Expand your freelance network – join SPJ’s freelance community!

Hello, freelance colleagues!

Have you heard about SPJ’s new Freelance Community? Launched this summer, the community is a new way for SPJ members interested in freelancing to connect with each other. It’s an ideal place for freelance journalists, editors, photojournalists, broadcast journalists and other freelance-related media to network, share ideas, find work, brainstorm, trouble-shoot and more. Check out the new freelance site on SPJ.org where you’ll find dozens of resources*, including:

To learn more about the Freelance Community, email Michael Fitzgerald or, join us Sept. 4-6 at Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville, Tenn. We’re organizing a “no host” freelance meet-up on Thurs., Sept. 4 at 8:30 p.m. Central Time. RSVP here.

Expand your freelance network and job opportunities – join SPJ’s Freelance Community today!

*To access some of the community’s resources, you will need to login with your member ID and password. If you don’t have one, click here. If you have a member ID but have lost your password, click here

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Managing writing projects

Someone asked me recently how I managed my writing projects. The truth is, not very consciously. I often juggle multiple assignments, but I don’t think of them as projects to manage. My life might be a bit more sane if I did. So I’ve been looking for ways to think like a project manager, without having to learn project management software.

Lots of writer friends like Scrivener, especially when working on book projects.

I’m not sure it’s as useful for multiple small projects, but it looks like it could be adaptable.

Schedule organizers can help, too, and there are lots of phone-based tools for aspects of schedule organizing. But these are just a piece of a system for managing my articles as projects.

By happy coincidence, one of the most organized editors I’ve ever worked with, Wade Roush, posted a note on how he tries to organize his stories.

He uses a program called Evernote, along with Post-Its on foam board. He notes that his approach is similar to the Kanban system popular in just-in-time manufacturing, which he delves into (the photo here shows the basic format: Backlog/Doing/Done).

I don’t really have a good spot for a large piece of foamboard in my office. I’ve been writing down projects with little timelines in a notebook, using two-page spreads to give myself more space. That’s been okay, but I find that I sometimes misplace the notebook, making it hard to use as a daily guide. I write down little notes to myself in a Moleskine, a running to-do list, and while I like checking things off, it might not have the same impact as physically moving a sticky note from one place to another on a piece of foamboard. I am going to try to find a place for a piece of foamboard that is neither in the way nor out of it. We’ll see whether this helps me get through a stretch of six project deadlines I have coming up.

 

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Juggling act

Guest blogger: Ellen Eldridge

My turn to introduce myself at the pro chapter meeting of Society of Professional Journalists in Eatonton May 10, where the faces of proven journalists, columnists for major market newspapers and freelance entrepreneurs look to me to hear what I have to say. I stutter and look down, thinking I’m so much better at introducing myself on paper.

Hitting only the highlights of my recent accomplishments takes time: intern with a community newspaper, editor-in-chief of a college feature magazine, mother of two and a wife. Where do I start in describing who I am in the context of what I do professionally? My life is my work.

Many times friends, family and passersby marvel that they don’t know how I do it all or when I find the time to sleep. Balancing a freelance writing career, a family, a magazine, marketing company and college classes reminds me of old-fashioned plate spinners. Only no one trained me in the art of spinning plates.  These comments about my seemingly unending laundry list of activities and responsibilities often cause me to stop and think. That’s the point where I realize, I just don’t know how I do it all either.

I sit surrounded by the squeaking sound of my 1-year-old son bouncing in his jumpy horse. On the television that my son watches with his 3-year-old sister, Garfield snatches a spider out of the air as a classical background track melts into the sound of the fan buzzing in the living room. Enjoying the rare moment of relative quiet, I appreciate my husband’s sleeping body on the couch. He’s resting, while on call for the toddlers so I can write, after being out until 3 a.m. playing guitar in a side gig at a local venue. It’s 9 a.m. on Mother’s Day, and I’m hunched over my MacBook Pro, the way I spend the majority of my waking time.

What I do know is what I don’t do. I don’t socialize anymore, and I relish the opportunity to let the ideas and inspirations incubate as my husband and I snuggle on the sofa for a sitcom or two. When I go out, I’m on assignment. Though I generally get to see the concerts I care for, sometimes getting paid to cover them with images and words, I don’t see many shows anymore.

