Three takeaways from SPJ Freelance Community chat

Guest blogger: Jennifer Karchmer


This morning I participated in an online chat with the SPJ Freelance Community. Topics are generated by members who log on. It’s an informal way to talk about the freelance industry, get tips and bounce ideas off fellow writers.

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, I sat at a cafe enjoying an espresso macchiato while logged on via my iPhone. I joined a few minutes late however the casual format allows members to come and go, observe, participate and ask questions. It also allows you to multitask so you can read emails, surf the internet (and have a coffee and bagel).

I chimed in with the topic of writing effective pitches. Several people offered good advice and we commiserated on some of the challenges of freelancing (low or no pay, non-responsive editors for example).

Based on our hourlong chat, I gained some tips from the discussion. Thank you to SPJ Freelance Community chair Anna Pratt for organizing and fellow SPJ members for sharing information.

1) Employ the “3xs and you’re out” guideline. After the third try, say something like, “if I don’t hear back with a response either way by (deadline), I will assume it’s ok to pitch to another publication. Thank you for your time.” You don’t have to be rude, but we work on deadline in our industry so it’s important to give sufficient time then move on.

2) Give a little extra leeway in summer. Perhaps people are on extended vacation so they will get back in another week. (Good reason to be diligent activating Out of Office responder).

3) Stick to email; avoid phone calls. Realize some pubs even prefer snail mail pitches. Ask fellow writers and research the heck out of the pub to find out how they prefer to receive pitches.

Based in Bellingham, Wash., Jennifer Karchmer is a member of the SPJ Western Washington Pro chapter and volunteers with the SPJ International Community. In June, she attended an SPJ Ted Scripps Leadership Institute and in September will attend #EIJ15 as a Terry Harper Memorial Scholarship recipient. Find her online at
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A sports fan turned freelancer

Heather in the media room (wide)Heather Rule, who is based in the Twin Cities, Minn., covers high school sports as a freelance reporter for the Star Tribune. On her blog, “Thoughts from the Stands,” Rule, who studied journalism in college, writes about baseball, hockey, tennis and IndyCar racing. She also Tweets updates during all the Minnesota Twins games as the in-game social media coordinator for Major League Baseball. Here’s what Rule had to say about how she got into sports writing, some of the highlights, and what it’s like reporting on such a male-dominated arena.


Q: Where did your interest in covering sports come from, do you think? How did you get started in this beat? What sports do you cover?

A: When people hear that I write about sports, the usual follow-up question they ask is: ‘Did you play sports in high school?’ Well, yes, I did, but I don’t think there’s much of a correlation between that and my sports writing. I played tennis, but I wasn’t all that good. I’m much more of a spectator than an athlete, which is why I named my sports blog “Thoughts from the Stands.” I’ve been a fan of IndyCar racing for most of my life, and I started watching a lot of Minnesota Twins baseball in middle school, which was about the same time the Minnesota Wild started, so I watched them as well. I’ve covered many of the state high school tournaments (football, basketball, hockey, tennis, badminton), plus other section playoff games and sports features.


Q: What kind of training did you do to immerse yourself in sports reporting?

A: My major in college was print journalism, and I was on the school newspaper staff, too. We got to choose from a list of stories each week. I started taking a few sports stories and found that not only did I like to watch sports, but I liked to write about them, too. So along with my journalism classes, my time as a staff writer and then sports editor of the paper helped me develop my sports reporting skills.


Q: Can you say a little about how you landed a gig or two?  

A: Networking. It really is true. Keep in touch with people you meet, and it will pay off somehow later. I worked in the Star Tribune sports department answering phones a few years ago and kept in touch with some of the staff I met, especially through social networking. One of them reached out to me about a sports freelance gig after he saw on Facebook that I was moving back to the Twin Cities. That was all it took. For another job, I reached out to someone I wanted to connect with via LinkedIn. We didn’t know each other at all, but he was nice enough to agree to a networking meeting. We kept in touch and he helped me land a phone interview for a very competitive position.


Q: What do you do to stay on top of your game? What might be an important lesson along the way? And/or a challenge?   

