Becoming a freelance journalist can be challenging at first: it takes time to build a strong network and to find the right rhythm. But if you are considering going independent, here are a few tips to get you started.
The importance of networking
Creating and developing your own network is essential when you are freelancing. It is one of the best ways to launch your business. Whether you are building relationships with people who can hire you, provide information, or other freelancers, you are always making useful connections.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, resources coordinator for the SPJ Freelance community and author of Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer, insists on the importance of building and maintaining strong business relationships.
“Be visible with not only colleagues but people in the industries, or topics, or professions that you want to write about (or edit or photograph). You want to expand your networking activity beyond only colleagues, so you become known and visible among people who may hire you,” Thaler-Carter says.
To build these relationships, she says budding freelancers should join communities and organizations such as the SPJ Freelance Community, the Editorial Freelancers Association, the Nation Association of Independent Editors and Writers, the ACES (American Copy Editor Society – now ACES, The Society for Editing), the National Writers Union, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
“Through networking, you might be able to develop a barter system. If you need help with setting up a website, if you need help with publishing something if you need a photographer to go with you on an assignment if you need an illustrator for something; you might be able to barter your professional journalism skills for somebody else’s skills to fill in a gap — either for things you need for your own business or for projects you’re doing for a client,” explains Thaler-Carter.
However, make sure you start new relationships by offering help instead of just asking for a service.
“Keep in mind that networking is a two-way process: even if you’re new to freelancing, even if you’re new to journalism, […] you do not want to be always asking for help and information and resources; you want to try and give something back. That’s how you establish yourself as a colleague worth knowing, and it’s also how you make the best views of your networking connections,” Thaler-Carter says.
Building your brand
When going freelance, you have to build a name and a brand for yourself to be visible to your audience and your potential future employers. Business coach and former ASJA board member Damon Brown lists 3 important tips to succeed in building your own brand.
First of all, you need to have a website. It must display what you provide, whether it is writing, photography, or editing: this is your skillset. It must also display highlights of your work so a future employer can see your qualities. The last essential thing to have on your site is your contact information — make it easy for an employer to reach you. Your website is the equivalent of your business card.
“You need to have your own home […] so no matter what happens with the social media craziness – and there’s a lot going right now – you always have a way to reach your audience […]. Before you even get off the runway as a freelancer, make sure you have a solid way of showing what you’re capable of, what you can deliver, and how people can reach you,” says Brown.
Then, you want to be present on social media, but you have to make sure you are using platforms that are relevant to your work area.
“You have to go where your people are. For instance, if you cover rock concerts and you spend all your time on LinkedIn, which is focused on corporate, that might not jive,” says Brown.
Similarly, make sure that your social media also features work done by other journalists and artists. You want to provide relevant content for your audience rather than only promote your own and people will likely share your work in return.
“If you go to my Instagram right now — I have a new book, I just announced it like a week ago — you’ll see one announcement on the book, and then you’ll see me share a whole bunch of other people’s content, including people having their own book launches, people having speaking engagements […]. The rule is basically for every 5 or 6 things you share, you want most of them, like 90% of them, to be focused on other people’s stuff,” adds Brown.
And finally, you want to be honest and authentic.
“Make sure that when you are visible, it’s actually who you are because that’s a lot easier to keep up than some type of façade,” says Brown.
One of the biggest challenges of freelancing can be organizing your time and work. Katherine X. Reynolds Lewis, an award-winning journalist based in Washington D.C., says your time as a freelancer is your most valuable resource and you need to be mindful of how you use it.
“When I take an assignment, I take a look at what I’m getting paid and I give myself a time budget for that assignment. I try to break down how much of that time is going to be reporting, editing, dealing with copy edits, and then promoting the story,” explains Lewis.
If you are among the people who believe in the philosophy ‘better a little something than nothing at all’, just know that it does not work with freelancing. Some assignments will take your time and energy for very little benefits.
“On a microlevel, understand why you’re taking any particular assignment, client, gig. And I have what I like to call the three Ps rule: for any gig, you want to have (1) good Pay, you want to have some kind of (2) Personal fulfillment and it needs to be for your (3) Portfolio, something you’re going to be proud of, something you’re going to use to get another gig or that you’re really going to build a career on,” says Lewis.
Lewis says that you will almost never get all three done at once. But having at least one element ensures this gig will benefit you. And remember to acknowledge your evolution: in freelance, there is no one to congratulate you or to give you a promotion. You are making progress, you are getting better at your job, you are never starting from scratch, explains Brown. Celebrate small wins.
Last tips when you start freelancing:
(1) Make sure you understand the market and who is buying what you are selling – that’s the law of supply and demand. For instance, you don’t want to pitch a story that is already on your editor’s magazine cover.
(2) When you pitch to an editor, make sure you pitch a story, not an idea. Identify who are the characters of the story, investigate, and be well prepared so your editor cannot say no to the gig. Show him why you are the right person, why now, why this story.
(3) Build strong long-term relationships, work your network to get introduced – it really helps if you already know someone within a redaction that can refer you to his editor. Analyze who is the editor, what they are interested in, whether they are paying good, and if they are accessible.
Stay tuned for next week’s article on making contracts and managing paychecks when you are a freelance journalist.
Our experts shared their views during the SPJ 2020 Conferences “Setting Yourself Up for Success as an Independent Journalist” and “Business Basics for Freelance Success” organized by The Society of Professional Journalists.