Freelance Journalism: From idea to published article
Christy Romer is a freelance journalist based in Madrid. His most recent article, Why Valencia, Spain, Has More Bees Than People, was published in CityLab in December.
Aside from the obvious (“it’s stressful”, “the hours suck”, “proper jobs are easier”), no-one ever gives useful advice about freelancing. It’s all romance or pessimism; awe or fear. And trying to find out exactly how much anyone gets paid is a whole lot of awkwardness for a thoroughly depressing pay-off (for the record: I’ve been paid €0, €50, €110 and €350 for a 1,000 word feature).
But back when I was starting out, in the heady days of mid-2018, one question worried me more than any other: How are you supposed to find and sell ideas ?
The answer, experts say, is to just pay attention to the world around you. I remember once reading that a journalist in Amsterdam had ended up with an amazing trafficking exposé because they’d noticed that the prostitutes on their daily commute were now Eastern European, instead of Dutch. I think about that example a lot — it’s exactly the sort of fascinating but overwhelming lead that had always left me paralysed. I’d think: wow, amazing story — but where do you start? Or: there are other journalists already doing similar stories, and better. Or: we’ve not had much about that topic in the news recently, so maybe editors wouldn’t be interested? Or, more simply: it’s difficult and I’m not experienced enough.
They’re not stupid objections — selling an article requires explaining why a story is important, why a particular publication should run it, and why a writer is both best-placed and sufficiently capable of telling it — but they shouldn’t leave you paralysed. Here are eight overly-detailed steps explaining how I confronted such insecurity and went from idea to published article.
Selecting the idea
I don’t know about you, but I write for one reason and one reason only: I love spending my time learning about and sharing things that interest me. I think finding something that interests you must be the starting point for any article.
As it happens, I’m fascinated by pretty much anything and everything. Here are a few ideas that I scribbled down in recent weeks:
- A friend of a friend told me he keeps bees in Slovakia. He also told me he was considering buying the second version of FlowHive, a new style of beehive — which has become the fastest crowdfunder ever — and is designed to make harvesting honey idiot-proof
- I saw police horses walking through the centre of Madrid at 8pm in the evening. I wondered where the horses stay — in city centre stables? Do they have working hours? Do they get taken to the countryside at night? Is there someone whose job it is to guard the horses at night?
- The newspapers keep talking about a new law in Madrid, prohibiting non-electric or non-hybrid cars from entering the centre of the city. But there are lots of garages, mechanics, and produce drop-offs near the office where I work. What will happen to their trade? Is the local council compensating for lost revenue?
- I stumbled across a book by an American historian who blamed the Spanish civil war on the left, rather than on a military coup. What was the historian’s deal? Did the book become a sort of right-wing bible? Did someone in Dictator Franco’s Government commission it? Does that mean there were a class of extranjeros (foreigners) who produced this sort of work for the fascist regime?
Although they’re raw, I think there’s potential for drilling down and finding something new and emotionally arresting with each of those ideas. I was particularly interested by the bees, so I started there. I googled FlowHive with an obvious thought: maybe no publications have covered how successful the crowdfunding campaign was? No such luck. There were stories the world over about the invention and the people behind it. The thought of trying to interview the inventors for a different take seemed slightly less worthwhile — other than a specialist bee magazine or business publication (legitimate avenues, but not ones that appealed to me), who would be interested?
Refining the idea
A bit more Googling revealed the FlowHive was being touted as good for putting on roofs and making honey. I also found it was being sold internationally — with a big market in the UK and Australia. As I’m based in Spain, I wondered what the take-up had been like here. Was it selling quickly and leading to a massive social change? Or were people rejecting it? After clicking a few links I found the product would have a smaller market here because urban beekeeping is actually illegal in the country. That was very interesting. Urban beekeeping is fashionable and popular around the world, but illegal in Spain. Why?
A bit more Googling revealed some blog posts from beekeeping charities in the country that had asked this same question, suggesting it was now time for the laws to be changed. Again, the wheels were turning in my head. Maybe there was scope for an article along the lines of: The push to make urban beekeeping legal in Spain?