A: Sports blogging has been a huge key for me. I started my blog right after college to keep up my writing skills, since I had an internship at the time that didn’t focus on writing. Blogging was something fun I could do on my own, no matter what job I was doing at the time. I’d encourage others to keep writing, and blogging is a good way to do that. Find something you love and something you know and just write on a platform you feel comfortable with. For sports in particular, keep watching sports, too. The more you watch, the more you learn. Also, be sure to read what other writers put out there regarding your favorite teams. Reading is learning.


Q: What’s it like being a female in such a male-dominated area?

A: It’s interesting, because I hear from a lot of people that being a female in the sports world should provide big benefits for me. I don’t know that I’ve really seen that happen for me yet. There have been just a couple times where I felt like others treated me a little differently because of my gender (and maybe my age) as I tried to do my job covering a game. But it doesn’t happen often. For me, I wish there were more women working in sports. I covered the high school boys’ state hockey tournament this past year and took time to look around at the full press box at Xcel Energy Center. I think there were one or two other women and that was it. At the same time, I realize how far women have come in what used to be an extremely male-dominated area. But there’s still room to grow.


Q: What kinds of sports stories do you like best?

A: All stories come back to one thing, even in sports: People. Yes, there are games involved, but what often makes great sports stories are the people behind the game stats. Maybe it’s a great comeback story of an injured player. I also love underdog stories; the whole David beating Goliath angle is really fun. Games with surprising finishes also make great stories. You know, the ones that make you say, “This is why they don’t play the games on paper.” More generally, I’d say hockey and baseball are my favorite sports to write about.




anna pratt headshotAnna Pratt (Twitter @annaprattEmail
Anna Pratt chairs SPJ’s Freelance Community. She also serves on the board for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ. As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration.


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A fashionable beat

1836595_10203055267730133_1997747129_oKiley Krzyzek, a journalism major and president of her SPJ student chapter at Central Connecticut State University, has already begun freelancing. I talked with her about how she found her footing early on in the fashion and entertainment beats. Here’s what she had to say, below.

Q: How did you begin freelancing? Do you have a background in journalism? Why did you want to be a freelancer? (Are you still in school, and if so, how do you balance that with your freelance work?)   
A: I began freelancing when I was in high school. I was editor of a website where I interviewed celebrities like Bella Thorne, Ashley Benson, Emily Osment and others. That gave me a lot of experience with entertainment writing and I started expanding into fashion which I’ve always adored. I wanted to freelance because I wanted to keep writing and being published while I was still in school. This year I’m a senior studying journalism. I’ll write in between classes and late into the night, I never want a client to be waiting on a piece.
Q: You’re an actress and a freelance fashion writer (and an entertainment writer?). How did you develop these beats? Have you always had an interest in fashion? 
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to have opportunities to do what I love. After meeting so many actors, I started asking them for advice on how to become one. I took classes, got an agent and started going on auditions. Most recently I was in a Click it or Ticket campaign commercial and a lot of my friends saw me on TV which was pretty cool. Being in the industry makes it easier to write about entertainment. I’ve definitely always been interested in fashion. I covered New York Fashion Week when I was 16, not a lot of reporters can say that.
Q: What have been some of your gigs? How did you get them? How might you describe fashion/entertainment news, what it’s like covering this beat?  
A: My most recent gig is writing for the jewelry site Love and Pieces. The assignments are great because I do a lot of research, the last post I did was all about crystal healing jewelry which was really interesting. I’ve also gone to concerts and interviewed the bands. One of my first assignments was the interview with Justin Bieber, that was what catapulted me into entertainment writing. I got my start by having a personal blog and it took off from there. Fashion and entertainment news is writing about things that are easy on the eyes, they’re lighthearted and fun pieces about clothes and celebrities.
Q: What is one of the biggest challenges that you’ve come across as a freelancer? 
A: Pitching stories is a bit of a challenge. I’m used to coming up with story ideas as an editor myself, but pitching story ideas to a publication is something I need to get the hang of.
Q: What is your favorite story ever, or just your favorite kind of story to report and why?
A: My favorite kind of story requires in-depth research, interviewing and reporting. Anybody can reiterate what they see in the latest celebrity gossip or trend report. I prefer going to different cities to see what people are wearing on the street rather than looking at what models are wearing. And I find that interviewing celebrities and getting fresh quotes is the best approach to entertainment pieces.
anna pratt headshotAnna Pratt (Twitter @annaprattEmail
Anna Pratt chairs SPJ’s Freelance Community. She also serves on the board for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ. As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration.
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A new adventure abroad

