Archive for September, 2008


What to do in a down economy? Freelance

By Dana Blozis

When I attended the national SPJ conference in Atlanta last month, I was overwhelmed by the depressing state of the journalism industry. The consistent message was that the industry is in turmoil, newsrooms are laying off, and we need to do more with less. While that may be true, there remains a need for good journalists and a successful career is still possible, if you have the patience and persistence to stick with it. One career possibility is that of the freelance writer, the coveted-but-elusive path of someone who is compelled to write.

Imagine waking up to the sounds of the birds singing rather than your alarm clock, casually strolling to your office in sweatpants and a My Chemical Romance t-shirt, being in control of your own daily schedule, and reviewing story ideas while sipping homemade, fresh-brewed coffee on your deck. It may seem too good to be true, but it is, indeed, possible. I’m living proof.

My path to the wacky world of freelance writing began about six years ago. After a 15-year career in the corporate world, I felt something lacking. I had a burning desire to write and nothing I did could quiet it. Through a connection at work, I was introduced to the editor of the Lafayette Leader, a local weekly community paper in Indiana. I showed her samples of my work gleaned from my work portfolio, and she hired me on the spot. I wrote light-hearted human interest stories for the Leader for six months while retaining my day job.

Through another work pal, I landed a second freelance gig in town before moving to Washington State for a new job. I had to give up the first freelance client because that work was locally based, but I was able to retain the second because that publication, Inside Classified, was an international trade journal for the newspaper advertising industry. It was a great gig to gain some interviewing and reporting experience, acquire some clips and make a few bucks on the side. I still write for them every month.

Fast forward nine months and I was without a job. I had been laid off by my new employer and, despite my experience and business degree, I wasn’t able to find another job that was a good fit for me. Panicked, I applied for unemployment and combed the want ads for jobs. I couldn’t find another full-time job in my field, but I did find several local publications looking for freelancers. For the next six months, I cobbled together an income by doing freelance assignments for The Bellingham Herald, Whatcom Independent and Northwest Business Monthly; working a flexible part-time job that paid my rent; and collecting unemployment for a few months. Within a year and a half, I was able to quit my part-time job to become a full-time freelancer.

That was more than three years ago. Since those first frightening months of unemployment, I’ve written for half a dozen newspapers and more than a dozen magazines. My work has appeared in The Seattle Times, Seattle Metropolitan, South Sound magazine, HS Today, GSN:  Government Security News and more. I now make a comfortable full-time living from the comfort of my home office, and I couldn’t be happier to be in control of my own career.

My point in sharing this story with you is not to bore you with how I made it work, but rather to encourage you to think beyond the traditional journalism route (college-job-better job). You don’t necessarily have to go from one full-time reporting job to another. You can try different things while retaining your full-time job, until you find a good fit. Test the waters by writing for a non-competing publication in your area. Ask if you could cover a story for it, submit a column, or pitch a specific idea. Tell the editor you’d like to learn more about the publication and its audience, and see if you can try it on a part-time or fill-in basis. Another option is to pitch a unique story idea to a local magazine. Offer them the idea and explain why you’re the writer to do the story.

This try-on-the-fly method allows you to sample the freelance world without losing the security of your full-time job and benefits. It also provides you with some additional income, clips, experience and references that you can take with you wherever you go. Whether you ride the industry’s wave of uncertainty or carve out your own niche, there is a place for you if you want to freelance. Check it out – you just might find that the freelance life is what you’ve been looking for all along!

Dana Blozis is a full-time freelance writer in the Seattle area. In addition to writing for publication, she writes and edits for individuals, small businesses and nonprofits. For more information about Blozis or to sign-up for her free monthly writing & editing newsletter, visit www.virtuallyyourz.com.

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Freelance committee report

Hi all. I compiled this freelance committee report after meeting with freelancers this month in Atlanta at SPJ’s annual conference. The report conveys the direction we envisioned for the committee during this meeting. You’ll see it’s brief, and I invite you to read it through and comment on it. Thank you! Amy Green, freelance committee chairwoman.

