Freelancers Unite: Sessions for Independent Journalists at #EIJ17

The annual Excellence in Journalism conference commences Thursday in Anaheim, and I’m thrilled to say there are six (6!) sessions of special interest to freelancers, described below. (You can also find these descriptions, as well as links to speaker/panelist bios, on the EIJ Programs page.)

Additionally, the SPJ Freelance Community will host a “Freelancers’ Corner” table in the main hall of the conference on Thursday and Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Please stop by to say hi, fill us in on what you’re up to, and learn more about (or give us new ideas!) how the Freelance Community can support you.

EIJ is a bilingual, multimedia conference for journalists in any medium, with many sessions to be presented in Spanish. The conference is a collaboration among SPJ, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).



2 specifically for freelance journalists


Time Is Money: The Art Of Retelling And Reselling Stories

Friday, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Do you want your hard work to pay off? Learn ways to make your research, interviewing and writing efforts do double duty. Independent journalists who know how to resell stories and reuse their research will show freelancers how to work more efficiently by finding new markets for published stories — to keep the pipeline full in slow times, and to boost earning power all year long.

Trainers: Stephenie Overman (@saoverman), independent journalist; Hazel Becker, independent journalist; Roberta Wax (@RobiWax), independent journalist

Yes, You Can: Investigative Reporting As A Freelancer

Saturday, 9-10 a.m.

Some say it can’t be done; this session proves them wrong. Others don’t know where to start; this session shows the way. We’ll dissect stories of experienced investigative journalists to reveal their techniques for gaining access, navigating legal complexities and funding investigative work without the level of newsroom support that comes with a staff position. We’ll give ample time for audience questions, which attendees are encouraged to send in advance to It will be relevant for new and experienced journalists and freelancers alike. You may pick up investigative techniques, but PLEASE NOTE: This is not a session about how to conduct investigative reporting. We’ll focus on how to do investigative reporting *as* a freelancer.

Trainers: Claire Martin (@clairecmartin), independent journalist and journalism professor; Debra Krol (@Debkrol) independent journalist on the Native American beat; and Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold), former freelancer and now senior investigative reporter with BuzzFeed News investigations team


1 that’s super relevant for freelance journalists


Why You Need A Platform And How To Create One

Thursday, 1-2 p.m.

As the compensation model for working journalists continues to shift from salary and work made for hire agreements, to compensation that’s largely based on online metrics, so too must our approach to getting paid. Forget what you think you know about promoting yourself. It’s time to platform! The simple fact of the matter is more publishers are demanding that you become a brand unto yourself, and there’s no better way to be seen and heard than through the building and proper feeding of your own platform.

Trainers: Mikal Belicove (@belicove), author and journalist; Robyn Davis Sekula (@itsRobynwithay), consultant and writer


2 that feature freelance journalists


Covering Protests: Advocacy vs. Objectivity In Indian Country

Saturday, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Join NAJA members for an interactive discussion on how to navigate coverage of protests in Indian Country, including what to do if you’re in a situation where law enforcement is less discerning in upholding First Amendment protections. Learn about your rights and the limitations you have as a journalist in covering Native communities through examples such as the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Speakers: Jenni Monet (@jennimonet), independent journalist; Tristan Ahtone (@tahtone), freelance journalist; Chiara Sottile (@CASottile), reporter, NBC News


Covering Violence Against Native Women And Children

Thursday, 2:30-3:30 p.m.

How does telling the story of violence against Native women and children help strengthen tribal sovereignty? What are the barriers to justice and safety for victim-survivors of abuse? Media play a critical role in telling the story of domestic violence and sexual assault in tribal communities. Journalists can help shed light on the devastating fact that millions of Native women, men and children in this country are directly experiencing physical, sexual, mental, emotional abuse and threats of violence in their intimate relationships. Learn about the importance of providing historical context in news stories, understanding the jurisdictional loopholes at the federal, state and tribal level, and get the latest data, tools and best practices for covering these sensitive topics. We’ll explore what resources exist for Native victim-survivors, including the StrongHearts Native Helpline, a new culturally-appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for American Indians and Alaska Natives that launched in 2017.

Speakers: Princella RedCorn (@15Princella), communications officer, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center & Documentary Producer; Mallory Black (@mblack47), communications manager, StrongHearts Native Helpline & freelance writer; Mary Hudetz (@marymhudetz), criminal justice reporter, Associated Press


Plus 1, just in case it’s right for you


Career Transition: Moving From Newsroom To Classroom

Friday, 9-10 a.m.

The switch from full-time staff or freelance journalist to teaching can be a tough one especially for those without a deep background in journalism education. We’ll help you understand how community colleges, state schools and private universities hire adjuncts and full time professors. We’ll also set out the skills you need to be a successful educator as you create syllabi and rubrics, navigate contracts and manage students.