Talk to people
But only having a few blogs felt disingenuous, as there was no clear and sustained campaign pushing for such change. Also, which English-language publications would be interested in the work of one social organisation? There are millions of charities around the world with millions of specific causes, and therefore millions of individuals fighting for specific causes. I remained curious, though, so I thought the best thing to do would be to get in touch with the charities and ask if they’d be willing to have a quick chat with me about urban beekeeping in Spain. Maybe they’d be able to shed some light on innovative programmes or campaigns around the country.
I emailed the press teams with a routine introduction, saying I was a journalist who was interested in writing a story about urban beekeeping and and asking whether they’d be interested in being interviewed. I added that if so, could they answer a few questions by email or in a 5 minute phone conversation to help me get my bearings: were they planning on launching a campaign? Did they know of any organisations or projects fighting for change?
I was fishing around for the hook of the story — I wanted to base my eventual article on a movement or group of people committed to doing something new. I didn’t think anywhere would be interested in the fact that urban beekeeping was illegal in Spain on its own, but would be in a story about a specific project.
→ As an aside, my favourite stories are those that are incredibly specific but are written in such a way that they’re accessible to anybody. This is my guide for that sort of article.
In the meantime, while I gave the charities a day or so to reply, I did some more research about bees and honey in Spain. And there I found some very useful context: Spain is the number one producer of honey inside the EU, making over 20,000 tonnes every year. But news reports also estimated the production of honey had halved in 2018 — with the implication that Spain’s position as the super producer in the EU was at serious risk. I started threading the ideas together, wondering whether it would be possible to set this up as a solution story (which would be more attractive to news outlets): Spain has a huge issue with honey production, which is clearly a big part of its economy, yet it remains one of the few countries to not allow urban beekeeping — a practice which could potentially help it increase production again. Other articles said that bees were sometimes more efficient in cities, or that honey tasted better because bees weren’t dealing with pesticides. Similarly, articles revealed the deadly plight facing bees across the world, with terrifying statistics such as a third of the world’s food being at risk.
The charities came back with some reflections, and a petition to change the law in Madrid, but it still didn’t quite feel like enough. I wanted something concrete, something with a track record. Luckily, the second charity I spoke to suggested contacting Valencia’s local Government, as it was ‘doing something interesting with bees’.
That lead turned out to be perfect. My initial research hadn’t turned up much about Valencia because lots of the press coverage was in the Valenciano language — a sort of French-ified Spanish. But I found that the council had set up beekeeping conferences and school visits as part of plans to become a city that welcomed urban beekeeping. There was even a council-level plan in the works, codifying city-wide collaboration between firefighters, politicians, environmentalists and beekeepers in a way that completely diverged from national policy. This was it. I called the council for a few days in a row until someone agreed to talk to me (the same approach — I was interested in a story, would anyone have a few minutes to chat), and I found contact details (through Instagram) for an urban beekeeper quoted in one of the Valenciano-language newspapers and got him to agree to an interview too.
That was when it started to fall into place. I had a quirky story (bee-friendly programmes in a Spanish city) context (importance of honey to Spain, current crisis of production, bees at huge risk the world over which threatens human livelihood) access to interviews (the local council and an urban beekeeper, quoted in one of the Valenciano-language stories, agreed to chat), a sense of structure (this is how and why one city was responding to a massive national and international crisis, with a suggestion that other cities could do the same). I also asked the council and the beekeeper if I could use any of their photos, which was a big deal when it came to the pitch.
Hammering down on the city project also helped shape where the article would be pitched. It’s surprisingly easy to find city and urban-focused magazines and sections of newspapers, so I figured I could try and pitch the article and even if several places turned it down I’d still have a place to go.
Sending the pitch
I was a huge fan of CityLab — and I’d even read an article they’d previously published about the death of bees — so I sent them a pitch. This was it:
I’m Christy Romer, a freelance journalist based in Madrid. I’ve been published in The Independent, El Pais, The Guardian / The Observer, and debated live on BBC Radio 4. More examples of my writing on my CV.
The city buzzing to save Spain’s bees
Deadly predators, chemical sprays and accelerating climate change have decimated Spain’s bee population and forced them to take refuge in cities. But while most urban areas have dismissed bees as dangerous pests, Valencia has pioneered a city-wide plan to both save the industrious honey producer and reacquaint residents with the possibility of a green, bio-diverse city.
Nowhere does the bee crisis seem more pronounced than in Spain, where honey production has collapsed by 50% in one year — sending the country crashing down from its pedestal as the main producer in the EU.