I balance by carefully choosing what I most want to do, and I no longer let money dictate the best opportunity. Fortunately, I’ve found the one thing that money cannot buy: a happy and stable marriage. The support offered to me from my partner means that I have freedom to invest in myself.

The freelancing professionals reading this know the jokes. Scenes of what work-from-home means are created in friends’ minds. Whiskey-swilling writers manically typing the articles and cover stories they read in their favorite magazines and newspapers. But, the reality is that many of us are juggling spinning plates of day jobs and family. After winding up the plate with the kids’ breakfast, we catch the slowing plate of a journalism career.

I’ve paused the writing of this article about four times over the last two weeks. This morning I stopped mid-sentence to wipe a juice-spill and reconstruct a paragraph.

The trick the successful freelancers understand is simply that one cannot keep all the plates spinning. Some must fall to the floor, where a husband or friend must agree to pick up the broken pieces. Mop the floor and move on.

Freelancing takes dedication and the resolution to preserve, constantly proving that what you want to do, you do well. How does one become a writer and how does a writer become good enough to freelance? She writes. When the kids are napping or the boss hasn’t assigned a new task, she picks up her pen or pounds out ideas on her MacBook Pro. And after she writes, she rewrites.

Then she seeks rejection in the form of trying to get published. The life of a freelance writer is a numbers game. The more you fail, the more you succeed. Keep spinning the plates until the music stops because if you want to be something, the only way is to do it.

ellen

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 www.elleneldridge.com. Follow her on Twitter @EllenEldridge27. 

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Inspiration for finding the story

Guest blogger: Bret Schulte 

Writing is hard. If writing comes easy, my guess is you’re either doing it wrong or you’re a genius, and I’ve never met a genius. (If I’ve met you, no offense.)

Freelancers are faced with the toughest part of a tough job: Finding the story. Where beat reporters have the advantage – if you want to call it that – of tending small gardens of public interest, such as cops or schools, in which each blossom might decorate the next day’s publication, freelancers trod acres upon acres of generally disregarded underbrush.

Is that a white truffle there? Or is it a poisonous fungus that will sicken some poor editor?  In the world of truffle hunting, they have trained pigs and dogs to sniff out the good stuff. Journalists are not so lucky, but I do think there are ways you can improve your hunt.

Story ideas are everywhere if you train your brain to see them. That’s harder than it looks, and I still struggle with it after years of storyspotting. The trick is recognizing when you encounter something interesting enough to make you go: “Huh.” That is a story-idea moment! And if something is interesting to you, there’s a good chance it will be interesting to someone else, too. A tandem of 12 year olds just took the bridge tournament at the Grand Denouement Senior Living Center? Huh. Pitch it.

Location matters. If you write for a local paper, be thinking hyper local. Get on neighborhood listservs; prowl the blogs; read the bulletin boards at the local library, town hall, or co-op. Scan Craigslist. (Safety alert: Craigslist can be, uh, terrifying.) Read business publications. Every place I’ve ever lived has more business publications than it possibly needs, and what they’re covering as news stories you can make into terrific enterprise pieces on entrepreneurs and employment trends. A biz story on a bump in tax revenue on area restaurants is a feature story for you on a burgeoning entertainment scene.

If you’ve got an appetite for something bigger, again use your location to your advantage. What is happening in your town, your region, your state that is so peculiar or newsworthy that the entire country might be interested? The wire services will cover politics, breaking news, and sports. What editors need you for are the human-interest, trend, and enterprise stories that beat reporters are too busy to write, or see.

When I’m pitching stories I regard my geography – I live in northwest Arkansas – as my primary asset. I have relatively little competition and the area is off the national radar, to put it nicely. It also provides the opportunity to take a national story and give it a geographic freshness that might interest a national audience. A few years ago, when I came across a quarterly report from a brokerage that handles the buying and selling of newspapers, I found that corporations were selling off their small papers. Buying in: family owned chains. Mom and Pops. A total reversal of the trend of the ’90s and ’00s. I just discovered a national story! But I thought I might be able to ratchet up the appeal by finding an example of the trend somewhere off the beaten path. I thought I could take the readers somewhere special. Somewhere like Manhattan, Kansas.