Speakers: Laura Castañeda (@lauracastaneda), professor of professional practice, USC Annenberg; Brooke Van Dam (@brookevandam), associate professor and faculty director of the MPS in Journalism, Georgetown; Allissa Richardson (@DrAlliRich), assistant professor, USC Annenberg; Henry Fuhrmann (@hfuhrmann), adjunct nstructor, USC Annenberg; Tim Posada (@timposada), journalism chair, Saddleback College


And it’s not too early …


… to think about next year’s conference. What freelance sessions would you like to see — or produce, or contribute to as a panelist or speaker? The deadline for proposing sessions is mid-January, so it helps to get a jump on the brainstorming now.

Last year, the Freelance Community started by crowd-sourcing ideas for sessions, then consolidating those into a handful potential sessions. Based on an informal poll of the community, we found volunteers to take the lead on a few of the higher-ranking session ideas, and of those proposals, two were accepted.

Maybe next year, one of them will be yours!

Please contact Freelance Community Chair Hazel Becker or Secretary Hilary Niles with your thoughts. And be sure to connect with @spjfreelance on Twitter, where you can also follow the conference through the hashtag #EIJ17


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Collaborative Freelancing

By guest blogger Hazel Becker 

During the Collaborative Journalism Summit at Montclair State (NJ) University in early May, my mind returned to questions I’ve been pondering since becoming chair of the SPJ Freelance Community this year. Who are we independent journalists? What makes us different from other journalists, or from other freelance writers? And why are we freelance journalists when we could be something else?

Hazel Becker

Hazel Becker is chair of the SPJ Freelance Community.

In my earlier contemplation, I asked members of our Facebook group to tell us why they freelance. The reasons respondents gave ranged from “it’s my career choice” to “I can’t find an entry-level job.” Although about half those responding said they freelance by choice, other responses make it clear that some of us go to great pains to make a living and still be journalists. Some of us sell stories to media outlets on a freelance basis while working full- or part-time at other pursuits. Others take on freelance corporate writing and PR work along with story assignments because the pay is higher. Some continue to tell news and feature stories while job hunting after graduation or layoffs. A few, like me, freelance in retirement to stay in the game during these exciting times.

At the New Jersey summit, I was glad to hear that independent journalists have been involved in some of the collaborative projects discussed, including the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters’ Panama Papers effort that won a Pulitzer Prize this year. If we want to increase our involvement in such projects, we need to assess and state our value proposition as professional freelance journalists.

Professional. Freelance. Journalist.

Those three words, taken together, describe the main audience for this blog as well as membership of the SPJ Freelance Community. Breaking the phrase down into three separate words reveals some things about us that will help us identify ourselves and state our value proposition. In reverse order:

Journalist, to most of us, means true storyteller. Whatever the mediums in which we work, we tell real stories — about events, environments and the people who experience them. Whether we’re writing the first draft of history, chronicling a series of events or profiling a person, place or thing, our aim is always the same: to tell a story we see to people who haven’t seen it as we have.

Freelance generally means free to purvey our craft on behalf of not just one but many sponsors — essentially, harkening back to medieval times, free to wield our lances on behalf of whatever cause we choose. As did the warriors of the 13th through 15th centuries, we choose primarily based upon what we get in return — usually payment, prestige or pleasure, the three Ps suggested by freelancer Katherine Reynolds Lewis as worthy compensation for our work. We are on our own, independent, not controlled by any government, political or corporate entity or employed by a single publication.

Professional, broadly defined when pertaining to individuals, means those who work according to a set of generally accepted standards and practices in a field. When pertaining to journalists, I define professional as those who seek truth and report it, act independently,  minimize harm and are accountable and transparent.

These four tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics form the basis of practice standards for professional journalists, not only SPJ members and not only those who say their work is guided by our code. They also should be a stated part of our value proposition as professional freelance journalists because they set us apart from other freelance writers in the crowded, internet-driven marketplace for our work.

Selling Our Value to Collaborate

As freelancers, most of us collaborate to some extent. We work together with publishers, editors, news directors and other media operatives to tell our version of stories to their audiences. We know how to do this! To get in on the action, we just need to sell our value — whether to collaborative projects or to prospective clients.

This graphic report from the Collaborative Journalism Summit illustrates the discussion of how freelancers can be involved in collaborative projects. (Graphic by Phil Bakelaar)

Freelancers who have special skills (foreign language or technology proficiency, for example) or deep knowledge of certain subject matter have an advantage with clients or projects that need those skills. But generalists also have something to sell — their presence in and knowledge of the areas where they live or work.

Here’s one approach to collaboration: The North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative formed to support independent journalists in the Triangle area of North Carolina in 2015 during debate over that state’s H.B. 2, the “bathroom law” targeting transgender people. Early members of the cooperative wanted to tell North Carolina’s story about the legislation, not the outsiders’ versions then being circulated by what they describe as the “parachute media” who arrived in droves after the bill was enacted. In addition to its co-working space in Research Triangle Park, the nonprofit offers networking, educational opportunities, legal advice and events to help members promote their work.