Members. As a committee we decided anyone who wants to participate is welcome. However five members will steer the committee. These members are:

Amy Green, chairwoman

Amy Green is a freelance journalist for PEOPLE, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. She specializes in faith, ethics and social issues, and her work also has appeared in Christianity Today, Sojourners, Charisma and with Religion News Service. She is a former Associated Press reporter in Nashville, Tenn., and in 2006 she worked for a month in Boston as an editor on the national desk of the Monitor. She is an active member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the freelance committee chairwoman for Society of Professional Journalists. She is a journalism graduate of the University of Florida, and she works and lives in Orlando.

Stephenie Overman, vice chairwoman

Stephenie Overman is a full-time freelance writer who specializes in workplace and health care issues. She is editor of Staffing Management magazine and has been editor of Executive Talent magazine and Human Resource Management News. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Business Journal, Daily Labor Report, Bulletin to Management, Employee Relations Weekly, HR Magazine, Independent Business and Working Smart. She is currently writing a book, “Next Generation Wellness at Work.” She is past president of the Washington D.C. and New Jersey SPJ chapters and is proud to have received a Howard S. Dubin Outstanding Pro Chapter Member Award. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master’s degree in labor studies from the University of the District of Columbia. She also has taught news writing at Rutgers University.

Kathy Ehrich Dowd, freelancer for PEOPLE, USA Today, Brides.com and Women’s World. Hoboken, N.J.

Bruce Shutan, freelancer for Employee Benefit News, Human Resource Executive, Plan Sponsor and Variety. Los Angeles.

Emily Perlman Abedon, freelancer for Redbook, Child, Parents and Cosmo Girl. Charleston, S.C.

Meetings. Committee members will meet quarterly by phone, in January, April, August and October. We will depend on SPJ equipment to host these teleconferences.

The Blog. Our primary means of communication will be The Independent Journalist, at http://spj.org/blog/blogs/freelance/. Here committee members and freelancers will post announcements, job ads and how-to writings on the freelance life. Among these features will be “Editor of the Moment,” in which an SPJ editor who works with freelancers will write about his or her job, freelance needs and pitches that he or she wants to see.

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Conference wrap-up

By Jillian Kramer

I returned home from SPJ’s annual conference this month in Atlanta — and landed my first freelance assignment!

The conference offered two sessions on freelancing. So what did we learn? During the first session on freelance magazine writing journalists met with two established freelancers, Kathy Ehrich Dowd and Hope Winsborough, and Smithsonian Senior Science Editor Laura Helmuth. We learned about how to take a freelance story idea from inception to publication.

Helmuth recommended looking for charismatic characters with surprising or timeless stories at a local level. When you pitch, however, Helmuth said that you need to give local stories a national twist. She warned freelancers against relying on online material to determine what’s appeared in a magazine.

Part of a freelancer’s job is to anticipate editors’ questions before they ask them, Dowd said. “Think of yourself as a lawyer,” she said. She recommended including rebuttals for editor’s questions in your query letter. Dowd also encouraged freelancers to write what they’re passionate about.

Winsborough broke magazines into two categories: service (like Self, Health, Martha Stewart Living) and aspirational (like Vogue and Glamour). She told freelancers that each kind of magazine has a formula and said it’s our job to figure it out. Oh — and there’s nothing wrong with going to cocktail parties to schmooze with editors. (Check for parties in your area at www.mediabistro.com.)

The conference also offered a half-day workshop on the business of freelancing. Freelancers Michael Fitzgerald, Julie Kay and Kristin Harmel discussed the changing market, how to perfect a pitch letter and how to balance a full-time job with a freelance career on the side.

Allow me to hit a few highlights:

Harmel told freelancers to start small, whether that means writing for a local newspaper, regional magazine or attempting front of book pieces for large magazines. And when you land those FOBs, even if it’s a 100-word story on foot cream for Glamour, Harmel said you shouldn’t hesitate to say, “I write for Glamour.”

