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The journalism job market is tenuous. Many internship programs are on hold. What’s a job-searching, early-career journalist to do? Freelancing is one option, but it’s intimidating if you don’t know how to get started.
Erin Schwartz is the managing editor of Study Hall, a media newsletter and online support network with great resources for freelance journalists. She shared advice on finding paid work, negotiating rates and building relationships with editors. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your own freelance experience and how you got started.
I came at it in a way I would not recommend. I graduated from Brown with a degree in urban studies, and I wrote for the student paper for two years. After graduating I scrambled to find a day job and did accounting for a magazine for a few years. In the meantime, I tried to freelance. I’d email friends who had freelanced and got coffee with friends who were writers. The first few times it didn’t really click. I couldn’t figure out how to send an email to an editor, how to pitch people, where to find emails.
I got so frustrated I did a full-court press of talking to all my friends who were in the media industry and trying to freelance a lot. I got the hang of it and it became easier.
What should early-career journalists be aware of before starting to freelance?
One challenge is that it’s really hard to string together enough work to support yourself. You’re writing and you’re your own administrator and boss and office. You’re going to have to spend some days chasing down invoices and doing your taxes. It’s easier to start out having some other sources of income vs. full-time freelancing.
The thing that really helps is finding your own beats, whether it’s something like business or technology, or something obscure and random you know a lot about and can pitch a lot about. That takes a bit of practice, and the first few things will probably be whatever comes your way. When you establish what you’re good at and well-positioned to write, what you know more about than the average person, that will really help you use your time efficiently and pitch things that will get accepted.
RELATED TRAINING: Survive and Thrive in Freelance and Remote Work. Enroll in this four-week online seminar by July 21, 2020.
How do you suggest journalists find publications that will pay for their work even when they’re early in their careers?
Study Hall has lots of resources for that, including a list of editors’ emails with rates. There are Twitter accounts called Who Pays Writers? and Writers of Color. Sonia Weiser’s jobs email is good, and she always includes rates.
You’re always going to be more successful pitching to a publication that you know well. I pitched to places I had some kind of connection or where someone I knew had written.
How should freelancers calculate what’s a reasonable rate to be paid for a piece? When should they push back or say “no?”
There’s the Platonic ideal and then there’s actually what people pay. My base rate is 20 cents per word, and I go up from there if it involves reporting. Think about how much time it’ll take for you to write this. Are you sitting down and writing an essay straight through, or will you have to do interviews, transcribing, researching? If it involves those extra reporting steps, increasing your rate accordingly makes sense.
When you’re negotiating rates, the editor has two scales: pay and the scope of the piece. If they can’t pay you more, ask if they can change the scope of the piece to make it easier. They might pay for transportation or transcription; you can be a little creative.
What’s the most common mistake you see in freelance pitches? What makes a good pitch?
Sometimes young writers feel pressure to put everything out there in a pitch email. Make sure the pitch is readable in one sitting and not more than 2-3 paragraphs. It’s a sketch of what you’d want the piece to be, who you’d talk to, what sources you’d use, but you don’t have to have the piece already 100% sorted out in your mind before pitching it to someone.
Sometimes I’ll get pitches that are like 800-word mini-articles, and there’s not much I can do with those. You want to say to the editor, “Here’s the story I want to write, what do you think?” They might want you to adjust the angle a little bit, and you’ve wasted some time if you’ve already written the whole piece in your head. I’d rather see an interesting, thoroughly researched question than a confident conclusion in a pitch.
What should early-career journalists consider financially about freelancing vs. holding a staff position?
You pay a much higher tax rate on freelance income than on employee income, and you’re the one providing your benefits. If you’re full-time freelancing, the free time oozes into work and the work oozes into free time. It’s hard to take time off without feeling guilty or like you’re not running your freelance business properly. Give yourself days off and sick days, and don’t be going on your computer at Christmastime with your family.
Invoices are pretty easy. They can be pretty bare-bones, but I recommend people have a spreadsheet or system where they keep track of them. Lots of places will take around a month to pay you, so have an organizational system to keep track of who you need to follow up with.
What are best practices for staying in touch with an editor and maintaining a relationship after working with them?
Working with the same editors is a huge relief. You have a sense of what they like, and you can send them half-baked ideas and they might take it.
Look for cues about what they’re like as an editor. Editors also want to have a good rapport with writers, because that makes it easier. If they’re making a joke with you in an email, you’re absolutely licensed to make a joke back. You’re not in too much danger of bugging them, because they’re used to getting lots of emails. Just don’t send them multiple in a row within a week if they haven’t responded.
What other resources do you recommend for freelancers?
Anything that gives you a sense of community. Writing can be so esoteric and the etiquette and norms probably seem really confusing to someone who hasn’t been working in journalism before. Find people you can ask not only about the big stuff, but the little stuff. What should I put in this email? Is this too long? When should I follow up with this editor? That was what helped me the most. It wasn’t reading stuff on the internet, it was having people I could text and not feel guilty about it.
Any other advice for young journalists?
Read a lot, especially old magazine articles that are really good. The more you read, the more you get good ideas, and you can think about how the author wrote that, what it would have taken.
One tool we love
Who Pays Writers? is a crowdsourced list of how much publications pay for journalistic writing. Journalists anonymously submit reports of how much publications paid for their writing, plus information about the type of piece and how quickly they get paid. If you’re starting to freelance, this tool is a great way to scope out rates for different publications. There’s also a corresponding Twitter account.
What’s your favorite tool that other student journalists should know about? Email me and I might feature it in a future issue.
Freelancing reading list + resources
- How to successfully pitch The New York Times (or, well, anyone else) (Nieman Lab)
- Working as a freelance journalist right now is hard but not impossible. Here’s some advice. (Poynter)
- Journalists share tips for launching a successful freelance career (International Journalists’ Network)
- Thinking about making the jump to freelance? Here’s what you need to know (Poynter)
- Go into freelancing armed with the resources you need to succeed (Poynter)
- Freelancing with Tim: Weekly Zoom panels with editors and writers
- Society of Professional Journalists Freelance Community
Opportunities and trainings
- The Information is offering eight free classes in July for anyone interested in building a journalism career. Learn more here.
- The Student Media Virtual Bootcamp will provide two weeks of training from three college media organizations from July 20-30. Learn about the tracks and register here.
- Poynter will hold an online training July 29 on writing about the world in 2020 with dignity and precision. Register here.
- Write the World is looking for writers ages 13-19 who want to publish their work related to the election, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and other important topics. Learn more and apply here.
- College students and recent graduates, apply for NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project, a weeklong audio journalism training program at locations around the country.
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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @blatchfordtr.