The U.S. news media are in a period of introspection following their dismal performance in reporting on the sentiment of the country in the 2016 presidential campaign. There could be no better time for independent journalists to sell their local knowledge and connections to regional and national media needing to broaden their reach and increase the diversity of voices they listen to and tell about.

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Score one for the freelancer! (a cautionary tale)

By guest blogger Hazel Becker 

This is the story of a freelance journalist who went up against a national publisher and won. The individual facts and circumstances are not uncommon.

Hazel BeckerThe freelancer had a personal story to tell, and pitched it to the editor of a publication that would have broad reach. The editor said yes, and the two agreed on compensation and a deadline. The story was published in print and online, pretty much as written.

After publication, as agreed, the writer submitted an invoice. In response, s/he received a contract to sign, awarding the publisher the right to disseminate the story electronically and republish it at will. After responding that s/he had asked about a contract and was told none would be required, along with a copy of the email in which all these terms had been discussed, the writer was told that if the signed contract was not returned, s/he would not be paid and the story would be taken offline.

The writer spent considerable time coming up with an altered version of the publisher’s contract that clarified some provisions and laid out specific terms s/he would agree to. Specifically, the writer made it clear that the work was not to be adapted or changed. S/he also stated that additional electronic rights had not been granted and would need to be negotiated separately.

Here’s the happy ending: the publisher agreed to go along with the agreement between writer and editor, and paid the invoice. This freelance journalist pitched to a respected national publication because s/he wanted this personal story to be told to a broad audience. After some hassle, s/he retained control over how the story would be told in the future and received the agreed compensation.

Here are some lessons, learned or reinforced, from this story:

  • Always have a contract. This happy ending would not have been possible if the writer and editor had not memorialized their agreement in email.
  • Email agreements can serve as contracts. The email thread between the writer and editor specified the elements necessary for a contract: the writer would send the specified work, the work would be published in print and online, the writer would submit an invoice, and the publisher would pay a set amount. No legal language or special form was needed.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge authority – or contract provisions you don’t agree to. When push came to shove, the publisher agreed to forgo most of the legal provisions it generally asks writers to accept. Strong-arm tactics aside, the writer stood up to the big guy and won.
  • Be clear about your negotiating goals. This freelancer wanted two things from the publisher – control of how this personal story would be told, and compensation for the work. S/he didn’t get sidetracked by other aspects of the contract or negotiation. In the end, s/he got what s/he wanted.

Not all contract disputes will come out this way – and not all of them should. The fact that the freelancer’s rights were preserved in an email exchange may have been the deciding factor here.

Most contract negotiations are carried out before the job is done, and standard contracts can be intimidating. Sometimes publication lawyers load freelance contracts with clauses that apply to all the media organization’s work, for “simplicity’s sake” or other reasons, and the publication won’t budge. Some publishers ask freelancers to take on more responsibility than is warranted. As independent contractors, freelance journalists often weigh their need of cash flow or total compensation ahead of other considerations. We have a tendency to accept the terms offered, knowing that most of the time it will come out fine.

But there’s no reason not to try – and if you can take some strength from this freelance journalist’s tale, please do.

Also, please tell us your own stories about contract provisions and negotiations. Send them to spjfreelancecommunity [at] gmail [dot] com. We’ll cull the results and write more on this subject in the future.

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Let’s get personal: Essay-writing for journalists

By guest blogger Hope Yancey

Back in 2010 and 2011, a section of my local newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, solicited short essays on the topic of style. I sent some on spec and eventually saw a few printed on various style-related topics — including my misguided preference for novelty holiday sweaters,  attempting to wear contact lenses,  thank-you notes as an indication of style and one misadventure in scarf-tying.

These lighthearted works were fun to write and brought in modest paychecks. I enjoyed the experience, but I also wished I could write for publication on a regular basis.

Later, I came across a notice advertising a need for freelance correspondents to write features and neighborhood news for the same newspaper’s community news sections. The pieces I had written for the style column gave me the confidence I needed to apply, not to mention a handful of useful clips for my portfolio. So, you could say my path into freelance journalism began with a personal essay.

I retain a certain affection for essay-writing, even though I went on to write articles for the paper for several years on the arts, education and nonprofit happenings, and write posts for a magazine’s food blog. I love personal essays because they are personal. That, and they are full of the same kinds of sensory description — following the same commandment to show, not tell — that are the hallmarks of most good writing. In some ways, personal essays also are easier to write than articles, despite the creative energy involved, because they require less research or interviewing.

Between regular writing assignments now, I’m returning to my roots. I’m keeping my writing skills sharp by rediscovering my love of the personal essay as a literary art form, something I hadn’t found much time for at my busiest.

