Archive for December, 2010

How to Keep the Freelance Fire Going

Contributed by Maya Payne Smart

“Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” —Reggie Leach

For years, that quotation was taped to the screen of the computer I used to hammer out articles that explained everything from the aluminum-market outlook to the best ways to organize your home. The legendary hockey player’s words were a constant reminder that self-motivation is key to victory in the competitive field of freelance writing. Unlike staff reporters, who even on slow news days get paid just for showing up, freelancers must constantly hunt for new assignments and their next paychecks.

And boy can it be tiring!

Writing and reporting alone, often at the risk of rejection, can take a lot out of you. Throw sales, marketing, invoicing, collecting and business planning into the mix and burnout starts brewing. Setting yourself on fire occasionally is one thing; kindling your efforts daily is another. There are many days when my to-do list outweighs my motivation level — and the term “self-starter” feels more like a punishment than a redeeming quality. Like Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down, freelancing can feel laborious, tedious, even futile…

You can read the rest of the column here, on Maya Smart’s Writing Coach website.

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Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Thanks to the economy — or maybe no thanks to it — the market for freelance writers has grown exponentially this past year. America spent much of 2010 pulling itself out of recession, and though that offered hope for a broad rebound entering 2011 publications and corporations that once had large writing staffs still opted to downsize and turn to contract work to save money.

What many freelancers may not realize is that newspapers are among the top enterprises making this turn. Newspapers, of course, suffered through substantial layoffs in 2010 and may yet in the new year. Still, they have print and electronic pages to fill and the pressure is great on the few people remaining in the industry to continue doing that job. What’s more, veteran print journalists are under other pressure from non-profit and “hyper local” journalism models to remain relevant, vibrant and competitive despite diminishing resources.

So, while looking around for new markets, consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, do a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors determine a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Believe me, not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, but being amenable is key to getting more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small, if at all
— Typical pay ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Keep in mind that assignments may not be frequent or fulsome enough to constitute steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are a fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that do not suffer people who miss deadlines. If an editor says a story has to be completed and on his desk or in his e-mail inbox by a certain time, get it in well before that time if possible. And if that’s not possible, stay in touch with the editor to explain the situation and ask for guidance; they can be understanding when the situation calls for it. But missing a deadline — just one, even — can undermine a writer’s credibility and make it that much harder to receive additional assignments.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local story peg, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Take time to carefully read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; know what these are to have intelligent conversations with assignment editors.

David Sheets is a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Finding Freelance Work

Whether you are new to the freelance game or an old pro, finding freelance work is a challenge. To help you tackle that issue, we’ve added a “Where Do I Find Work?” page to the Independent Journalist blog. This page is a work in progress so please send us your suggestions and ideas for great “go to” sources for freelance work. Together we can make this a great directory for fellow freelancers!

Send your suggestions to SPJ freelance chair Dana Neuts.

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SABEW survey reveals low freelancer salaries

Freelance business journalists could use some more cash, according to this informal poll of 67 self-employed writers and editors conducted in October and November by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW). (Full disclosure: I serve on SABEW’s board.)

The independent journalists reported earning just $25,000 to $35,000 a year — or less than half the median salary earned by business journalists as a whole. A previous SABEW survey showed that the median annual salary of business journalists is $65,000 to $70,000.

To earn more, freelancers need a dose of optimism and a serious entrepreneurial education.

In theory, business journalists should be poised to forge a path toward profitable freelancing. After all, these are people who’ve been trained to read financial statements, ask tough questions and hold executives accountable. But, as the low freelancer salaries suggest, reporting on businesses and managing one are different stories.

A whopping 40 percent of SABEW’s freelance survey respondents had been laid off from staff positions. This suggests that they may be reeling from the loss of newsroom structure, competition and camaraderie while treading onto unplanned and uncharted freelance terrain.

Beyond writing, reporting and editing chops, thriving financially outside of a traditional newsroom requires one major skill that most journalists lack: salesmanship. Commerical considerations make many journalists squeamish because they are taught that their job is to inform the citizenry, tell compelling stories and bring truth to light.  News flash: all of these goals require money.

Freelancers must learn how to finance worthy projects, pay themselves a healthy wage, and maintain journalistic integrity. But how?

Read my solution here.

[This information was provided by freelance expert Maya Payne Smart. After spending six years in the trenches, Maya Payne Smart founded to help journalists, authors and other writers build profitable businesses. She currently serves on the boards of the Society of American Business Editors & Writers and James River Writers. Visit for tips and tools to help you build a more profitable writing business.]

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The Retirement Files, Part One: Where To Stash Your Cash

Contributed by freelance journalist Paula Pant

There is one very important different between planning for retirement as a full-time employee and planning for retirement as a freelancer: the freelancer carries a burden of needing to save significantly more.

Why is this? Most employers offer a “company match,” in which they will match a portion of each dollar that you save for retirement. The daily newspaper that launched my journalism career chipped in 50 cents for every dollar that I saved, up to 6 percent.