Columbia Journalism Review liked it, so I drove the five hours to Manhattan, ripping across the Kansas plains and taking most readers somewhere they haven’t been since closing the cover on In Cold Blood. Spoiler alert: In my story, the family lives.

When an editor from National Geographic News contacted me about writing a story on the Keystone XL pipeline (I had done energy/environmental reporting in the past), she did so because of where I lived – not despite of it. Next door is Oklahoma, home to the oil pipeline crossroads of the country in the little town of Cushing. I wanted to do as much with geography as possible, so I drove to Cushing and spent a few days meeting with residents of Cushing as well as protestors of the pipeline scattered across the state. The story carried as much local color as it could bear and that reporting changed its shape and direction.

The best, easiest place to look for stories are in newspapers and magazines, where full-time journalists have already done the hard work for you. As a freelancer, let those stories inform and inspire you. What do these stories not cover? Are there characters whose incredible experiences have been reduced to a few sentences? Can you find a profile or human-interest story? Is there another point of view not being covered?

Read everything. Modern Dog is just as relevant as CNN when it comes to finding ideas. Do you see a local angle to a national story? Don’t limit yourself to the editorial content. I’ve written at least two stories that were inspired by advertisements: One was in Harper’s for a robot made by Honda (it’s true), and the other was about a family-owned electric supply store that lost to the gentrification of Washington, D.C. The owners posted an ad for a going-out-of-business sale in The Washington Post, which I read everyday because I wrote for it.

Look for the odd and surprising. In 2010, an expat Frenchman living in the Ozarks started to build a medieval castle in Lead Hill, Ark. That got a lot of attention. The New York Times wrote it up as a tourist attraction. I wish I had done the story; I didn’t. However, two years later when the castle came tumbling down – financially, I mean – the story was mine. It wasn’t surprising anymore that the castle existed. People knew. But there was something else surprising, and that became my angle: You could buy a half-built castle in the Ozarks for $400,000! Fifty acres of land included! The New York Times took the story. Of course, every good freelancer does his/her due diligence to make sure the publication has not already run the story. And if it has, that you have a fresh take on the subject.

Make smart friends who will help you. Look, it’s almost impossible for my friends not to be smarter than I am. Still, I consider myself blessed. And if you have smart friends (I know you do), you’re also blessed. By having smart friends who know you are looking for stories, you have just multiplied your reach and operation and analytical skills. My piece for the Times about Teach for America alums settling in the Delta came from friends who had traveled to the Delta, who were smart enough to see a story when they saw it, and who were generous enough to let me know about it.

When I worked full-time in the news industry a veteran reporter who trafficked in tips like no one’s business told me his secret. “Before I’m done talking to anyone, I always ask them what they know that is new.” His best source of stories were people.

Good hunting.

Bret Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas.

He freelances for The New York Times. He has also written for Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Nieman Reports, and National Geographic News. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He is a winner of three Green Eyeshade Awards, which recognizes the best in Southern journalism, and was a 2012 finalist for a national Mirror Award.

 

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A freelancer’s take on where the news business headed

Taking a look at the news business, most viewers and readers would assume firms that deal in information are destined for extinction. While large newspapers shutter their operations and broadcast outlets form partnerships and try to consolidate, there are a few news organizations staying viable and even turning a profit. Freelancers are caught in this belt-tightening and have to be aware of what’s happening around them.

The successful companies have focused on one of two approaches. They either tighten the reins and concentrate on local coverage, or they take a broad look at issues and create content that’s attractive to a global audience. This is where opportunity lies. Taking a local view of things – and getting down and dirty with the audiences right around you – is where I think news content is headed.

For example, the team at the Orange County Register headed by owner Aaron Kushner is garnering its profits and hoping for future profits by betting on local audiences and coverage.

According to an LA Times and OC Register – hyper-local journalism  August 2013 article in the LA Times, “Kushner is trying to increase print revenue by pumping the Register — and the community papers that come bundled with it — full of features about high school sports, community events and other good news while preserving the Register’s tradition of hard-nosed local and investigative reporting.”

