September 14, 2012

In 2009, I left journalism school full of vim, vigor, and visions of a working in a newsroom. I imagined myself reporting under a crack team of editors, who would push me to greater heights of professional success by day and regale me with stories from their own careers by night.

It was going to be awesome.

Of course, things didn’t go quite according to plan. Newspaper jobs were scarce, so I decided to freelance on the side while I looked for a full-time job. Before I knew it, I was (barely) making ends meet as a freelancer. I fell in love with the freedom and flexibility of independent journalism, but there was one problem: without long-term editors to supervise my work, it seemed like I’d never find those inspiring mentors I had imagined.

It’s a cruel conundrum. Young freelancers need mentors perhaps more than anyone else, but without a consistent set of colleagues, where can an independent journalist find sources of wisdom and advice? In a desperate attempt to answer that question, I near-stalked every journalist and potential mentor in the greater New York City area for the better part of a year.

Here’s what I found out:

First, join professional associations.

We’ve all heard it before: “It’s about who you know.” As it turns out, that’s true — and one of the best ways to build your personal network is by joining professional associations.

“Professional organizations open the door, but they’re just the first step,” Fara Warner, editorial director of AOL Media, said by phone. “You really have to do your homework on which organizations you want to join. Be clear about who belongs and what they offer.”

Through professional associations, freelancers develop life-long career contacts and connect with potential mentors. There are dozens of organizations that focus on different beats, journalistic mediums and minority groups, so odds are good that you’ll be able to find something to fit your specific background and interests. National organizations are great, but don’t forget to look into local groups too. After all, the best (and most involved) mentors will be the ones who have met you in person.

Don’t be afraid to email people you admire.

You’re a journalist, so you already know how to hunt down an email address. That’s a useful skill — so use it! If you read an article that you especially admire, email the reporter. If there’s a publication you adore, email the editors. After all, what do you have to lose?

For years, I was bizarrely afraid to send unsolicited emails. I had to pace around my old dorm room and listen to energetic songs like “Eye of the Tiger” before I could muster the courage to click “send” on a basic introductory email.

In hindsight, that was insane. It’s true that many editors and reporters just won’t respond to emails from un-established freelancers, but you’ll be surprised by how many do. If you keep that first email lighthearted, specific, and brief, you’ll increase your odds of getting a reply. If you can mention a mutual friend or professional colleague, that’s great. If you share an alma mater, that’s good too.

If the reporter you idolize doesn’t email you back at first, don’t despair. Follow-up a few months later. Then follow up a few months after that. In our field, persistence is a positive trait, so be persistent but polite. One long-suffering editor endured at least a dozen emails from me before he finally wrote back and agreed to meet up for coffee. Once I broke through that barrier, one of my most rewarding professional relationships was off to a great start.

Find out what you have to offer, and then offer it.

The best advice I heard all year came from Cathryn Ramin, an author and journalist whom I first met through (you guessed it) a professional organization and subsequent coffee date. She told me that I was approaching potential mentors backwards — that instead of asking for their advice, I should offer a service of my own.

“In the working world, people are primarily interested in what you can do for them, rather than the other way around,” Ramin told me once via email. “Tell the person what you have to offer, and how good you are at it. Perhaps this person needs a researcher? A statistics whiz? Someone willing to track down people who are hard to find?”

At first, I was skeptical. I didn’t think that I had anything worthwhile to offer an intimidating, successful journalist with years of experience. As it turns out, I was dead wrong. The first two times I offered research assistance to journalists I admire, they took me up on it — with spectacularly good results. I had an opportunity to showcase my research skills, demonstrate my willingness to help, and — best of all — develop relationships.

Attend lectures and seminars in your field — & find ways to stand out.

It goes without saying that lectures and seminars are fantastic ways to stay abreast of new journalistic trends and issues. But the lesser-discussed benefit of these seminars is that they usually have question-and-answer sessions after the main event. Take notes as audience members ask their questions; they’ll usually mention their names and places of employment.

If you hear a name or organization that interests you, quietly pull out your smart phone and do a Google search. Find one thing, such as a recent article, to mention when you approach the person after the seminar. Then choke down those butterflies and say hello.

The first time I did this, I was at a documentary showing about female journalists in war zones. While a respected female foreign correspondent managed the post-screening question-and-answer session, I discreetly read her most recent article on my iPhone. After the movie, I walked up to her, resisted the temptation to nervously throw up on her shoes, and told her how much I had enjoyed her story.

It’s easy to ignore an email, but it’s much harder to ignore a young freelancer who is standing three feet away. One week later, that foreign correspondent and I had lunch together. We’ve been in touch ever since.

Don’t limit yourself.

As a child of the ’80s, I grew up with a very clear idea of what a “mentor” looks like: Mr. Miyagi, the elderly Japanese karate master from “The Karate Kid.” As it turns out, though, mentors aren’t necessarily always the wise older souls I’d imagined; they can also be colleagues, a popular local blogger, or the intern down the hall.

“Don’t limit your search for mentors to senior managers. Look around and expand who you might learn from: potential mentors can be peers or the college intern,” Alicia Stewart, editor of CNN’s “In America” blog, said via email.  “There is a value in having more than one type of mentor in your life – you don’t have to find just one.”

As it turns out, being a freelancer can actually be a huge advantage in the hunt for mentors. We get to work with dozens of different people, publications and mediums every year, which gives us a very diverse range of colleagues to develop relationships with. If you’re looking for a newsroom job, those relationships might eventually help you land one. But far better than that, mentors can share skills, perspective, experience — and, yes, even the occasional inspiring tale from their own careers.

If you’re sincere and candid about the fact that you’re looking for mentors, you might just be surprised — as I’ve been — by how many incredible people step up to the plate.

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Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer in New York with interests in press freedom, Shakespeare, international human rights, theater, and travel. As a 2010 -…
Jillian Keenan

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