Let’s assume you earn $50,000 a year as an employee. A deal like the one at my newspaper would have netted you an extra $1,500 a year in employer-sponsored savings. Not impressed by that figure? Then consider this: The difference between a person who saves $3,000 a year for retirement and a person who saves $4,500 a year for retirement, assuming both people start saving at age 25 and both people earn an 8 percent annual return, is the difference between retiring as a millionaire or not. The person who saves $3,000 a year will have $872,000 at age 65, while the person who saves $4,500 a year will have $1.3 million at age 65.

If you think these sound like excessive sums of cash, remember that $1.3 million in the year 2050 will NOT buy nearly what it can today. In fact, it likely won’t be enough to retire on.

So what’s a freelancer to do? Buckle down and start saving more. Here are some tools and tips:

1.     Open a Roth IRA. These are retirement accounts in which you pay taxes today, and then let the money grow tax-free for the rest of your life. When you withdraw it in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, you’ll withdraw it tax-free. This is a great vehicle for anyone who is currently in a low tax bracket (one upside to not earning much this year!) or anyone who thinks they’ll be paying a higher tax rate in the future than they are right now. You can contribute up to $5,000 a year to a Roth IRA, or $6,000 if you’re over age 50. Most investment management companies like Fidelity, Schwab or Vanguard will help you open a Roth IRA.

2. Start a SEP IRA. A SEP, or Simplified Employee Pension plan, allows you to sock away one-quarter of your net income up to $49,000. This money comes from pre-tax dollars: in other words, invest now, and don’t pay a penny in taxes until you’re ready to spend it. A SEP IRA is popular with freelancers because it is easy to set up and has low annual maintenance fees. Investment firms like Vanguard will also help you set this up. Here’s a hint: don’t get confused if, during the set-up, people use words like “employer” and “employee.” A SEP IRA is structured so that the employer (that’s you, because you’re self-employed) contributes 100 percent of the cash to his employee’s (that’s also you) retirement plan.

3. Open a Solo 401k. The choice for big earners and big savers, this program helps freelancers who want the highest possible annual contribution limits. In 2009, freelancers can save a maximum of $16,500. Word of warning: if you employ an assistant, and you haven’t married your assistant yet, then this plan is not for you. It’s only open to self-employed people with no employees other than a spouse.

Stay tuned for my next blog entry, when I’ll discuss “asset allocation” – a fancy phrase that means, “how to slice up your money into different types of investments.”

Paula Pant is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in small business and personal finance. A former newspaper reporter and assistant news editor (The Colorado Daily, The E.W. Scripps Company), she has won a regional Society of Professional Journalists award for online video reporting/producing. She is co-President of the Atlanta Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and was named a 2010 SPJ Diversity Fellow.

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Freelance Toolbox: Are you cut out for the freelance life?

Are you cut out for the freelance life?In the December 2010 online issue of SPJ’s Quill magazine:

As our media world changes and adapts to new business models, rules and tools, I am often asked what it takes to be a freelance journalist. Sure, it requires a passion for journalism, some marketing know-how and a lot of business savvy, but to earn a decent living, a freelance journalist also needs skills and resources that are not necessarily obvious to the outside observer. A successful freelancer must also possess specific knowledge and skills, have access to necessary resources, be willing to adapt his or her personality as needed, develop a curiosity about the ins and outs of freelancing and define an exit strategy, or Plan B, should freelancing fall short of fame and fortune. Are you cut out for the freelance life? Let’s see if you have what it takes…

Read the full article here

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SPJ Promotes Freelancers

The nation’s largest journalism organization aims to be a leading resource for freelance journalists, according to Dana Neuts, the group’s new freelance committee chair.

During a BlogTalkRadio show hosted today by SPJ Membership Chair Sarah Bauer, Neuts described a bevy of initiatives, from the online freelance directory and Independent Journalist blog to live local events and national conference workshops, all designed to help freelancers build business.

Here are some of the highlighted resources:
Freelancer Directory: This searchable directory helps editors across the country find the freelance talent they seek by state or by specialty. Neuts said she won work from a Homeland Security publication through the directory and a guest caller named Scott chimed in with his own testimonial. He’s employed full time, but won side work with a broadcaster through his Freelance Directory listing.
The Independent Journalist: Updated weekly, this SPJ blog features a rotating cast of freelancers sharing insights on everything from how to write a resume for the Digital Age to how to find individual medical coverage.
Resource Lists: Need help deciphering an indemnification clause or finding a writing conference near you? SPJ’s list of resources can point you in the right direction.
• Local Events: SPJ also has a strong network of local student and professional chapters that deliver helpful programs. Neuts lauded her pro chapter’s freelancing conference and Bauer described her pro chapter’s speed dating event, which made matches among local writers and assigning editors.

SPJ membership costs $72/year for professionals, but Neuts says the investment pays for itself. Plus, it’s tax deductible.

