Interview with Tatiana Walk-Morris
Tatiana Walk-Morris is a freelance writer, reporter, and J-school alumna based in Chicago, Illinois. We talked about sticking up for your work, pay transparency and negotiation, and deciding it was finally time to start a blog. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter to learn more about her work.
Your work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice, Pacific Standard, and more. Which stories are you most proud of and why?
The way I see technology, the way I write about technology is different. I think most people are obsessed with the apps, but I’m more interested in how technology affects people and how people who are in the tech space are.
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With the New York Times [story], it was just a lot of companies — your major, Facebooks and Googles of the world — get flak for not having enough people of color. So it’s interesting to flip that on its head and see what it’s like to talk with people who think about that from the beginning and build that, you know, ground up.
When did you start freelancing?
I started freelancing when I graduated from college in December of 2014. I started doing work for local publications here in Chicago. I didn’t think that I was going to be a freelancer, but it just happened that way later on.
What was your first story about?
I believe my first professional, freelance byline was a story for the Chicago Defender. This is it, I think. It’s been so long ago.
What do you enjoy about freelancing?
I love the independence of it. I love that I get to find my own stories and then place them in publications that I feel will suit the story best. I think that when you’re a staffer, it’s a different thing.
I remember, being in college or even at internships, I might find something that’s interesting, and sometimes your editor may totally get it, or sometimes they don’t. So as a freelancer, I can say, “Oh, okay, well, this might not be right for you all, but I have another publication I can write for.” I think as a staffer, you may not have that freedom to pitch where you want topitch without talking to your editors first.
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If you talk to different publications, you work for different publications, you just pick up all kinds of knowledge working with different content-management systems or working with different editors who teach you different things.
Even though I’ve graduated, I never really stopped learning.
And also [I enjoy] the financial independence of it. For whatever reason, there’s a stereotype out there that women are bad at negotiating. And I don’t always get what I want when I’m negotiating, but I do speak up for myself when I’m asking for different rates. I like having that control over what my income is going be. I can have a real role in that. Having that conversation on a regular basis, when you switch to a new job, if you’re working at a place full-time and switch to another place… that conversation is intimidating.
What don’t you enjoy?
The flipside to negotiating my rates is the whole unpredictability, the sporadic nature of having to deal with when publications are going to pay you. Every publication is different. Some publications pay before the story’s out. Some of them pay within two weeks of it being published. Others, it could be 30 days. Others, they send the check out on the 30th day, but it doesn’t come to you until the 40th day, and you’re just like, “Hello, I have to pay my internet today!”
Talk to me about your blog, the Freelance Beat. What was the inspiration for starting that?
I started it in July of 2016 because two things were happening to me around the same time.
The first thing was I was starting to get published nationally. But even though I’d done local reporting for DNAinfo and Chicago Reader and other places, that first national story was for The New York Times. Then I did the Harvard story, then I did another Times story and a Vice story.
Once I started to do that national work, a lightbulb went on and people that I knew from college or people who knew someone who knew me in college were reaching out to me and asking me questions about how I was able to freelance.
I also had a hard time finding freelance reporting information. There’s a lot of stuff out there about freelance writing and there’s a lot of stuff out there that feeds into the misconception of what freelancing is. Like, I’m in a t-shirt right now, that’s fine, but I am still working, I’m still going through documents — I can go back to that once we get off the phone.
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The ethics behind journalism, copywriting, and the other kinds of marketing-type stuff that’s out there — those are different. So for me, I want information that is about freelance reporting specifically. And it just kind of clicked. “You’re doing this stuff; people keep asking you questions about how you’re doing your freelance reporting. Why don’t you just start a blog?”
What issues are important to you as a writer?
I do think that there needs to be more transparency with regards to freelance journalism. I often turn to a site called Who Pays Writers for information on — you know, it’s crowdsourced, but I have information about how much an outlet pays or how long it took them to get paid and what their experiences are like with a particular outlet.
I actually interviewed Manjula [the founder of Who Pays Writers] for my blog, and it was an interesting conversation. I do think that there needs to be more transparency in terms of how people are getting paid, how long it’s taking them to get paid, because I think tame principle applies to staff writers.
If you don’t know how much the person next to you is making, you don’t know whether or not you’re being undercut.
Especially with younger writers like myself, it is difficult. I had to check that site first but sometimes the rates aren’t available, so I have to make my own determination as to how much something is going to cost me before I pitch it.
What message do you have for the Millennial Freelancer’s audience?
Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Go for publications that will pay you what you’re worth. Get a system in place for keeping track of cash flow and all your other business stuff on the backend, your contracts and what have you.
Don’t be afraid to walk away if you feel like you’re not being paid well enough, or if you feel like you’re being mistreated.
You need to be able to stand up for yourself. You need to make sure you have contracts and have stuff in writing in case things go really bad. If things go really bad, you have to be able to stick up for yourself and say, “No, I deserve to get paid for the work that I did.”
Know a number below which you cannot work for. Come up with a figure of how much you wanna try to make off your business. Then figure out how much you need to make per piece. If [a rate] goes below that number, you have to feel comfortable with walking away because there are other publications that will pay you for your work.
I encourage young writers to advocate for themselves, make sure they get paid on time, make sure they get paid whatever their reporting is worth, and don’t be afraid to do that. You’re a business owner now. You’re not just a writer. That stuff that your boss used to do for you, you have to do that stuff yourself now. You need to start walking around like you are a boss: You are one!
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