Literary magazines and journals, whether online or print, are plentiful. Most seem to pay in the form of complimentary copies of the journal, if they pay at all, so this is not an endeavor that will help meet the bills for us freelancers. The rewards of trying them out and searching for a literary home for our most personal writings are more intrinsic than that.

Many literary journals have a nonfiction or creative nonfiction department for essays and similar works. Their websites will specify if they take “simultaneous submissions,” or if one must avoid sending the work elsewhere while it is under consideration. Some desire a cover letter with an entry; others want none. When I do include a cover letter, I keep it brief, perhaps referencing how I found the journal and why I think my writing would be an appropriate fit. I might type a sentence or two introducing the material. It’s not all that different from the query letter one might send with an article pitch, except here I am sending the finished piece. Each journal has its own personality or focus. As with any publication, it is best to read submission guidelines closely and samples of published work to gain a sense of the flavor of the publication and what it’s seeking.

Don’t be discouraged if at first it’s difficult to transition between journalistic writing and composing personal essays. I’ve found sifting through personal artifacts and contemplating my treasured objects or family photographs in a new way to be a rich source of essay ideas. Tapping into the humor in everyday life can provide inspiration, as well.

One lesson I learned from my scarf experience years ago: When you get stuck, just hang on, tie a knot in the thing somewhere and keep going.

Hope Yancey is a freelance journalist in Charlotte, N.C., and a member of the SPJ Freelance Community. Follow her on Twitter @Hope_Yancey.

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Some encouragement for freelancers as we head into 2017

Hazel BeckerFor many independent journalists I know, it’s discouraging to see the continuing string of newsroom layoffs that began in late 2016, including those announced by Dow Jones and Gannett in October that put hundreds of journalists out of work. Freelancers worry about the flood of laid-off staffers pouring into an already crowded job market. Yet, without a place for all these newspeople, we risk losing dedicated journalists at exactly the time when their energy is most needed to weather ongoing upheaval in our industry.

Recently, I have found one bright spot in this bleak picture: evidence that more mainstream organizations are joining SPJ in the recognition that independent journalists need special services to help them run successful freelance businesses. After the New Jersey Gannett layoffs in November, Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media teamed up with Poynter’s NewsU to offer free training for out-of-work journalists in the state, the idea being to help them make a go of it as freelancers. The training includes a certificate program in “building your brand through social media,” an array of coursework topics including how to become an entrepreneur and how to contribute to a local publication, and webinars and classes to help strengthen skills veteran newspeople need to thrive, working on their own.

NewsU isn’t new. For more than a decade, Poynter has been building a curriculum of more than 300 courses for newsroom and online training. What’s new is the acknowledgment that journalists need a path for continuing to work in the profession, even after their jobs are eliminated.

SPJ took a bold step a few years back by allowing groups of members with common interests to form official communities. They’re akin to national chapters, but organized around a common interest rather than location. It’s no surprise to me that the Freelance Community is the largest and most active of those groups. Through online events and chats as well as the community’s Facebook Group, we are engaging hundreds of independent journalists around issues ranging from access to information to freelance rates and contracts. Our resources help independent journalists keep track of contest entries and fellowship deadlines. Online discussions also spread the word about calls for pitches and training opportunities available to freelance journalists.

Independent journalists also are building community in person. Across the country journalists join with other freelancers for monthly Spark events sponsored by the Freelancers Union. Within SPJ, the monthly freelancers’ lunch meeting in Washington, D.C., will spread this year to other cities, and freelance programming is taking hold at the chapter and regional levels. The Freelance Corner at Excellence in Journalism (EIJ16) in New Orleans last year kept Freelance Community leaders busy throughout the conference, where budding and veteran freelancers alike crowded sessions and networking offerings.

Such groups and activities hold real value for journalists working outside the hub of a newsroom. Sharing information, skills and activities with similarly situated individuals throughout my time in SPJ has made me a better journalist and a more successful freelancer. I’ve found sources and story ideas in abundance by talking with other freelancers at the D.C. SPJ chapter lunches. I’ve learned different perspectives on some common freelancers’ dilemmas from the Freelance Community’s online chats. My technology advancements since joining the Facebook discussion group have made me more efficient and helped me solve problems that have bothered me for years.

There’s also truth in the adage that there’s safety in numbers. Coming together with other freelance journalists is important to our survival as the news business continues to morph. Wherever you are, however you do it, make sure you are counted among professional freelance journalists — and share the benefits of their collective wisdom to keep your business and our industry strong.

The best way is to join the SPJ Freelance Community today!

Hazel Becker’s two stints as a freelance journalist sandwich a 28-year career with BNA publications, now Bloomberg BNA, as correspondent, reporter, editor and product development manager. Freelancing over the last 10 years, she has covered personal finance, insurance, business and government for online publications and magazines from her home in Washington, D.C. She is the 2017 chair of the SPJ Freelance Community.