Listen to Your SPJ Membership: Focus on Freelance by visiting

[This recap was provided by freelance expert Maya Payne Smart. After spending six years in the trenches, Maya Payne Smart founded to help journalists, authors and other writers build profitable businesses. She currently serves on the boards of the Society of American Business Editors & Writers and James River Writers. Visit for tips and tools to help you build a more profitable writing business.]

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SPJ Resources for Freelancers: Listen to, 12/9, 1 pm EST

Join host Sarah Bauer, SPJ membership committee chair, and Dana Neuts, SPJ freelance committee chair. this Thursday, December 9 at 1 p.m. (EST) on for a 30-minute podcast discussing the many SPJ benefits available to freelancers. Learn more about the freelance committee’s projects, resources and more. Got a question? Call in during the show to contribute to the conversation.

Can’t listen in live? No worries – we’ve got you covered! Listen to the show online at

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Another Night, Another Networking Event or “Why go? I’m sure they’re on Facebook…”

Contributed by Crai S. Bower

I’m prepping for the Media Bistro December party, deciding whether I have time to print the guest nametags or leave it in the capable hands of “My Anti 9-to-5 Life” author, Michelle Goodman, who usually takes care of this task as part of our co-hosting “arrangement.” I like hosting the Media Bistro parties, which we throw about six times a year, though I haven’t quite learned not to take the attendance numbers personally.

Years ago, I met one of my main editors (i.e. steady, well paying employers) at a MB event, one of the most important connections I’ve made. Because I’m host, it’s unlikely I’ll feel too tired to muster the energy required to pull my boots on and head to Kate’s Pub for a couple of hours of chitchat, pints of Guinness and perhaps even an editor score.

But the whole process has me thinking, with everyone tweeting, slathering Facebook with promotional materials and connecting on LinkedIn, what’s the point of face-to-face networking anyway? If I can attend virtual meetings with Skype video, why depart my house (and family) for yet another “event,” especially as someone who travels for a living.

Crai S. Bower (center) at another networking event.

I put this question to Laura Serena, Immedia Inc. partner and chief cat of, one of the travel journalism’s most popular go-to networking sites. Over brunch this past weekend, Laura was exuding the virtues of Übertwitter, the new Twitter-centric app designed specifically for the Blackberry, definitely great news for the Canadian publicist.

A visionary in the social media sphere, Serena’s PR company also reps several of Vancouver’s hottest restaurants, including Coast, the “see-and-be-seen” seafood palace, frequented by Vancouver’s networking elite. As a social media maven who also commits many nights to being out and about at promotional functions, she seemed a perfect judge of the online vs face-to-face networking bout?

“With the continued growth of such networking platforms as Skype video, I think you really have to evaluate the value of attending each specific networking event,” explains Serena who with Heather Kirk, her Toronto-based partner, also operates, a networking source for business journalism.

“And remember,” Serena advises, “Tweeting from an event not only raises visibility of the event, it elevates your exposure as well.”

Like most publicists, Serena says she ultimately favors live interactions. To prove her point, she told me she recently attended a networking function where she made three unexpected connections. She met a publisher who was launching a new magazine, discussed potential collaborations with a colleague she hadn’t seen in years and was introduced to a journalist she had always wanted to meet.

Personally, my insane, nonstop “building a brand/business” networking evenings are behind me. Gone are the days of 4-5 nights out a week, elevator pitch rehearsals and cold-call conversations. (I started writing for because of my literal elevator pitch to former editor Valaer Murray, conducted between the 7th floor and lobby of Vancouver’s Metropolitan Hotel.)

Yet, the importance of heading out remains crisp as an Alberta winter. Two weeks ago, while in Calgary to research the burgeoning culinary scene for and American Forces Radio, I received an invitation to hook up in the evening with an editor I’d met fortuitously that afternoon at a group luncheon held at Catch, Calgary’s premier fish restaurant, a repast I’d unfortunately had to leave early.

That night, I didn’t hear from said editor until after I’d returned from the Calgary Flames hockey game to the cozy Hotel Le Germain. Fryes off and tethered to my keyboard, I declined the opportunity when the text came in to pull on my boots, wrap my scarf, and jump in a cab for the trendy Inglewood neighborhood.

Unlike the frigid, -40 degrees (Celsius) air that night in Cowtown, the editor’s responses to my attempts to engage later in email conversation have been tepid, at best.

Of course all is not lost. The reason I left that Catch lunch early? To meet with the fabulous Deb Cummings, my new editor at Up! Magazine.

Still, that I didn’t rally to join up with folks in Inglewood eats at my freelance soul though, I’ll admit, tweeting and blogging about it has helped.

A little.

Award winning travel and lifestyle writer Crai S Bower contributed over 100 articles in 2010 for more than 20 publications and online sources. He is the travel commentator for NPR-affiliate KUOW and American Forces Radio and was featured in “Seattle 100: Portrait of a City.”

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