Kenya-IDP-1-of-1-2Guest Blogger: Katie G. Nelson

I’ve been anxiously preparing this post for more than six months, with emotions wavering between intense trepidation of the unknown and an intangible feeling of pending purpose; of new beginnings and a sense of meaning, both of which have remained elusive to me for some years.

So with that in mind, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m leaving Minnesota to pursue a career as a foreign correspondent and photographer in East Africa.

Beginning June 23rd, I will be headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya covering global health and nonprofit accountability issues in the region. I will work as a freelance news stringer, specializing in long-form features, in-depth, investigative pieces and documentary photography.

My decision to move comes after covering politics, culture and communities in the Twin Cities for more than six years. In that time, I have investigated government accountability issues at the State Capitol, written front-page stories for the Star Tribune, spoken on guest panels alongside Washington Post reporters and cultivated a robust pool of sources (and journalists) to draw inspiration from.

KGN IDP camp

Despite these professional highlights, I have always felt a strong tie to my “second home” in East Africa. Before my career in journalism, I worked in an internally displaced peoples camp in Western Kenya, providing logistical support for a large humanitarian aid organization.

I spent many years bouncing back and forth from Kenya, oscillating between a desire to create positive change in struggling communities and the reality of a crumbling and uncoordinated humanitarian aid industry in East Africa.

After my last trip to Kenya in 2012, I decided to take a step back and determine what I was good at, what made me tick and what I wanted my legacy to be.

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

As a journalist, I believe my purpose is to cultivate disparate dialogues of humanity, to collect and share stories about people who are geographically and culturally distant but share the common thread of being.

I also believe that my role is not to be a storyteller. Rather, it’s to find the story-keepers; the people whose existence has been forgotten, deemed too foreign, too insignificant and too “other” to merit the world’s attention.

To be clear, my quest does not entail adding another backbone to the existing concept of “failing Africa” and it is not to exploit another heartbreaking situation or chase a crisis without context or understanding.

Rather, my goal is to provide alternative perspectives about East Africa that challenge notions of a region rife with poverty, war and disease, and rather as a dynamic place of innovation, diversity and people with some serious grit. And above all, my mission is to value the experience of my sources while avoiding the promotion of my own pre-conceived concepts and narratives.

Though I’ll always call Minnesota my home, I also know that the world is much larger than the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and that history-shaping stories are often overlooked and ignored because I – and journalists like me – are not reporting on them.

So with that, I ask for your blessing and your attention as I embark on this new adventure into the professional and personal unknown.

Now onto the next adventure!

Katie G. Nelson

Follow Katie’s move to Nairobi, Kenya!

A version of this blog post originally appeared on Katie G. Nelson’s website. 

Nelson is a freelance journalist and photographer specializing in global health and international development issues on the African continent. A former aid worker, the Minneapolis, Minn. native left the nonprofit sector after witnessing the ongoing disconnect between NGOs and the people they serve. Her interest in covering global events led her to Western Kenya where she worked in an internally displaced peoples camp from 2007 to 2012. From June to October 2015, she’ll be based Nairobi, Kenya to report on aid accountability and transparency issues in East Africa. 

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Freelancing on the environment, agriculture

Here’s a Q&A that I conducted with Andrew Jenner, a freelancer based in Harrisonburg, Va. Jenner has written for numerous national, regional and local publications. He mostly covers the environment and agriculture, but he’s also penned pieces about minor league baseball, racketeering, beer drinking and ducks.


Q: For starters, how did you get into freelancing (and how long ago)? What is your background? What made you want to pursue it? 

A: I first dipped my toes into freelancing in probably 2007 or 2008 in a very limited way. At the time, I was working my first newspaper job at a small weekly paper in rural Virginia. I think I wrote a handful of very short articles for my old high school newsletter, and for my college’s alumni magazine. I did one article about pollution in the Shenandoah River for a regional outdoors magazine. I made a little bit of money, and managed to trick myself into thinking that I could easily jump ship to become a full-time freelancer.