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Georgia SPJ’s freelance board on the rise with new chair

2016-08-03_18.30.29Guest blogger: Rebekah Fuchko

As all freelance journalists know, there is something they need in spades in order to be successful: a strong passion for what they do. Freelance journalism has its challenges, so you have got to be able to stick it out. That being said, the rewards can be great, and the freedom it gives you is appealing to many. Mark Woolsey, the new chair for the Society of Professional Journalists Georgia chapter freelance committee, has a lot of experience in this area.

Mark started out in radio after graduating in 1976 with a degree in radio-television from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. A few years later, he received a writing opportunity from a new, local magazine. Mark loves working in radio, but after seeing a hard copy of his work, complete with a byline, he was hooked. Since then, he has been an avid freelancer, but mostly as a sidebar to his main job as an anchor/reporter for iHeartMedia in Atlanta. Like many, Mark enjoys freelancing because he is not beholden to one employer, and he is able to keep his style fresh by writing many different kinds of pieces. In addition, he can work from home in his bathrobe! However, we all know freelancing is not easy. You have to worry about setting aside time to prospect other freelancing opportunities, and as a contract employee, you don’t have benefits. Needless to say, it can be a tough road for freelancers. That’s why Mark, as the new chair for Georgia SPJ’s freelance committee, is working hard to broaden the opportunities for all freelance journalists.


Mark has been involved with SPJ for a while now. He even served on the board for the Fort Worth pro chapter back in the 1990s. As a member of SPJ, Mark has reaped many benefits. Some of these benefits include networking with fellow freelancers, as well as the opportunity to hone his organization and planning skills. Mark said he really learned the ins-and-outs of doing meeting planning, and is able to continually make great connections. Two lasting connections he has made, through SPJ, include a freelancer for the the AJC, as well as a former CNN staffer who freelances on various television projects.

Mark is new to his position as chair for the Georgia SPJ freelance committee, but so far he’s worked hard to put together panels, worked on blog posts for the group, and contributed to the SPJ freelancers Facebook page. Mark plans to act as a guide, and a resource to, both old and new, SPJ members who are involved with freelancing. Georgia SPJ’s freelance committee offers a multitude of networking opportunities with fellow freelancers, as well as tips on upcoming jobs and projects. With Mark’s help, the chapter’s freelance committee is working on developing programming and resources to help freelancers become more successful. Mark hopes to help the chapter freelance committee become a “clearinghouse,” of sorts, for as many freelance journalists as possible. Becoming a member of SPJ opens you up to a multitude of networking and learning opportunities, as well as informative panels, which can go a long way in helping you to polish your skills.

With Mark at the lead, the Georgia SPJ freelance committee is working hard to become the number one go-to option for freelancers in search of support. You have much to gain, and nothing to lose, as a member of SPJ, and freelancers need all the opportunities they can get. So, if you are not a member of SPJ already, you should strongly consider becoming one, and checking out the freelance committee, because the opportunities it will open up for you can be plentiful.

Rebekah Fuchko is a senior journalism major at Kennesaw State University with plans to graduate in December 2017. She is an active member of the Society of Professional Journalists as president for the Kennesaw State University chapter, and as a student board member for the Georgia chapter. Rebekah has always had a passion for reading, which led to a profound respect for the written word. Now, she loves to write, and it is through writing that she discovered her truest passion, in editing. Her Twitter handle is @Rfuchko.

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The risks and rewards of meaningful freelance journalism

cirienGuest blogger: Cirien Saadeh

I recently made the decision to become a full-time freelance journalist after several years of working as a part-time community journalist. Despite having been lucky enough to work in newsrooms in the past, serve on the board of directors of other organizations, and assistant teach journalism classes on the college-level, I’ve always felt like an aspiring journalist. Journalism is something I grew up wanting to do, something I imagined as a young girl, and something I’m so very excited about now.

In May of this year, I was able to publish my first investigative piece, an in-depth look at the decisions being made to close Minneapolis’ last public housing complex, with the Twin Cities Daily Planet (TCDP). I do not think I have ever been so scared by an article I was working on before. The writing process really shook my confidence in my capacity to do this work and I remained nervous about the article for nearly two days after publishing it. I was worried that I missed something, having gone through hundreds of emails and meeting minutes and reports from the city government and local public housing unit. I was worried I misunderstood the residents’ struggle. I wanted to make sure that what I had written was accurate and factual, even as I tried to amplify the residents’ voices as a marginalized community. It was not until I started getting feedback on the article that I realized it was A) good journalism and B) important to the community members who felt their voices were being heard in the news for the first time.

It was an incredibly powerful experience to feel that the work I had done as a journalist was meaningful and helped to deepen the conversation about housing justice in the Twin Cities. That is not to say I now feel prepared for this freelance journey, but I feel like both the risks and the rewards are worth the fear, anxiety, and challenges I know I will face, if only just because of this experience.

