Freelance journalism is the future

Did you know that 1 in 3 American workers are freelancers?

That stat is about the overall workforce, but journalism definitely isn’t exempt. There are 30 percent less full-time journalists today than in 2000, according to Pews’ 2013 State of the Media report.

The Student Center at Hofstra Unviersity, where the SPJ Region I conference took place. Photo credit: Paul Berendsen, Wikimedia Commons.
The Student Center at Hofstra University, where the SPJ Region I conference took place. [Photo credit: Paul Berendsen, Wikimedia Commons.]
The days of health benefits, job security and a healthy pension might be over. But more newsrooms are building elite armies of freelancers, according to a recent panel at the Society Professional Journalists (SPJ) Region I Conference at Hofstra University.

The grind can be hard. Any given week a freelancer could be juggling 5 or 6 stories for multiple publications, all of whom expect you get it done. This excludes marketing yourself and researching pitches.

As veteran freelance journalist and author John Hanc says, “There’s always a deadline.” It’s a “hard-work business,” but it is possible to be well off.

To get the first job, in the words of Sandra Mardenfeld, sometimes you have to do “a little bit of targeted stalking” to get the job (or an interview for your story). Know your target. Do your research. Reach out on LinkedIn, Twitter, even Facebook if you have to. Know what they’re looking for and pitch ideas.

Liza Burby, Sandra Mardenfeld, Jason Molinet and John Hanc at the Effective Freelancing panel. Photo Credit: Susan Keith on Twitter.

Liza Burby of Anton Media Group remembers when she worked for $10 per week and produced 100 clips (100!). The experience matters and local journalism is the best place to do “renaissance reporting,” where you can report on multiple topics and build all sorts of skills. Not only do you get bylines and exposure, but you build a reputation and sources.

So beware the first impression. It’s a double edged sword. Make no mistakes, hand in good copy and be a friendly face when you visit for a good reputation to follow you. Just be sure to keep it up. But if you mess up, even locally, you can bet said editor won’t hire you again and a bad reputation might stalk you.

You don’t want something like that stalking you, right? No work means no pay.

A nearly empty Starbucks cup in a Stony Brook University lounge. [Photo Credit: Janelle Clausen]
A nearly empty Starbucks cup in a Stony Brook University lounge. [Photo Credit: Janelle Clausen]
That being said though, Hanc noted that one of the worst things you can do is “go whining about how you made more as a Starbucks barista” on your first contract. You’re in no position to negotiate. Those bragging rights come later. When you write with the Washington Post, Politico or Smithsonian- which should be done early as possible- then you might get away with it. Name power is important.

But creativity is vital. Papers are always looking for fresh content. Send pitches- the amount varies on your schedule- over with 2 to 3 sources and statistics at the ready. If you need help keeping them in steady supply, build off previous stories you’ve done.

“Ideas are your currency,” Burby says.

Sound like a lot of work? It is.

But every day is an adventure where you control your own destiny. So long as you have consistency, quality, ideas, passion and communication skills, you can find a healthy future in freelance journalism. If a panel like this shows up again, I highly advise you try attending.

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