That’s exactly the type of coverage journalism organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) regularly discusses in training sessions focused on the future of reporting.

To that end, a hyper-local approach in which reporters take a deep dive into issues that resonate with small-town readers/viewers is how news outlets are attracting repeat customers for their news. Essentially, in an age when everyone can get sports scores, top breaking news and other big stories on their mobile phone, the push to hyper-local might be a game changer.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s still an audience that wants to follow national and global news in a new way. Instead of getting a local perspective on conflicts in other countries, news consumers want British news and perspective from the UK, Asian info from Asian outlets and correspondents, and national U.S. stories from specialists embedded in Washington, DC.

Does this type of news gathering and dissemination work? Judging by CNN, FoxNews and other outlets’ influx of ‘perspective’ programming, this type of news education show is capturing eyeballs. While lots of pundits are saying that digital news is the future, the real future of news is going deeper and making real connections with your audiences. The skilled freelancer has to understand that to break into an outlet’s roster of reporters, she has to deliver the goods AND know the landscape.

The business of communication isn’t new, but these days for news outlets and freelance news pros to be successful, they all need to think both big and small. Hyper-local news connects publications with their communities and global coverage makes people feel connected and educated about the world around them.

Ultimately, journalists’ approach to news gathering hasn’t changed. The only real change is what reporters cover these days when they’ve got to have a focus both near and far…locally and globally.

How do you see the news business changing? Is social media a game changer in allowing audiences to interact with news pros? And if it is, how should journalists respond when they’re engaging with readers and viewers?

Jeff Cutler is a content specialist who regularly trains people on the use of social tools to share their message(s) and reach audiences. Jeff has written for NPR, The NY Post, Technology Review, Gatehouse Media and others. Find out more with a quick click on his site http://jeffcutler.com - connect with Jeffvia SocMed (links at the top of his site).

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A dummy’s guide to home office survival

Guest blogger: Julie Kendrick 

Last week, I was relieved to finally make good progress on a major assignment. For one idyllic moment, the only sound in the house was the click of my fingers on the keyboard. Of course, it wasn’t long before the phone rang — and All Hell decided it would be a good time to Break Loose. The dogs, the kids, UPS delivery person, the knocking-door neighbor, the whistling teakettle — everyone seems to know when someone important is calling Julie, who could use A Little Quiet Around Here, for Crying Out Loud. I apologized to my caller, explaining that I work from home and sometimes things get out of hand, which is a huge understatement. I started working from home when my oldest child was an infant, and sometimes, I’ve succeeded beautifully. Other times, not so much. Here are my four simple rules for maintaining order in the home office, all of which I’ve arrived at the hard way.

#1 What happens in Vegas (I mean, um home), stays in Vegas. Back when I was an office dweller, I remember two sales guys complaining about a colleague who worked from home. They referred to her contemptuously as “Banana Bread.” Once, during a conference call, she had asked the men to pause for a moment while she took her banana bread out of the oven. It seemed perfectly normal to me, but it bothered my coworkers – a lot. I realized that these two, who were not exactly kings of multi-tasking, were uncomfortable with the idea of switching work and domesticity so easily. Was she working on the Chrysler account — the most important sales opportunity in the history of time — or was she baking bread? The idea that she could do both things at once didn’t compute for them. So, I learned to keep a business-only tone in all communications. I might be folding laundry during a conference call, but I try to convey the impression that I’m standing at attention, pencil at the ready. Nowadays, not even a wayward bird flapping in the kitchen can shake me during a call (true story).

#2 While juggling responsibilities, use the word “meeting.” If I have to leave at 2:15 p.m. every day to pick up my kids from school, I’ll tell an interviewee, “Gosh, I’m sorry, could we do it a half hour sooner; I have a meeting at 2.” If I promised to wrangle first-graders for my children’s school assembly, I’ll let someone know that “I’m packed earlier in the day, but my afternoon is wide open.” Everything, even real life, is a meeting. Nobody wants to hear about the chiropractor appointment or the Pilates class. It’s either Work or Not Work, and there’s no need to get into any more detail.