As someone truly neurotic, I decided that even as I continued building my journalism portfolio and developing my networks, I wanted to also spend as much time as possible planning for a career as a freelance journalist and learning everything I need to know about this work. I’ve built freelancing into my Ph.D. studies at Arizona’s Prescott College and am trying to learn from so many of the journalists out there. That’s why I chose to join the Society of Professional Journalists — and I will gladly let you know how thrilled I was to be able to join, to be able to call myself a professional journalist.

And that’s not to say I’m as green as springtime grass. I’m not. I know the field is in flux, that the financial viability and sustainability of newsrooms is a challenge, that distrust of the news is at an all-time high and funding (particularly for nonprofit newsrooms) is a challenge. I know the field is changing in both expected and unexpected ways, but I’m still throwing my hat in the independent journalism ring. I’m excited to learn from all of you fellow freelance journalists.

I appreciate the independent and autonomy freelance journalism offers me, the ability to pursue stories I feel are being underreported, the ability to keep going deeper with my reporting, the ability to use this responsibility in the service of others and work for justice. I am looking forward to all the learning I have to do and all the reporting I get to do.

Cirien Saadeh is a freelance journalist as well as a student in Prescott College’s Sustainability Education program in Arizona. As a Ph.D. student, Saadeh develops community-based journalism curriculum, for low-income communities of color, and is also developing a cooperative journalism model based in those communities. Professionally and academically, her work focuses on the intersections between journalism and social movements. You can find her at and on Twitter at

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Seven Ways to Fight the Freelance Funk

Fall portrait. - Version 3

Guest blogger: Susan Valot 

Every once in a while, you may find yourself in a freelance funk.

Maybe your personal life just imploded and work seems secondary.

Maybe you just lost a regular client and you’re not sure what to do, so you cool your heels for a bit.

Maybe you have too many looming deadlines, which sends you into a deer-in-the-headlights procrastination mode, where you end up cleaning your bathroom and your kitchen and your neighbor’s yard — anything but working on what needs to be done.

So what can you do to pull yourself out of the freelance funk?  Here are seven possibilities:

1) Use the kitchen timer method. Set a timer for 45 minutes and use that time to work on what you need to get done.  No Facebook.  No Twitter.  No house-cleaning distractions.  Simply put your head down and work.  When the 45 minutes is up, set the timer for 15 minutes and do whatever you want.  Then back to 45 minutes of working.

2) If procrastination is your fiend, then try stepping away from your house. Go work someplace else.  Try a coffee shop or even a local park.  Sometimes changing locations can help you focus.

3) If you’ve lost a client, set aside time each day to pitch new clients. Come up with ideas and then focus on finding new outlets that you can work for.  The Writer’s Market has always been a great resource for looking up outlets, what they take freelance-wise and whom to contact.  A Google search can also turn up potential outlets.  But the key is setting aside the time and actually doing the pitching.

4) Diversification has always been the key to being a successful freelancer. If you’re looking to build your freelance business, do some research and find some outlets you’d like to work for.  Look at what kinds of stories they publish.  Try to find out how much they pay.  Then narrow in your pitches on stories they might like.

5) If you are REALLY in a freelance funk and you don’t have regular gigs, then make sure you set work times. Maybe you like an 8am to 5pm schedule.  Maybe you’re a night owl and 12pm to 8pm is a better fit.  Whatever you choose, try to stick to a schedule.  If you want to go for a run or finish some errands in the afternoon, schedule it into your day but add on the time at the end of your work day so you can somewhat keep your schedule, in a freelancer kind of way.

6) Find freelance support. You can find the SPJ Freelance community on Facebook, where you can online “mingle” with other freelancers, asking questions and getting involved in conversations.  There are other freelance groups around, as well.  Maybe your local SPJ chapter is having a meet-up.  Go mingle and find other freelance folks.  We can help each other to stay on track.  If you are looking for more tips on freelancing, follow the @SPJFreelance on Twitter for a curated feed.

7) Remember that freelancing has ups and downs. As freelancers, we all experience times when we say, “This is great!  I love my life!” and then other times when we say, “There is no way you can live and survive as a freelancer.”  Remember why you came to freelancing.  It gives you the freedom to be your own boss.  It gives you the freedom to schedule your work around your life.  It gives you the freedom to play every single position on a journalism team.  When times are tough, remember it’s only temporary and with a little bit of determination, you can make it through.

Susan Valot is a public radio reporter and an adjunct professor in the Los Angeles area.  Valot has been freelancing full-time for the past five years.  She regularly contributes to KQED’s “The California Report,” NPR’s “Only A Game” and other outlets.  You can reach her via Twitter @susanvalot.

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Paralyzed at that networking mixer? You’re not alone

Michelle_Donahue (1)Guest blogger: Michelle Z. Donahue

As a freelancer, I’m pretty much the epitome of the reclusive gnome: I occasionally emerge from my home office, blinking in the light, to sample the fresh air outside and exchange actual spoken words with people instead of e-mailing them. Recently, this has even included going to several networking mixers for associations I’ve joined, which involved putting on reasonably nice clothes and a healthy cloak of courage.