After two years at the small paper, I actually quit my job to do just that. Within about a week, though, serendipity intervened, and a 30-hour-a-week job opened at another newspaper in my hometown of Harrisonburg, Va., the best place on earth. I ended up getting that job, which allowed me to dabble a little more with freelancing. Looking back, this was very lucky. I don’t think I was quite ready to freelance full-time, and this gave me another year of gradual transition. During that year, I spent one day a week freelancing, mostly for Lancaster Farming Newspaper, which is widely read by farmers all over the Mid-Atlantic but almost totally unknown to anyone outside of big production agriculture.

That arrangement lasted until the summer of 2009, when I decided that sticking with the newspaper industry, at least in the area where I live, seemed like clinging to a sinking ship, and I laid myself off to freelance. I did this pretty much full-time, supplementing income with a few shifts a week at a coffee shop for a couple years.

Since the summer of 2012, I’ve been freelancing exclusively, and I have a hard time imagining myself wanting to do anything else. Part of what appealed to me at first was the notion of having a great deal of freedom to pick and choose assignments (this wasn’t true for the first couple years. Rather, earning money dictated what assignments I took), and the state of the newspaper industry at the time I was entering it also gave me pretty significant motivation to find other ways to make it as a professional writer.

Once, I was interviewing a guy who moved from New York City to start a sheep farm in rural Virginia in the ’70s. He said something to the effect that the only reason he got it off the ground was the fact that he was “young and ignorant” and “you can accomplish a lot when you’re young and ignorant.” In some ways that describes my entry into freelancing. I was young enough to not have the financial obligations (kids, mortgage, etc.) that are substantial barriers to starting a freelance career (now I have both of those things, though), and I guess had the right combination of ignorance and motivation to plug away at something that can be slow and frustrating. My wife was working as a high school teacher this whole time, and I was very fortunate to have that financial security as well.

Very briefly, I majored in environmental science and justice & peace studies as an undergrad (Eastern Mennonite University, 2004). During the exact period that I was doing my first newspaper job, 2006-08, I was also getting an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing from Goucher College. The combination of the two – the idealistic, craft-focused, artsy-fartsy grad school thing plus the grinding, sometimes-exciting-but-often-banal life of a small-town newspaper reporter was a really fantastic way for someone like me, with no formal training as a journalist, to figure out things as I went.

Q: What kinds of freelancing do you do? Any beats or specialties? If so, how have you cultivated that? How has it helped you to “climb the ladder,” per se, as a freelancer? 

A: My main specialty has been journalism about agriculture. Between college and that first newspaper job, I’d lived in Germany for a while and worked on a farm. When I joined the newspaper staff, that meant I was assigned the farm beat (along with a bunch of others; there were just two of us writing the whole paper). It turned out to be one of my favorites, and I used those clips to get the freelancing job with Lancaster Farming that I started back in 2009. And then things just built from there, with a major assist from the fact that I live in a rural area that’s among the most productive farming areas on the East Coast.

The aughts were a tough time to decide to become a newspaper journalist, but, with the food movement taking off, they were a great time to become a farm & agriculture journalist. I began using my contacts and understanding of farming to pitch stories to some other slightly bigger publications, and slowly started to do that freelancer thing where you pitch and pitch and finally, after the 100th time, someone answers.

It’s funny how the littlest things will pay off. I learned about the Lancaster Farming job from a friend, who saw a classified ad in the paper that they were looking for writers. A couple years ago, I got a similar email from a friend saying, ‘Hey, there’s this magazine called Modern Farmer that’s starting up.’ A quick email I sent to the editor before that had even launched ended up turning into regular assignments (mostly for web) with them for the past two or so years. That was the first national publication that I started writing for regularly, and I used those clips to sell my first story to the Washington Post earlier this year.

For every one of those lucky things that led from there to here, there were probably a hundred that didn’t come to anything. And sometimes I’ll find that a potential opportunity that will seem really exciting and concrete and distinctly possible (e.g., an editor from a magazine saying, in person, ‘yes, please send me that pitch’) won’t end up even garnering a response.