Valencia’s radical response over the past four years is a sterling example of city-wide cooperation. Rather than direct the fire department to simply remove the growing number of beehives in city parks, graveyards and streetlights, the council set up municipal colonies and worked with firefighters on a collection and distribution network. These colonies now house 800,000 bees — a figure larger than the city’s total human population — and the council’s new urban beekeeping plan has paved the way for bee workshops in schools, annual urban beekeeping conferences and a successful trial of colonies in local allotments.
The projects are going from strength to strength and the council is now eyeing the most difficult challenge of all: licensing ordinary citizens to set up bee colonies on their rooftops. The practice has been developed in New York, Vienna and London, but remains illegal in Spain.
Developing the story
I’d focus on how the council policies came about and what they mean for urban life
I’d include the opinion of local beekeepers and the wider possibilities for Spain — Valencia’s actions are spurring on change in cities across the country
I’ve already interviewed the council and the urban beekeeper behind the first allotment colony in Valencia. I also have strong contacts with two charities in the country fighting for urban beekeeping.
I have permission to use photos of urban beekeeping projects in Valencia (see https://www.instagram.com/p/BqnbtC4BZ2c/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link and https://www.instagram.com/avauapiculturaurbana/) and access to photos of council beekeeping workshops etc.
I do hope this is of interest! It’s in many ways a solutions story, as well as a reflection on why some cities take a while to follow the lead of others (NY, London etc). Do contact me by email or phone if you need any more information.
The pitch was modelled on this blog post. I would 100% recommend reading it — a section editor for the New York Times’ Smarter Living section spoke to numerous editors to find out why editorial pitches do and don’t get accepted, and what writers can do to improve their approaches.
I sent the email to CityLab. And waited. I didn’t hear back after a week, so I sent a chasing email, to which the editor of the magazine replied and said yes, they’d be interested in a post! (Advice I’ve read is that you should wait a week to chase — there are 1,001 legitimate reasons for an editor to have not replied to your initial approach, and may just need a nudge. It’s then advised to wait another week or two, before sending a final email — — after which point it’s very much understood and accepted that writers will take their ideas elsewhere if the publication hasn’t replied to them).
When to interview?
Another question: should you conduct interviews before pitching the article? It’s obviously risky / more difficult to do so before, because people are more likely to agree to speak to you after you say the article will be published in X publication. It also may be that the article changes focus once you sell it, meaning you either need to interview different people or ask your subject different things, and it could be emotionally draining to spend weeks / months trying to sell a piece while an interviewee is routinely asking you what will happen with that time they gave you for free.
But I’m starting to think that the flip side is much more compelling. Not only are all of those points surmountable, interviews give you a chance to pick up even quirkier bits of information to drop into a pitch and entice an editor. With the City Lab pitch, the snippet that stood out for the editors was that there are more bees in Valencia than people, which became a key focus for the article’s structure. I heard that — and info about bees fleeing to the city to escape pesticide-soaked rural areas — — from the council rep, who I interviewed on a Friday, before sending the pitch the following Monday.
Writing the article
Everything you do while freelancing is a test — you want this piece of work to go well out of pride and as groundwork for potential future collaboration. So a level of stress kicks in after the excitement of selling an article and negotiating deadlines. The key, though, seems to be to being a nice and dependable person. While obviously not ideal, editors can work with someone whose article needs a bit more support if their responses are prompt and the revisions are done with a good attitude. After all, the editor has already shown interest in the idea, and it’s in their interest to produce something that will work for their readers.
I often umm and ahh over the start of an article — getting the tone and direction right — but I find leaving it to the end takes the pressure off, giving me the necessary mental space to enjoy playing with language. My technique is just to get everything down, not worrying about perfection, then set about repeatedly chiselling the unwieldy monster until the exquisite form hiding underneath is revealed (My first drafts for a 1,000 word article are usually around 3,000 words). I also think it works well to look at the article from multiple ‘angles’: on a laptop, on a mobile, with double spacing, etc… It gives you get a better sense of flow.
So after a two-week deadline, and a few further days of revisions (adding references, pulling some of the context higher up in the article), the draft was agreed and everything went live.
And that was that! No magic, no innate talent that I have that other curious people don’t. Just finding something I was interested in, using Google a lot, listening well, and being friendly.
You can do the same.