It’s not that I don’t like people — I love having a great conversation. I mean, I’m a journalist, and I’m always down for a juicy story. But put me in a room full of people with nametags and an expectation to schmooze, and I seize up.

What I imagine will happen: link up with an editor I really admire and learn what they’re looking for in a pitch. What actually happens: Room-cruising sharks end up glomming onto me, a very hit-or-miss approach for having a good time.

So how do you make the best of one of these networking events when you don’t get out much to begin with, let alone put your best foot forward?

For starters, definitely don’t avoid the mixers. I doubt any freelancer would debate the importance of a healthy network, especially given the outsized role that online social networks now play in modern life. Those in-person connections are more valuable now than ever. Fortunately, there are people happy to advise hapless hacks like me, and I tracked one down at Poynter, a place where folks are in the habit of helping journalists do their jobs better.

Described by his colleagues as one of the most socially capable people around the office, Ren LaForme not only helps organize events, but formed a group that meets monthly in Tampa Bay with the express purpose of connecting journalists with digital designers and developers. During work hours, he builds Poynter’s online education courses.

“Meeting a person face-to-face is still the best way to accomplish anything,” LaForme says. “And I say that as a person who does e-learning for a living.”

Here are a few other tips LaForme offered that might help you have a great conversation at your next mixer, even as you ponder rapidly draining your wine glass in panic.

Set small goals. Before you even show up, decide what you want to get out of the event. Make a goal to talk to a set number of people—say, three or four—and then you can leave, or just hang out by the bar and see what happens. “But try not to attach yourself to the hors d’oeuvres for too long,” LaForme says.

Icebreakers work. When LaForme walked into his 10-year high school reunion, he found everyone converged at the bar near the door, glued to a spouse or friend. Finishing his drink, he approached a classmate and dropped a line he ended up repeating all night: “This whole thing is awkward and super weird, right?” Tapping into an unspoken observation can help defuse the tension of the setting, and allow for more natural conversation to flow. “Don’t be afraid to milk it for what it’s worth,” LaForme says.

Practice some boilerplate. I try to head off talking about myself by asking tons of questions, but also because I tend to be genuinely interested in other people’s success. But the inevitable question comes: so what do you do? “Be ready to answer with a story about an article you enjoyed writing, an interview you really enjoyed or a particularly great time you had working with an editor,” LaForme advises. “It’s less about trying to fit what you do into what they do, but showing what you’re into.”

The audience is rooting for you. We can’t all be Robert Downey, Jr.-smooth, but sometimes there’s no way to slide into a conversation than to gently butt in, possibly by asking a question or contributing a point under discussion. “The secret is that those people who are all talking together are really happy to have someone to talk to, and don’t have to butt in,” LaForme says. “But they want you to succeed. Come in with confidence, and contribute as fast as possible.”

Don’t curb your enthusiasm. If you really want to wow that editor, show them you care about what you do and be ready to draw upon subjects that excite you. “Editors are looking less for topics, and more for passion,” LaForme says. Asking lots of questions never hurts, either—it demonstrates that you’re an expert listener.

Everyone is on edge. That’s the big secret: most people at networking events are probably queasy, too. It just goes against instinct to shoehorn a connection, and Wi-Fi just isn’t reliable enough to Google-stalk everyone you’re about to talk to. “I’m uncomfortable every time I go,” LaForme says. “But it’s provided me with so many great career tips and moves that I just try to push that aside and have a good time.”

Michelle Z. Donahue is a Maryland-based science and technology freelancer who thinks that writing third-person bios is almost as tough as jumping into a conversation already in progress. She has written about robotic scooters for babies, dogs that hunt for whale poop, and coffee brewing in space for outlets including Smithsonian and Popular Science. Follow her on Twitter at @MZDonahue. 

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7 Things Every Freelance Journalist Should Know

DSC_0308Guest blogger: Sara Suleiman, Esq. 

1. DO Understand the Core Concepts of Copyright Law 

The legal definition of a copyright is a form of protection for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Simply put, copyrights deal with movies, music, books, and…articles! Although there are certain legal benefits to officially registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, registration is by no means required. In fact, copyright protection automatically begins from the moment your work is even created, for both published and unpublished work.

It is particularly important for journalists to understand that copyright protection does not extend to ideas. This means that the specific expression of your idea is copyrightable (the pitch letter or the article itself), but the ideas and concepts within those expressions are not.

2. DON’T Pitch Specifics 

The crux of the matter then becomes how freelancers can pitch a story with enough substance for an editor to recognize as a potential article, while also not revealing so much information that the editor or publisher will just write the article on its own. As a starting point, try placing more emphasis on explaining the angle, timeliness, and relevance of the story, instead of explaining the details of the article itself. Or describe the type of sources you propose to use, instead of providing their actual names. Include just enough for the editor to be intrigued; or, if it is a really hot story, promise to disclose the remaining details once a deal is in place.