I try to not let hopes get too high or too low. Opportunities that seem really promising and exciting fall through. Things that seem so vague and indefinite that I’d hardly call them opportunities turn into important things.

Q: Regarding those areas of specialty, what interested you in those subjects? (If it’s a function of being in the Shenandoah Valley, maybe you can say a little about that?) 

A: I think agriculture can be like most beats, in the sense that it can be a way to approach almost any topic. There are the wacky personalities. There are all sorts of political angles. It’s Virginia’s biggest industry, so there’s a whole business-of-farming beat. Environmental stuff. Culture stuff. Legal battles. Whatever. My strengths are more as a feature writer than someone who gets really inside a very specific niche (say, the dairy pricing structure in the United States, which hardly anybody seems to understand completely) and churn out story after story about it. (Though that sort of thing is also a good way to develop a freelance platform.) I guess I’m a generalist who often starts from something related to agriculture but is always looking for ways to write about issues that aren’t unique to farming.

Since I didn’t grow up on a farm or anything, I also still have the ignorance factor going for me. That’s a plus when writing for a general audience, as I’ve increasingly been doing. I try to always ask the stupid questions and not be embarrassed about not knowing things. We all know that every reporter should always be doing that as a matter of course, but I find that I’m often having to work up the gumption to ask, ‘wait, what’s a barrow? I thought we were talking about pigs!’ Sometimes pride makes it hard to ask those dumb questions.

Q: What do you enjoy about freelancing? How about some of the pitfalls? 

A: I love the independence. I love being able to set my own schedule, and as I’ve become more established, the ability to do more choosing what I want to write about as opposed to writing whatever people will pay me to write. I’m really, really grateful that it’s worked out.

Pitfalls… well, there are petty ones like Facebook. There are unresponsive editors. There is the two steps forward, one step back aspect of sometimes feeling like things are going well with a certain client, but subsequent pitches just don’t get traction. There’s self-doubt (more of a writer thing than specifically a freelancer one). I guess one of the bigger pitfalls I’ve been aware of is the way that time is my most valuable resource, and there are a thousand things out there that other freelancers will recommend as profitable ways to invest that time. I’m talking about the necessary self-promotion stuff that you have to invest time in outside of reporting and writing stories, like with a website, social media, schmoozing with editors, going to conferences, etc.

Twitter’s a good example. I don’t use it, and almost every other freelancer in the world seems to think that’s a bad call. But I definitely don’t need another social medium to fritter away time, and I feel like I’ve managed well without it. So I’m a dissenter from Twitter. People seem to find a lot of different paths to freelance success, and that can be a pitfall if you’re trying to look to other examples but don’t feel like you actually want to do exactly what they do. On the other hand, the many-paths model is liberating if you’re able to weigh options, make decisions and be confident in your own ability to figure things out, all of which are pretty important attributes for a freelancer.

Q: How about a little on your future plans?  

A: On July 17, my wife and son and I will be getting on a plane headed to Porto Alegre, Brazil. She got a job at an international school there, and I’m going to continue freelancing. Living overseas has been something we’ve been talking about for a few yeas, and a good opportunity for us arose. I’ve been waffling back and forth between feeling extremely excited about a whole new world of things to write about and a little nervous about how that’s going to work in a brand new place with language & culture barriers. But overcoming challenges is kind of key to being a freelancer, so I’ve been telling myself that it’ll be a cinch. (If a certain amount of ignorance worked for me before, maybe it’ll help me again. Right?)

anna pratt headshot

Anna Pratt (Twitter @annaprattEmail

Anna Pratt chairs SPJ’s Freelance Community. She also serves on the board for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ. As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration.

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Advocating for freelancers

photo-originalScott Carney, an investigative journalist based in Boulder, Colo. and a contributor to Wired, Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, Playboy and “other magazines that line the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere,” as he puts it, is developing a platform to help freelance journalists negotiate better contracts with mainstream publishers.