#3 Define your emergencies. A freelancer friend who got frustrated with the constant kiddie interruptions did what any savvy manager might do: she held a training session with her tots, discussing What Is An Emergency (smoke, blood, police cars) and How to Interrupt Mommy (walk in quietly and lay a small hand on her forearm). The very next day, she was on the phone with a customer when she felt the hand on the forearm. Her four-year-old whispered, “If smoke is coming out of the kitchen, is that a ‘mergency?” She’d put some eggs on to boil, then gotten the call and walked away from the stove. She now had a kitchen full of sulfurous, roasted eggs, but her son had acted admirably, so she figured it was a win-win.

#4 Use the mute button with care. I’ve gotten very adept at switching from “That’s an interesting point, Phil, can you say a little more about why you started the company?” to [MUTE BUTTON ENGAGED] “You will never see the inside of a mall again if you don’t turn down that TV while I’m on the phone!” to [MUTE BUTTON DEACTIVATED] “And did you say that happened in 1996?”

I’ve mishit the mute button only once, while telling my sobbing one-year-old “I love you, honey.” My client didn’t love that, but what can you do?

Lately, with my kids a little older, I find that I use the mute button more for the dogs’ barking than for their shrieks and wails, but I still keep quiet about what’s going on at home. And sure, I’d love to get together to discuss that project with you. My afternoon is packed, but I’m wide open in the morning.

Julie Kendrick PhotoJulie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based copywriter who develops interactive content for General Mills, Jennie-O and other brands. She writes for local publications including The Line, Minnesota Parent, Edible Twin Cities and MIX. Read more of her blog at kendrickworks.blogspot.com

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My so-called writing life

Guest blogger: Hazel Becker 

I think I was born an editor, not a writer. In fact, for most of my life writing has not come easily for me. Throughout my life before I retired from BNA, I was able to do it successfully from time to time – occasional good research papers during college come to mind, along with one or two well-done market research reports and product proposals near the end of my employment. But being a freelancer with a heavy writing project load was difficult. And, until recently blogging was particularly difficult.

As I noted in a post on my blog in mid-December, I went through a fairly severe writer’s block last fall – the first time in my life that I remember it being like this. Typical me – I tried to make it go away by ignoring it through most of November and into December. Then, I started thinking about what might be different this time, hoping to come up with clues that would help me unlock my words. Eventually I came to understand that the style of writing I’m doing now (mostly personal blogging) needs a different approach.

I never found covering meetings particularly easy, and it was my least favorite part of traveling for business during my time as editorial product development manager for BNA’s tax subsidiary. I needed to go to the meetings to network, to find out what was going on and figure out how we should cover the subject of whatever project I was working on at the time, but I dreaded writing about the sessions afterwards. The press of deadlines helped me push myself to make sense of what I had heard and file a story or two, usually the same day, for Daily Tax Report. Most of the time I think I did ok, but probably not as well as a reporter would have if we had been able to send one with me.

Editing was always my thing. The writers give you the words, and all you have to do is think about what they wrote and figure out whether/how it could be clearer, more complete, easier to understand (sometimes, more correct). Prototyping publications was always easier when I had someone else’s words to work with. When I didn’t – when my job was to write, to demonstrate the kind of material we would publish – I would labor over it, outlining and planning and finally making myself put the words out there. “Labor” is the important concept there.

Market research reports and data-driven articles, both before I retired and as a freelancer, were much easier. I think that’s because you have to spend a fair amount of time analyzing the data before you can write anything down. For me, data analysis is coming up with a series of bullet points, observations, questions left unanswered – writing down my thoughts. The main activity is thinking, not writing – but once I have those bullets, fleshing them out is more like editing to me.

Now that blogging is my primary writing activity, I’ve had to find an approach that would break through that block. For some posts I have been able to assemble a “notes” file so that I would have something to run through while thinking about what to write. That has helped informative posts, when I’m researching and trying to figure out what everything means. It’s not as good, though, for more personal posts – like this one, for example.