3. DO Consider a Non-Disclosure Agreement 

Use your judgment here, but if your pitch or idea is valuable enough to you, consider asking the publisher to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In short, a non-disclosure agreement (also known as an NDA) is simply a binding agreement between two parties in which one or both parties agree not to disclose certain confidential information. Companies often use NDAs during the preliminary stages of a potential business relationship, which could involve the exchange of sensitive company information like trade secrets. Along similar lines, journalists can use NDAs to their advantage to protect their pitches during their preliminary discussions with the publisher.

Note that parties are often reluctant to sign NDAs, especially when the agreements contain many complicated provisions. As a freelancer, insisting on the signing of an NDA could mean that the publisher will refuse to work with you. Oftentimes, large publishing companies have legal departments that would need to review the NDA and so editors would rather move on to the next freelancer on their list rather than deal with another legal document. The disparity in bargaining power is an unfortunate reality, but it is up to the journalist to decide how far he or she is willing to go to protect the pitch.

4. DO Have a Contract in Place

Other than an NDA, it is extremely rare to have a written contract in place at the time of the pitch. However, after the publisher accepts your pitch, but before you begin work on the article, it is important for both parties to be on the same page early on regarding what exactly has been agreed on.

Sometimes, the extent of the “contract” is simply an e-mail agreement confirming that the freelancer is doing a certain amount of work, completed by a certain date, for a particular price. Other times, publishers will give freelancers onerous boilerplate contracts that contain so many provisions that the freelancer may be tempted to not even read it. READ THE CONTRACT! These contracts are typically one-sided, drafted to suit the needs of the publisher and rarely the needs of the freelancer. Where possible, mark-up the contract with your proposed changes. Odds are that the publisher will push back on many of the changes, but as a journalist bringing something to the table, you should at least try to defend your protectable interests.

5. DO Retain Copyright in the Article

If you are not sure what to look for in the contract, I’d recommend consulting with an attorney. After all, despite the vast difference in bargaining power between a freelance journalist and a large media conglomerate, journalists are nevertheless educated, competent professionals who have the ability to read and comprehend a contract. Even if the contract contained arguably unfair provisions, a court could find that the journalist knowingly entered into the agreement and that it is an enforceable contract.

That said, if you are confident in your contract negotiating abilities, I’ll point out a few important provisions to be aware of.

Pay particular attention to who would own the copyright in the article. As a freelancer, you should ideally try to retain the copyright in the article.  Instead, just grant the publisher limited rights to use your copyrighted work. This way you can re-publish the article as your own, and you can have control over whether the article is used in other media or derivative works in the future.

Copyrights are typically owned by the individual who created the work of expression, or in this case, the freelancer who wrote the article. However, if it was a “work-for-hire”, then the copyright would vest in the entity for which the article was written, effectively stripping the freelancer of its control. In other words, the publisher would own the copyright. If there is a “work-for-hire” clause in your agreement, ask yourself whether this is acceptable to you.

6. DON’T Accept Indemnity Clauses

An indemnity clause more-or-less states:

“You herby agree to fully indemnify the publisher from any and all claims, demands, and liabilities (including attorneys fees) resulting from your article.”

Understand the implications of a freelancer agreeing to such a clause. This essentially means that if you have unintentionally included, for example, a defamatory statement or inaccurate facts, in your article, and a lawsuit is then filed against the publisher, you are promising to bear all the blame and costs associated with such lawsuit. This, if agreed to, has the potential to cripple the freelancer.

In actuality, if a sub-editor is altering or removing certain material, context or attribution from the article that the freelancer has prepared, it is the freelancer who should insist on the opposite – that the publisher will indemnify the freelancer from all related claims, etc. If the publisher agrees to this request, make sure that you have confirmed the agreement in writing.

Another option to help protect freelancers from indemnification clauses is to set up a business entity. This way, it is the business entity that is entering into the contract with the publisher, as opposed to the freelancer in its individual capacity. Establishing a business structure like a limited liability corporation (LLC), for example, can help absorb the business debts and liability into the corporation so that the freelancer is not held personally responsible for related costs.

7. DO Include the Copyright Symbol

Although a copyright symbol isn’t legally required to protect your work, place the © symbol in the footer of your article for emphasis, so as to clearly put others on notice that the article is in fact copyrighted. You can further expand on your copyright notice by including additional information next to the copyright symbol, such as the year the work was created and the name of the copyright owner.

© 2016 Sara Suleiman

The information in this post is for general information purposes only. Nothing in this post should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

Sara Suleiman is an intellectual property attorney and freelance journalist based in Chicago, Illinois. She studied journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has published articles in Chicago Lawyer Magazine, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and other trade publications.

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