What motivated him to undertake such a project? “Freelancers don’t have the same protections as employees, and, even worse, an FTC ruling in the 1990s made it illegal for us to actually form a union of our own,” he said, via email. “The ruling said that if freelancers try to collectively bargaining then they are technically price-fixing. This, of course, makes it very difficult for writers to improve their situation.”

So, he launched a kickstarter campaign to fundraise for the development costs for a new website that offers with a free market solution way to advocate for independent writers. In a relatively short period, the project was more than funded. He plans to unroll the project in mid-August. Learn more about his project at this link. Also, SPJ’s Freelance Community spoke to him during a recent Google Hangout. Listen in to the discussion here. Also, to learn more about Scott Carney, check out his website.

What do you think? Any feedback about the project or what it means for freelancers? Any other interesting projects geared for freelancers that should be on our radar? Feel free to add your “two cents” in the comments!

Anna Pratt (Twitter @annaprattEmail

Anna Pratt chairs SPJ’s Freelance Community. She also serves on the board for the award-winning Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ. As a staff reporter-turned-freelance journalist, Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, Minn., has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fistfight in a church basement, all for various stories. Her byline has appeared in the Star Tribune, The Line, the Southwest Journal, the Minnesota Independent and several suburban and community papers, web publications and broadcast media in the Twin Cities. She’s had many beats, including education, community news, business, development, arts, civil/human rights and immigration.





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Freelance does not mean free

Who put the “free” in freelance? If you are a freelance writer, editor, journalist, graphic designer or another type of freelancer you know that freelance does not mean free. But not everyone knows that.

A few years ago there was a local freelance photographer that I’d see at networking events. He’d stand up, smile, wave and say “I’m the only truly “free”-lance photographer in town!” He was proud of the fact that he gave his work away. Several times I pulled him aside afterward to tell him he was making it harder for the rest of us to earn a living when he was creating the perception that freelance does mean free. It doesn’t.

At first, he didn’t really get it. He was retired from the military and, though once paid for his photography, he was doing it because he enjoyed it, not because he needed the money. He continued on this “free” path for a few years, before finally changing his outlook. I’m happy to say that he now charges for his work, and he watermarks his photos so that can’t be as easily borrowed as they once were.

I’m not sure how to change the perception that freelance means free, but maybe the term freelance needs to be updated. The Georgia pro chapter suggested using the word self-employed. Another freelance friend prefers the term independent journalist, which is also the name of this blog. I’m leaning toward that title myself. I am independent, I am a journalist, and I get paid for my work.

Do you find the terms “freelance” and “freelancer” misleading? What do you prefer to be called? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

~ Dana Neuts

Follow me on Twitter:  @VirtuallyYourz and @SPJDana

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Dana Neuts, SPJ PresidentBased in Seattle, Dana Neuts is an independent journalist and the publisher of Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, AARP Bulletin, 425 Business, 425 magazine, South Sound magazine and others. She is a member of the Kent Community Foundation board and is currently serving as SPJ’s national president.


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Freelancers need to make a living, too

Guest blogger: Ellen Eldridge

One of the hardest lessons to learn when freelancers start out is how to charge for services. Those coming out of professional careers may have a different perspective, but I’ve seen personally and among my artist friends that asking for money for a job you love to do sometimes feels like panhandling for spare change. And clients will abuse you if you let them.

We writers must have confidence in our abilities and know we are worth our fees. In 2013, after nearly seven years building the magazine I sold in July, Target Audience Magazine, I started building my freelance career managing social media and editing. I had joined Twitter around the time I started my blog, which was fall 2013.

Many of my friends are self-employed, including my husband who works as an independent guitar teacher, so I know the speech: demand respect. I worked for a few years as the lesson coordinator for Ken Stanton Music, where my job involved interviewing and hiring independent contractors to teach music as well as promote the lesson program, plan the recitals and publish the newsletter. Music lessons are often one of the first things families cut back on when budgets get tightened, but I encouraged and insisted that the teachers ensure their students paid for lessons ahead of time. Once you teach a student who hasn’t paid, you have a very tough time of getting money. The same is true for writers and editors.

As a freelancer who mostly helped friends and friends of friends, I never felt like I needed an official contract. A handshake and a smile felt contractual enough. And I sold myself cheap. I pretended to demand respect, but I feared pricing myself out for what I was worth. I’ll still work without a contract, but I won’t work without respect.