What  seems to have worked best for the posts I’ve written since mid-December is to capitalize on that “main activity” I mentioned before – thinking. If I spend enough time just puzzling through a subject, figuring out what I think about what I’m writing about, I have an easier time getting the words out. That’s how this post got written. And the same goes for many of the ones I’ve written over the last six weeks.

I’m lucky that I have the luxury of time for thinking, now that I’m semi-retired. We live such busy lives during our “productive years” that time is at a premium; we just can’t get everything done if we steal minutes (let alone hours) to figure out what we think. But the lesson for me over the last month is that taking that time to think makes my working/writing time so much more productive.

Now I’ll try to make myself think about what to write for some new chapters in the SPJ Freelancers Guide … Wish me luck with that!

Hazel Becker is a publication consultant and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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Combining your love for music with journalism

Guest blogger: Ellen Eldridge

Writers feel drawn to the power of crafting a name for themselves by transforming the power of music (or news, events and so on) into the power of words.  When people ask me how to write a concert review, I suggest writing down exactly what they would tell their best friend when asked, “How was the show?”

The truth is that writing album and concert reviews is much like writing poetry, in that the personal nature of experiencing a moment in time doesn’t translate as well to those who weren’t there—unless you’re a damn fine writer.

My guess about why most music journalists got into writing about music is also my confession as to why I started: to witness and capture the moments in time when an artist on stage breathes the same air as the fans in the crowd, for pay.

The problem with music journalism

Part of the problem is that music journalists tend to simply scratch the surface by relating the set list and a few quotes from the lead singer instead of following the same formulas journalists use for writing the news and for writing features.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that music journalists—more so than any other freelance writing professional—don’t get paid and often aren’t even trained journalists. The writers who review albums and concerts more often than not work for local blogs or digital entertainment websites. People drawn by the power of music are often content—if not thrilled—to review a favorite act for a ticket to the show.

So, you still want to be a music journalist?

The upside, for freelance professionals who have writing skill, is that breaking into music journalism is easier than it was when I started in about 1996. Now, my advice to those who want to get started is to go ahead and get started.

The students in school for majors in communication, English and almost any other major should get involved on campus with any organization that offers a chance to write and get published. The campus newspaper can often get credentials to cover local shows, and when students start applying what they learn about feature writing and the inverted pyramid to a concert review they start honing the elements that make a story enticing to those who may not care about the underground artist who changed your life.

If you don’t particularly care about writing but want to break into music journalism because you want to see free shows then my advice is persistence and a willingness to improve. You may never reach the point where someone is willing to pay for your opinion, but even putting up your own blog and reviewing the shows you paid to get into will help you get your start toward reviewing shows as press (with that free ticket and sometimes plus one).

God bless freedom of speech. No one can stop you from becoming a music journalist.

If you want to get paid for it, however, you need to not only do it well but also win the respect of someone who will pay you.  The Examiner website pays its contributors on a traffic referral basis, so the idea of writing well is the key.

Just like with music itself anyone can produce music journalism inexpensively and blast it across social media platforms. If you fall into puddles of mediocre writing or create clichéd music you will likely spin your wheels until you burn yourself out.

As with any form of journalism, and almost any art, music journalism is a popular dream job that few will get paid to do, but if your passion is there you can build a name for yourself through freelancing.

ellenEllen Eldridge is the president of the Kennesaw State University chapter of SPJ (Region 3) and a freelancer for Atlanta Music Guide. She’s also a contributor to Performer Magazine and she founded the marketing magazine, Target Audience Magazine. As such, she manages a staff of contributing writers and photographers and is always looking for journalists who want to build their portfolios. Her website is www.elleneldridge.com.

 

 

 

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Crafting pitches that have an ‘OMG’ factor

Guest blogger: Bret Schulte

When I moved from the newsroom to the classroom five years ago, I didn’t worry much about story pitches. As a reporter in D.C. who often had covered the machinations of the U.S. Congress, a pitch meant a few sentences at a story budget meeting; when I needed feedback on something special, I bounced ideas off my editor and waited to hear if the expletive that followed carried notes of optimism or despair.

That changed when I came to the University of Arkansas and started teaching the next generation of would-be journalists, for two reasons: One, they didn’t know what a story was, forcing me to think about it; and two, I was a would-be freelance journalist, unaffiliated for the first time.

