Resources for freelance journalists
In the summer of 2016, I left my job to pursue stories about refugees in Europe. This was a very calculated risk. A data nerd and organized German at heart, I made sure to do my research before giving up a steady paycheck.
My stint in the freelance world only lasted for a few months and this may not be the way to go things for everyone, but I’m sharing this research because various people have asked me for advice privately. I figured there may be people out there on the interwebs who could make good use of this information.
Being nice to editors
One thing that I try to do is be as helpful and kind to editors as possible. Many of them field dozens of emails per day/per hour. Taking on freelance work can be a risk for them, especially at the beginning when freelancers have to be educated about a publication’s tone, style and audience.
To make life easier (theirs and mine), I’d try to ask a few guiding questions before pitching them stories (ideally on the phone or in person to avoid clogging up their inboxes):
- What kind of stories do you want to do that you aren’t currently producing?
- What’s your preferred pitch format?
- Are there good freelance stories you have commissioned and recommend I read?
- What’s your preferred workflow (Google or Word documents for written stories? Private repositories on github code-based projects? Embedded captions for photographs? Written scripts with soundbites and voice overs for videos?)?
- What is your pay rate for a story/video/photographs/data visualizations?
Pitching is something that seemed rather scary at first, but got better with practice. I had to learn not to get discouraged and continue to pitch. Some ideas stuck, others were turned down. The key was consistency.
One thing that helped was thinking about a format:
- Headline (how I’d imagine it in print or online)
- Pitch (350–500 words detailing what’s at the heart of the story. This usually includes some initial reporting)
- A few links/names to sources I’d consult
- Optional: A list of suggested interactives, photos or other visual content that would be part of the story
Below is a sample pitch that helped me land my first freelance piece with Vox.com.
Who counts in the age of intersectionality?
What are you? This used to be a simpler question. Once upon a time I might have been Oriental. At some point I became Asian, then Vietnamese and now, perhaps, I’m a German-born first generation Vietnamese immigrant to New York.
The language we use to define ourselves is becoming more varied. The more commonly recognized categories are becoming multifaceted. Now the government is following suit.
Recently, the senate decided to abolish the terms “Oriental,” “Negro,” “Eskimo” and “American Indian” from the languages of two laws. The Census is, for the first time, going to drop the term “Negro” from their surveys and instead start counting those who identify as “Middle Eastern.”
Data is a time capsule of a place and era during which it is collected. This story looks into the history of how we have been identified through official surveys and legislation. Through this story, I want to look at the idea of personhood at a time when people have multiple identities.
Some interesting news stories around the subject:
Here’s a really really helpful searchable database of pitches that have been successful, sortable by journalist and news organization: http://www.theopennotebook.com/pitch-database/
One of the biggest fears when jumping into freelance is money or lack thereof. I went from having a regular income to irregular incomes, editors sitting on stories for weeks or months and stories falling through.
I made a spreadsheet that helped me calculate how much I should stash away for my future tax bill and that helped me track who had and hadn’t paid me. On a second sheet I tracked work-related expenses. While this sheet allowed me to keep track of my finances for tax-purposes, it also waas a way to soothe my mind during times of financial insecurity.
Some folks have asked me for a copy of the spreadsheet, so I made a template for you to build your own.
Speaking of money, I also hated navigating freelance rates. How much should I charge, now that I was paying for my own health insurance? With the help of wonderful networks and friends, I’ve been able to get a better idea of how much different organizations pay.
I also did a lot of research to cobble together a variety of union contracts which contain base salaries for various types of journalism jobs. A former student of mine, the fabulous Julia Haslanger, also put together a survey around journalism salaries and presented the findings on Medium.
Update: Here’s a helpful article from Columbia Journalism Review about writing for specific publications (whether editors are good to work with, how much the publications pay, etc.).
Maintaining my sanity became almost as important as making sure I was able to make money. Life as a freelancer can be really really lonesome.
Three things that helped were:
- Get out of the house: I’d switch up locations by working in public libraries and occasionally from cafes.
- Get on Slack: I was part of Slacks like Journalists of Color and News Nerdery. It gave me the feeling of being in a communal space even if I wasn’t talking most of the time.
- Find fellow freelance buddies: Having someone to talk to about the woes of being freelance can relieve a lot of stress.
Anyhow. That’s it! Feel free to suggest more resources! Happy to add them to this post.