The hesitation to draw firm boundaries with clients and insist on workable pay scales often comes from a lack of experience and from self-doubt. I’ve come to a point where I feel more confident than ever in my abilities. I’ve been working as fast and as furiously as I can to learn everything and network with everyone in my industry.

I’ve been fortunate to experience many sides to being a writer and my increasing love of marketing and helping build people up led to where I am now. I am confident and I know that now that I have more opportunity to work and intern with more people and organizations. All I need remember is that I am worthy. I deserve respect. I deserve pay just like anyone else in this world because I have experience and I work hard.

The best advice I can give to other freelance writers, journalists and those who are breaking into content marketing is to find a niche and own it. Take what experience you have and apply your skills to a workable pay scale. Because freelancers don’t qualify for insurance and are taxed at high rates, cover your costs. Some do this with hourly rates and some work out flat fees for services. Demand the respect of a fee for your work that will help you continue building your business. We all have to pay our dues, but when you sell yourself for too little, you end up burning out and resenting your clients.

I read an article published by Flight Media about knowing when to dump your client. “Refuse money?” you may ask, but yes. Some stressors and certain situations will not be worth the heartache. I’ve learned this the hard way. Aretha Franklin sang it the best, but something we freelancers need repeat to ourselves like a mantra is RESPECT. Sock it to me, baby.

Are you a freelance or self-employed professional who has experienced the need to fire or turn away a client or a job? I’d love to know your story in the comments.


Ellen Eldridge is the president of the Kennesaw State University chapter of SPJ (Region 3) and a candidate for SPJ campus representative for 2014-15. A freelance music journalist for Atlanta Music Guide and Performer Magazine, who is also raising two toddlers with her husband of five years. She founded a marketing magazine, Target Audience Magazine, in 2007, and she manages a staff of contributing writers and photographers looking to build their portfolios. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @EllenEldridge27. 

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Look outside the box to establish relationships with editors

Guest blogger: Ricardo Torres 

If there’s one thing most freelancers need to know, if they don’t already know it, is that editors get thousands of emails a week. Even editors with the smallest audiences normally get several hundred messages a week.

Getting noticed is always tough and sometimes writers need to get creative.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I established a relationship with the Wisconsin Reporter, a political website funded the by Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, by stealing a move from one of my idols, Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson was famous for his pieces in Rolling Stone magazine and started writing for it after he sent editor and publisher Jann Wenner a letter telling him how much he enjoyed the magazine. From there a relationship started that would span decades.

Fast forward to me sitting in my childhood bedroom desperately looking for an opportunity. In my personal email was a message that looked like spam but was actually a mass email from with a brief summary of a Wisconsin political issue. Gov. Scott Walker had passed his infamous Act X eliminating collective bargaining for most public unions and the state became divided.

There was a massive recall effort by activists and they were actively seeking signatures for their recall. Well, in my email was a story by Matt Kittle, Wisconsin Reporter bureau chief, about how a Madison conservative radio talk show host found their name on a recall petition. The story talked about how some of the names appearing on recall petitions all over the state were fake or forged.

I thought it was a good piece. Something I hadn’t read anywhere and I sent Kittle an email telling him what I thought about the story and if he ever needed someone in Milwaukee to cover something I’d be happy to do it. I included some of my background and told him if he wanted to see my clips and resume I’d be happy to send him those also.

He sent me an email shortly thanking me for the kind words and that he’d want to see my clips. I sent my best stuff at the time. He called me later that week and we had an informal phone interview.

From there he sent me on a “try-out” assignment for $50. I had to cover the grand opening of Tammy Baldwin’s downtown Milwaukee senate campaign office.

After I was finished writing I sent him the story and he liked it. He sent me on other assignments covering the recall and other events.

Lately I haven’t been doing as much work for the Wisconsin Reporter but I still keep in touch.

You can’t doubt the effect simple compliments can have on people. We work in a profession where we are routinely called liars, hacks, propagandists, and many more things. Just read the comment section on any news website and you’ll see.