Suddenly, I became concerned with story pitches.

I fired off several. All way too long. Very few with much thought of the audience. Some had a topic but no angle. Others were way too dependent on a news hook that required an instant response from editors; conversely, some were too squishy. Usually, the pitches lacked enough reporting. Naively, I even sent some to the inquiries inboxes that publications put out for freelancers for the same reason my grandparents put out flypaper. Fewer pests.

At the same time, I was teaching a feature-writing class that I imagined as something of an enterprise-reporting class. I had the usual mix of bright and talented and dull and bored. At first, I didn’t bother much with the pitching process. We talked in class about what made a good profile, or what made a good news feature, or what made a good human-interest piece. Then, I kicked them out to do their reporting.

Aside from the students who just got it immediately without much help from me, a few things happened. Some students started working on a story only to have it collapse before the deadline; others turned in a story only to hear from me that it wasn’t a story. No conflict. No arc. No news. Sometimes, no sources, or too few sources or inadequate sources. Their grades suffered as a result.

I spent more and more time talking about what makes a story. Eventually, I introduced the idea of formal, written story pitches. Soon after, I required they deliver their pitches to the class and defend their ideas to their peers. They each needed two. Then, because it became clear that better pitches made better stories, I started grading the pitches. A good pitch needed to have a clear news peg, it needed to have sources already on the record. It needed to have an element of conflict, or lacking that, to use the parlance of our time, an “OMG” factor.

Students occasionally complained that pitches require a whole lot of work. Of course, that’s the point, as I figured out myself. When I pitch a story now, the reporting process can take weeks or months.

I do clip searches on LexisNexis – your library likely subscribes – to make sure the publication hasn’t already covered the topic, or if it has, to make sure it’s in a different way or with a different angle. Clip searches are also useful because it teaches me what type of story the publication likes. By knowing what’s been done already – and how – I save myself a lot of time and needless (albeit deserved) rejection. While I’m at it, I figure out the voice. The New York Times sounds different than Columbia Journalism Review. (Seriously, it does.) Pay attention to the publication’s prevailing point of view, the formality of tone, if the writing is for an audience that is niche or general.

Then I begin calling sources. Lots of sources. I’m not going to use all of them for my story, but I want to get the absolute best material for the pitch. Publications know fool’s gold. And if you can’t offer them a bright beautiful nugget of something rare and special, they will go to someone who can. Plus, I want to make sure the sources are there and willing to talk. By the time I’m done, I’ve typically done half of my reporting for the story. I have learned it’s better to put in the time on the front end to sell the pitch than do a fraction of the work and get rejected.

Then, I ignore almost all of it. I take only fragments of what I’ve learned and pack it into something as tight as possible. Understand that where you’re pitching matters. A magazine will expect something longer – I’ve seen some that go five pages; I’ve never gone longer than one – and more analytical, usually. One editor told me my pitch posed too many questions (which I thought I would answer once the pitch was accepted) and not enough conclusions. Newspapers on the other hand expect the pitch to mirror the articles: short, tight, heavy on facts; light on the writer’s analysis.

The pitch should open as a story. Grab the editor by the shoulders and don’t let her go. Dance with her. Take her somewhere new. Does this sound like seduction? It is. Then explain your vision for the story, and how long it will be. If it’s your first time with this editor, give her your bona fides. Include links throughout the pitch backing up your research. Include links to your own clips.

I’ve learned that the easiest stories for me to sell are those that are most particular to where I live. Fortunately for me, I live in Arkansas. (How many times have you seen that sentence?) It’s a land bobbing with OMG stories but with relatively few reporters reeling them in. If I was still living in Washington, D.C., I don’t know what I would do as a freelancer that the legions of media are not already swarming.

Finally, I find the right person to contact. Avoid general inboxes. Find an editor; find the right editor. That process alone has taken me months. Contacts are hard earned and kept like national secrets (back when we still had them). Freelancing is a tough game. So pardon me for keeping that part to myself.