If you’re a full-time reporter who’s freelancing on the side, make sure you get your editor’s permission first, Kay said. Your company may prohibit you from freelancing.

And Fitzgerald encouraged freelancers to not just be “text people.” In this changing industry, Fitzgerald said even freelancers have to think about blogs, podcasts and videos. “Technology means that everyone can be a writer,” he said.

Beyond freelancing workshops, the convention offered classes that addressed pesky sources, narrative writing techniques, building character in profiles, understanding alternative story forms (ASFs), crunching crime numbers, changing FOI laws, evaluating politicians with public records and the changes facing our industry.

Freelancers and beat reporters alike can learn from these lessons:

  • You cannot write powerfully if you cannot write clearly, said Thomas Oliver, Atlanta Journal Constitution enterprise editor. He challenged reporters to keep their ledes to fewer than 20 words and their sentences averaging just 17. How do you do that? Choose just one idea per sentence and stick to it. Keep your subject at the beginning of the sentence and the correlating verb as close to it as possible. Use simple language. Hold the adjectives (as in, close proximity, complete monopoly. These adjectives are unnecessary and repetitive). And don’t invent excitement in your story. (Did prices really “soar,” or did they simply rise?)
  • “The future belongs to the storytellers,” said Richard Boehne, president of the E.W. Scripps Company. And Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tom Hallman, of the Oregonian, agreed. He said that reporters have to stop merely transcribing daily events and start “looking behind the facts. What we call a story is not a story. It’s a run-down of the news. If we’re going to make it in this business, we have to remind people what it is to be human … how what we report affects our community.
  • Lane DeGregory, a staff reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, encouraged reporters to look past the obvious when profiling someone. Be nosy. Look inside someone’s fridge. Follow them throughout their day. Flip through their photo albums. Watch their family movies. And pick through their garage. Talk to friends and coworkers. Read their letters and journals if they allow you. And use all five of your senses as you take notes.

Want to find out more? Visit http://www.spj.org/c-recap08.asp to read additional recaps of the convention.

Jillian Kramer is a freelance writer and full-time reporter at Mobile’s Press-Register. Her Web site is at www.jilliankramer.com. Her first freelance assignment is about the best free gadgets and Web sites available to photographers.

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SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund

By Julie Kay

SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund is another resource for freelancers.

The Legal Defense Fund Committee oversees the fund, a unique account that can be tapped to provide journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. Application to the fund is approved by either a small committee or the national board, depending on the level of assistance sought. The committee works throughout the year raising funds for LDF.

Purpose of the Fund
SPJ collects and distributes contributions for aiding journalists in defending the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The primary role of the Legal Defense Fund is to initiate and support litigation that enforces public access to government records and proceedings, which can be the most expensive way to defend the First Amendment. The fund can also be a source of support for FOI hotlines, coalitions and newsletters, as well as for legislative lobbying activities aimed at enforcing public access to government records and proceedings.

All requests for money from the Legal Defense Fund will be weighed with special consideration for activities that will effect the most far-reaching and positive outcomes.

How to Request an LDF Grant
Download and complete a LDF application (PDF), stating specifically the purpose for which you are seeking assistance. Be sure to apply any documentation you have to support your request.

If your request is an emergency, call national headquarters at 317/927-8000 or call the chairs of either of the Society’s Legal Defense Fund or the Freedom of Information committees. Be prepared to fax some documentation.

It is helpful for you to first enlist the support of a local SPJ chapter president or regional director. National headquarters can supply names and phones numbers.

Note: A six-person review committee can make decisions on financial requests of up to $1,000 at any time during the year. The Society’s board of directors must review any requests for more than $1,000. The group meets each year in April and October.

Julie Kay is chairwoman of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund Committee. She is an award-winning South Florida journalist who covers the southeast United States for the National Law Journal. Kay also freelances for PEOPLE, New York Post and C-Span. She spoke last weekend about freelancing at SPJ’s conference in Atlanta.

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