Taking the free out of freelancer: Five tips on working and getting paid

Taking the free out of freelancer 2

From left to right: Teresa Wiltz, Jamaal Abdul-Alim, Helena Andrews, Lauren Williams


Working as a freelancer can sometimes feel like you’re on the old amusement park ride The Rotor.  You’re spinning around really fast having the time of your life, when suddenly the bottom drops out and you’re scared out of your mind, not knowing when your next check will come from.  Panelists on the “How to get paid in 2013: Working Without Walls in the New Economy” at the NABJ conference in Orlando, Fla. know the feeling, and shared five tips on how to ensure success as a freelancer.


The first tip is to find new material to report on.  Nothing is more frustrating than wanting to write about something but realizing that it’s been covered a million times already.


Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a freelance writer who specializes in education reporting. He’s found that newsletters, like PR Newswire, have been invaluable in helping him find ideas.  He also advises people to mine their hobbies for stories–for example, he’s written about chess.  Don’t shy away from reports; they might seem straightforward, boring even, but if you can find a way to take the report to the next level, you will get jobs no one else will.


Abdul-Alim also encourages reporters to look for the hidden story.  For example, he was riding his bicycle through the cemetery one day and saw that a huge tree had fallen down.  He wondered if there was a story in it.  After researching a bit, he found out there was one, and his piece on the state of cemetery trees wound up being published in “American Cemetery” magazine.  This leads to the second tip: set yourself apart. 


“Talk about what no one else is talking about,” says Helena Andrews, journalist and pop culture critic.  She was chatting with friends when she realized that a number of them were not going to see the movie, Fruitvale Station because the subject matter (a young, unarmed black man murdered by law enforcement) hit too close to home.  No one had written about that yet–so Andrews did.  If you can take a hackneyed topic and make it your own, you will find interested outlets.


You can also lure an editor “If you pitch and you’re willing to report,” says Lauren Williams, assistant editor at TheRoot.com.  She receives countless pitches from journalists who want to comment on stories already out there but not a lot from those willing to do an enterprise story.  In addition, highlight your skills.  If you know how to do multimedia projects, offer them to an editor.  “It will make you really marketable,” says Williams.


Reliability is key as well. “If you’re reliable, you’re going to make that editor’s life so much easier,” says Teresa Wiltz, deputy editor of Essence magazine.  Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.  It’s easy to slack off when you’re a freelancer because you don’t have the structure of a 9-5.  This is why Andrews advises reporters to stick to a schedule, which is tip number three.

If you know you write better during the day, that’s when you should be writing, not pitching or researching.  Save those tasks for when you’re a little less focused, this way you use your time efficiently.


Most importantly, make time for networking.  As tempting as it may be to just sit around in your PJs and write (broadcast and multimedia folks don’t have it so easy!) “You have to really get out of the house,” and make connections, advises Wiltz.  Relationships are a journalist’s bread and butter, so be sure not to go hungry.  That’s tip number four. 


Don’t think just doing the story is enough, you have to stay in the forefront of an editor’s mind.  One way to do that is actually calling them up and asking them out for coffee, says Andrews.  “Treat yourself as one of their employees,” she continues.  Once you get the story published, having a relationship with the editor will also put you in a great position to negotiate future pay.  Knowing how to handle your money, is the all-important tip number five.  


Wiltz encourages reporters to know what the market rate is for what they’re doing.  Newspapers/magazines still pay more than the web.  So keep that in mind when doing a print story for the web or a video/multimedia story.


But don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.  You may be willing to take less money to establish a relationship with a media outlet you respect, but don’t do that forever.  After all, “Experience does not pay your bills,” says Andrews.  “You have to stay strong in your stance” regarding pay, and if the editor trusts you, they will be willing to work with you.  They may not be able to pay what you’re asking for but a good editor won’t berate you for asking.  You can also get paid more, Williams says, if your story requires travel so be sure to mention that when negotiating.


Once you get paid, don’t blow it all at once.  Abdul-Alim instructs freelancers to “act as if they don’t have any clients,” and “assume you’re going to be dropped the next day.”  It may sound harsh but that mindset has kept his wallet full in his three years as a full-time freelancer. 


It’s also a good rule to keep in mind because you may not get paid on time.  Andrews has a cautionary tale of one magazine, which didn’t pay her until six months after her story had been published.  She never wrote for them again.


Despite the occasional drawbacks of freelancing though, Andrews points out that it has its upside: “You get to enjoy being out in the world.”


“Being a freelancer is awesome.”









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