Perhaps the best way to learn how to write a successful pitch is to study them. This site is enormously helpful and contains a databae of examples. And here is one from my own collection, for this story I wrote for The New York Times:

A wave of idealistic young people are settling in the Mississippi Delta, celebrated for the blues but mostly known for its entrenched poverty and poor education. Many of them attended prestigious universities and hail from faraway exotic places, such as New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Wisconsin, Washington state, and Colorado. Some are from elsewhere in the South. Almost all came as part of Teach for America, which annually brings hundreds of young people to serve two-year stints in delta classrooms. Though it was never part of the plan, some have stayed. Perhaps ironically, they say it’s because of the opportunities.

Doug Friedlander is the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Helena, Ark. (pop. 12,000). He’s a native of New York City and a graduate of Duke University. He turned down lucrative corporate work to join Teach for America. After his two years were up, he decided to stay. He helped launch a local Boys and Girls Club and says he wants to rebuild the hard-luck river town. He and his wife, who is from Champaign, Ill., married in a synagogue in Helena that had been recently renovated and dubbed an historic landmark.

Julia Malinowski is the first employee of the Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission. She is a Teach For America alum from Seattle and who served in New York City. She came to the Arkansas delta after finding a job there through a Teach for America website. She said she instantly connected with the TFA alum she interviewed with, Tim Schuringa, who worked in Helena forSouthern Bancorp. “In a small community, you have the opportunity to make a tangible difference and see that difference in a way that’s really impossible in a larger city,” she said. Plus, it’s easier to get ahead. “For a normal person to make it in New York is just so much harder.” Plus, she owns a house. So does her husband, another TFA alum. “So, that’s cool,” she said.

Many TFA alums have continued to teach in the delta schools after their two-year commitment. Some are now principals or in other administrative roles. One has created a public policy nonprofit focused on education in Mississippi. Another is the director of the arts organization in Greenville, Miss. One TFA alum from New York City has opened a yogurt shop in Cleveland, Miss.

Communities are changing as a result. In Clarksdale, Miss., the former home of Robert Johnson, who notoriously sold his soul to the devil for greatness on the guitar, a new café/restaurant is filled with Teach for America workers, who longed for such a place. A local lawyer, John Cocke, put up the money. “There’s no doubt the Teach for America influence was behind its development,” he said. “It’s been good for everybody.” Cocke believes the restaurant will be the impetus for more development downtown.

I think there’s a story in how these urban, middle-class 20-somethings are faring in the delta and what seduced them to a place devoid of cache, at least in the New York sense. Forget about night clubs and Whole Foods. What do you without a pizza place or a movie theater? What does it have that the rest of us aren’t seeing? How are they regarded by locals? Do strange bedfellows make good neighbors?

I look forward to hearing from you.

New.Bret.headshot Bret Schulte, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas, worked as a reporter and associate editor at U.S. News & World Report, 2004 – 2008, covering a number of Washington policy battles and political races, including the 2004 presidential campaign. He interned at The Washington Post and was a Style editor and writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

He freelances for The New York Times. He has also written for Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Nieman Reports, and National Geographic News. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He joined the University of Arkansas in 2008.

He is a winner of three Green Eyeshade Awards, which recognizes the best in Southern journalism, and was a 2012 finalist for a national Mirror Award.

 

 

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Wanted: Freelancers

Hey, we want you, we really want you. How often does a freelancer get to hear those words?

Well, the freelance committee wants people to raise their hands for things that need doing as we transition to a community. (Read more about our in-progress community here.) Like social media? We want people to pitch in on our Twitter account, and decide what other social media presence we need. Want to see some great new offerings? We need a development group to talk with organizations that want to provide SPJ freelancers with various services.

Passionate about the nuts and bolts of running a freelance business? We want your input. Want to see webinars of interest to the various freelance groups within SPJ? We’ve got a window of opportunity right here.

Love talking about design? We’ll soon have a new design that needs vetting.

The Freelance committee will be reaching out to those of you who’ve contacted us about helping with this transition, and if you haven’t told us you’re interested, now’s a great time to speak up. Contact Freelance chair Michael Fitzgerald or vice chairs Anna Pratt and David Sheets at our email addresses on the navigation bar.

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