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Making old media’s demise work for you: Opportunities and challenges of being a full-time freelancer

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If you’re thinking about a journalism career, you’ve probably heard all of the horrific stats about shrinking newspapers, reporters having to cover multiple beats, massive layoffs, and the like.


It’s all true.


But what you need to remember is that the decentralization and downsizing of the news industry has benefits, too.


I picked one of the worst times possible to begin my journalism career. I’d wanted to make the jump for years but found the low pay to be a huge hurdle. When I lost my job a few months after September 11, the low pay was suddenly preferable to no pay. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks had put a significant dent in the economy. Advertising budgets, always the first be cut in a downturn, were small. Papers shrunk—or closed. I was competing with 20-year veterans for low-level journalism jobs.


Out of desperation, I overstated my Spanish skills to get a job as a receptionist at a bilingual trade publication covering the music industry. Within a few weeks, I went from answering phones, delivering faxes, and making coffee to writing business briefs. My editor allowed me to write my first feature soon thereafter.


A few months after I started this job, I got an idea for a reported op-ed. The piece was personally important to me, and I wanted it to reach as big an audience as possible. The Wall Street Journal seemed like the perfect place to pitch it. It was well respected and had a large national circulation. I had no idea how crazy it was to pitch one’s first freelance piece to such a prestigious paper. By the time it ran a few days later, I was completely hooked on a writing career.


My experience at the trade publication enabled me to get a job at a much larger publishing company. Officially, the company required a degree in journalism. My degree was in economics, but they made an exception.


My beat required me to cover government waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Despite my lack of journalism education, I managed to do pretty well. I chalk most of this up to my contrarian political views. Many of the folks on similar beats at other papers were big fans of a large, expansive government. I was not, so I could find stories about waste, fraud, and mismanagement more easily than they could.


While it was a tremendous grind, I loved being a daily beat reporter. There’s no better experience for a writing career than having to cultivate sources, find stories, figure out your hook, and quickly draft copy—day after day after day.


After a couple of years of reporting, I asked some of the journalists I most admired for advice on what to do next. One of them, an editor at a major magazine, told me to pick an area of expertise and devote myself to it.


I had already started focusing all of my freelance work on economics, baseball, and religion. Of these three, religion news was the area where there seemed to be the most opportunity. Few could write knowledgeably about religion, and editors were desperate for content. I could more easily pitch a news story or feature about religion than I could baseball. So, while I probably would have preferred to write about baseball or economics, the market encouraged me to focus on religion.


My mentor had explained to me the benefits of becoming a reliable source on a given topic. Rather than having to be in a constant pitch mode, if you keep producing stories on a given topic, producers and editors actually come to you much of the time. Since pitching is far and away the worst part of the writing process—unless you really enjoy being ignored or told “no” over and over and over again—that’s a huge plus.


Another benefit is that you can take the same reporting work and sell it over and over again. I hear this was much easier in the days before the internet when you could sell more-or-less the same story to multiple outlets. But it still works now. For instance, one of my freelance gigs involves writing for a blog that covers religion news. So if I write a few posts on, say, the influence of Hindu Nationalists on textbook battles in California, I can easily turn that into an op-ed or the basis for a feature-length piece for another publication. Sometimes I get lucky and editors will even approach me and ask me to write a piece based on some blog posts they’ve read.


Aside from topical reporting and commentary, my interest in broader issues also pays dividends. My longstanding interest in civil religion—the blending of politics, patriotism, and religion—means I can dash off blog posts and op-eds. But my past writings and extensive knowledge of the subject also mean I can write lengthier features for magazines or chapters for books.


And devoting yourself to a particular niche means you know earlier than most when a story is worth more attention or has a fresh hook that would interest a wider audience. If you dabble in too many areas, you risk being unable to cover any of the topics with much depth.


Like my initial decision to get into journalism, my decision to do freelance work full-time was also somewhat serendipitous. It was provoked by the birth of my first child. By the time she arrived, I’d figured out that I wanted to have more control over what I wrote, and I wanted to be as involved with raising her as possible. If I’d stayed at my newspaper job, I wouldn’t have had time for any freelance work and I wouldn’t have much time with my child.


I’d built up enough regular gigs, contracts, and contacts to make it work. Because I didn’t have the burdens of my full-time job, I had more time to be creative and aggressive with my story pitches. Each additional story, op-ed, blog post, and fellowship led to other opportunities at more outlets. I got a column at a major magazine. I was asked to contribute to books and speak to groups throughout the country. A writing career matches well with having a family in part because it’s so flexible and allows for increased or decreased work. When my second child arrived, I was able to stagger my assignments so that I could ease back into work after her birth.


While my move to freelance work was motivated by family concerns, it coincided with major downsizing among newspapers and magazines. That created opportunities as well. Newspapers and magazines still need content even if they are struggling to pay benefits for full-time employees. That means that you can develop a relationship with a media outlet for regular content without having all the hassle of a full-time, 9-6 job. Such an arrangement isn’t ideal for everyone, but it works if you have benefits arranged through other mechanisms.


Being a full-time freelancer can also allow you more opportunities to travel and jump on assignments that come up suddenly. For example, I had always dreamed of covering a political convention. While I was employed full-time at media outlets, such a trip was difficult to justify. But as a freelancer, I was able to cover both national political conventions in 2008. My husband— also a writer—and I covered both 2008 conventions with our daughter in tow. We rigged childcare together almost perfectly, so that we could report and do radio and television interviews as needed. Because various media outlets have weak travel budgets, they couldn’t afford to send as many reporters to the conventions as they would have liked. I was able to cover speeches, meetings, and protests and sell pieces to a variety of outlets to finance my trip.


Make no mistake: being a full-time freelance journalist is hard, and being a mother of young children to boot is especially trying at times. Challenges include conducting phone interviews with children underfoot, meticulous record-keeping for tax purposes, and the constant pressure of finding new gigs. However, the freedom I’m afforded and the job satisfaction more than makes up for the frustrations. While the troubles facing media have made a writing career challenging, they also provide opportunities and flexibility that were unavailable in the past.


Written by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway.


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