinarily have travelled to. I have had some of my best days in Scotland’s outdoors with friends, especially Gordie, walking Munros.
I have 90 of the 282 still to bag.
You’re based in Scotland – is that choice influenced by the outdoors?
Not really. I was born in England and spent the first 15 years of my life there. My dad took at job near Peebles while I was still at school and moved the family to Scotland. They stayed for 30 years before recently moving to the Chester area to be closer to their canal boat!
My younger sister and brother have stayed in Scotland like me. I like living just north of Glasgow and having easy access to such an incredible outdoors playground. On a sunny day I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
Except, I do also love sunshine and warm weather, as well as the outdoors life in other places, such as the Alps and Pyrenees. So, maybe, in the future I will try living abroad for a new adventure but I will still write about the outdoors.
Being freelance affords me a lot of freedom to live where I want and I hope to enjoy some adventures once my daughter heads off to university.
You seem to be inventing your own role as you go along – is that a fair assessment of freelancing in the modern outdoor media?
You have to be able to adapt to the next new thing. If I had not adapted when the newspaper feature commissions started to die off about six or seven years ago I would have not been able to earn money. I am not obsessed with keeping up with new technology and advancements on-line but I do keep a watchful eye.
I think people will always need good writers and enthusiasm. I am fortunate that an interest in the great outdoors – and healthy pursuits – has grown considerably in the last decade and I have been able to capitalise on this in my written work.
I can’t think of many outdoor writers who have so thoroughly embraced the internet and social media. I’m sure that has been a considered direction for you. Can you explain why?
I am flattered that you say this! It hasn’t actually been a considered direction. It was simply that I needed to earn a living and I happened to love the outdoors and so that’s how it went. The addition of my name, FionaOutdoors, has really helped because people remember me.
Also, I love to chat and I am a social animal so social media really appeals to me. I like to have my voice heard, I guess, and to have an opinion/views.
When working at home you can go for days without seeing another person apart from your family so social media replaces this interaction.
Actually, I would say social media saved my life. I suffered a bad period of depression about six to eight years ago. I think this came about partly because I missed the office based work at the Herald and my work friends. I ended up feeling quite isolated at home and in a bit of a soul-less marriage.
Social media and writing really helped to bring me out of this, as well as friends, counselling, anti-depressants and walking the Munros. I am lucky to have fully recovered from this but I view social media – and making sure I see other people on a more regular basis – as part of my long-term happiness. That, and having a great friend and partner in Gordie.
Related question: some outdoor writers still seem to regard the internet as an inconvenience. What’s your take on it – bad thing, or opportunity?
The internet is a huge opportunity. It’s a free way to market yourself. Personal PR-ing is not something I enjoy but it needs to be done so that more people know about you and might ask you to work for them. It can be much subtler than traditional PR though through the medium of social media.
I also really love writing blogs for clients and writing my blog, telling people what I have been doing and hopefully inspiring others to do the same or similar.
There are some inconveniences, such as the time it takes and the number of enquiries I now need to answer about outdoor pursuits or kit guides, but it’s all part of my wider marketing and drive.
"People will always need good writers and enthusiasm. I am fortunate that an interest in the great outdoors – and healthy pursuits – has grown considerably in the last decade and I have been able to capitalise on this in my written work"
Another similar question: From the dwindling popularity of print to the rise of free content and the decline of advertising revenue, the internet is changing the face of media in general. As a tiny subset of this industry the outdoor media can’t be immune from these wider developments: Where do you see things heading in our field? And as a result, in the foreseeable future what aspects of your job are likely to be the most important?
I think that publications, both in print and on-line, will become increasingly niche. They will each try to gain a share of the market by appealing to a particular sub-set of people, such as back country snowboarders or cycle tourers, rather than offering a wider and more generalised mag about snowboarding or cycling.
I do think that people will still want to read about great places to go, inspiring people and locations, kit etc so there will always be a place for outdoor publishers.
But I also think that journalists that “do” rather than just “write about” the outdoors will have a stronger place in this changing market. There is a growth in the number of bloggers who are able to make a small `- hopefully, growing – living from their own websites, rather like small-scale outdoors celebrities.
These bloggers also need to be good at engaging on social media. It doesn’t need to be a full-scale PR campaign but they should spend time engaging with similar minded people. This means being part of the conversations, not simply viewing and liking what others say.
These outdoors bloggers are celebrated by readers because they offer good quality, independent and tried-and-tested articles that appeal to a niche following.
In the end, quality always counts. As the traditional press and magazines fight ever harder for a smaller slice of advertising and are compromised by sponsorship deals and dwindling staff and freelance budgets, so the independent bloggers and publications will be able to make gains on readership, so long as the writing and offering is of a high quality. Readers are not stupid and they want quality.
But it’s not all about work, work, work: I imagine you’re in this game for one reason only. What are a couple of your stand-out moments in the outdoors in recent years?
So, so many to choose from. Walking both the South Glen Shiel Ridge (seven Munros) and The Ring of Steall (four Munros) on separate but stunningly beautiful and sunny days.
Navigating my way on the walk to the summit of CMD (Carn Mor Dearg) through low cloud and popping out above the mist to see the summit of Ben Nevis rising high above me and as clear as I’ve ever seen it.
Skiing back country black-graded slopes in Utah earlier this year and in my first season of skiing after 10 years of snowboarding.
Solo bike packing in France this summer. It was my first solo trip for a long time and I enjoyed how it made me feel. Liberation and empowerment, as well as a time to think on my own.
Qualifying and competing in the World Age Group Sprint Triathlons Champs in 2014.
- You can catch up with Fiona on her blog www.fionaoutdoors.co.uk on Facebook and Twitter
- She also writes a weekly outdoors column for the Sunday Mail, and runs the Facebook page Munroaming
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