So when an editor get’s an email from someone basically saying “I saw the story you wrote and I dig it,” they might set themselves apart from the normal feedback.

ricardo headshot

Ricardo Torres is a journalist from Milwaukee. He is a producer for Newsradio 620 WTMJ and a reporter for the Catholic Herald. And he’s always looking for the right story for the right medium. Check out his work here and his latest piece of freelance journalism, which just got published yesterday, is here.
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Dealing with rejection

Guest blogger: Bret Schulte

I recently climbed one of the towers of Old Main at the University of Arkansas to attend a workshop to help faculty win grants. I teach journalism, and I have a story idea that would benefit from a few bucks. It’s not like newsrooms have any money to spend.

So, I went and learned a few things. I learned you can call project administrators for help, and by that I mean, you can actually call the National Endowment for Humanities and ask them if your any idea is any good. (That would have saved me some time last year.) I learned to write simply and directly, basically like a journalist and not an academic. (Good news for me.) I learned that references really matter. (Not good news for me.) And I learned to take the elevator to the 5th floor. All useful.

But none of that really stuck with me. Except the stairs. Honestly, I had to go back and dig into my notes to find that stuff to share with you. What I did remember—what really, really got to me—weren’t any of the tips from the university’s most prolific grant writers and biggest winners. It was the number of times they’ve been rejected.

An acclaimed historian who is published by Oxford University Press talked about winning a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—which is like winning the lottery, but for way less money and only after a wretched process of writing and revision and begging for references. Still, she got it!  Nevertheless, she cast herself almost entirely as a loser to the members of this workshop. Again and again, she had applied for grants and failed. She even lost most of her bids for funding in the somewhat-less deadly field of competitors for grants and stipends at the University of Arkansas.

Then there was the poet who won a Guggenheim Award, which basically makes him a secular saint in the academy, in this case the secular saint of great chest hair spilling from his shirt. He, too, mused about the tragedy of rejection to a swooning audience. If a poet with great chest hair has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection what chance do the rest of us have?

Sadly, not much.

Journalistic freelancing, increasingly, is about coping with rejection as much as it about writing stories. In a sad, sadistic way, I liked hearing that other people who are literally, certifiably smarter and more accomplished than I am, also endure rejection and failure.

Perversely, I felt better about myself. Granted, the competition is less fierce and the criteria somewhat lower for most journalism, than say, the Guggenheim Award. But I needed to be reminded that failure is a common human experience, not exclusive to me, or to journalists in general.

The past few months, I’ve had a lot of story ideas rejected. Part of it is the industry’s contraction, which has meant more laid-off reporters competing for freelance gigs. Also, it means fewer freelance gigs. The competition is ferocious, which means the odds will never be in your favor.

And part of it is me. I pitched a “check-out-this-fascinating-Southern-subculture” story to a magazine that is way more interested in happy consumer stuff, like, “How to impress your guests with an amazing cocktail”—which if I was writing it, and knowing my guests, would consist of: Pour bourbon into a glass. In other words, I should have paid more attention to what the magazine actually published, as opposed to what I wanted it to publish.

After having a few ideas rejected by another magazine, I (accidentally) followed the advice of one of the really smart people at that workshop: Ask for help. I emailed an assistant editor for advice on pitching the magazine. Surprisingly, this friendly person wrote me back a thoughtful list of suggestions on what they’re looking for. Just as helpful, he admitted that not even he understands why some stories are chosen and others rejected.

The advice helped, but so did the confirmation that there is no order in the universe. Sometimes things go your way; most often they don’t. Although I don’t think it’s possible to take rejection personally, despite all the self-help gurus out there, I do think it is possible to remember that it is not just you. Yes, you can write a better pitch with better reporting and a better narrative. Yes, you can be smarter about where you pitch your stories. And yes, you can seek advice. But without getting too cosmic about freelance journalism, sometimes it’s just not going to happen. Sometimes the editor, or the panel awarding grants, just isn’t feeling it. Sometimes, there just isn’t any money. Sometimes, the competition is just better. All of that is true for everyone—even for a poet with terrific chest hair.

Bret Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. He has worked or freelanced for The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Columbia Journalism Review and others.

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