MacGyver your own Freelance Community
My column for the latest issue of Quill:
I started freelancing nearly a decade ago, before the recession had taken hold. I’d worked at a community newspaper for several years, covering education, neighborhood news and the arts, and I wanted to explore new ground. At the time, it may have sounded risky to trade the downtown office for my sunroom, but the housing market hadn’t yet collapsed. Freelancing wasn’t exactly a get-rich-quick-scheme, but it afforded plenty of non-material benefits: independence, adventure and growth. Right away, I began writing pieces for other local outlets, which was a great way to develop new beats, meet new people and hone new skills.
However, it wasn’t long before the economy tanked, and some of the publications I’d written for went out of business. Still others could no longer afford to pay for stories. I was playing bill collector for myself, researching and pitching ideas to editors, and cranking out articles on tight deadlines for dwindling pay. I also juggled a part-time job that had an erratic schedule. Thankfully, I eventually landed temporary gigs and contracts that helped to tide me over. Even so, freelancing always seems so fragile.
In many ways, SPJ has buoyed me along the way. Some years ago, I joined the Minnesota chapter’s board, and then after attending the national Excellence in Journalism conference, I got involved with SPJ’s then Freelance Committee. Over the past couple of years, the Freelance Committee has morphed into the Freelance Community. The broader, more all-encompassing Community is about nurturing SPJ’s diverse freelance membership, which continues to grow by leaps and bounds. You can find the Community on the SPJ website: spj.org/freelance.asp.
Our page includes a message board/forums, a resource guide, freelancer directory, jobs listings, calendar, chatroom and more. And the Community’s new crop of volunteers on the executive committee — who were elected in November — are planning events, both “live” and virtual. We’re brainstorming ways to connect with freelancers all over the place, respond to freelancer questions and needs, and support one another in our respective endeavors. We welcome your participation, as well. There are all kinds of ways to get involved. If you’re a freelancer or just interested in hearing more about it, we hope you’ll sign up for the Freelance Community in 2016. (Feel free to do so on the SPJ website or drop us a line.) Join in a future chat or just email us to say hi! In the meantime, here are some of the things I’ve gotten out of belonging to the Community, thus far:
CONNECTION There’s no denying that working from home can be a bit isolating. I joke that I’m a little too aware of the goings-on on the street outside my window. (My desk faces outdoors.) As freelancers, we must MacGyver so many things. I feel like I’ve got duct tape, scissors, shoes with holes in them, random wires, old phones, gum, coffee and more, holding things together — pitches, invoices, equipment (sometimes this is literally true). Oh, and the things I’ve done for free wifi! Similarly, as freelancers, we have to gin up our own “co-workers.” Thanks to the Community, I’ve met other freelancers across the country who’ve provided support, offered feedback and occasionally even helped revising a story or crafting a pitch. Also, it’s inspiring to hear what other freelancers are up to. I’ve talked to freelancers who’ve taken their careers overseas, others for whom journalism is a second career, stringers for national or international news outlets, and freelancers who specialize in the environment, radio and music. It’s always fun mingling with fellow freelancers into the wee morning hours at EIJ and taking a “lunch break” or “happy hour” to chat online with others spread across the country.
ASSIGNMENTS/GIGS Occasionally, my colleagues have introduced me to editors or sent assignment/gig listings my way. Or vice versa. Some editors have even reached out to me, and/or I’ve been able to steer them to other freelancers. Sometimes it’s helpful to brainstorm with people about what to do when I’m stuck in a story or where to send a pitch. It helps me to get out of a rut.
PROFESSIONAL TRAINING Professional development is yet another DIY area for independent workers. In my time with the Freelance Community, I’ve learned about negotiating rates, invoicing and targeting national publications, as just a few examples. But training is an ongoing thing. It happens through formal conference programs or Google Hangouts, but also just by being surrounded by a knowledgeable bunch whose experiences, perspectives and beats run the gamut. When I’m scratching my head, trying to figure out, “What’s next?” Community members spur me to keep going. I encourage you to MacGyver your freelance career, as well. You’ll find a lot of the raw materials at SPJ’s Freelance Community (spj.org/freelance.asp). We look forward to hearing from you.
As a staff-reporter-turnedfreelance-journalist, Anna Pratt, who lives in Minneapolis, has ventured into garbage houses, spent the night in a homeless shelter and witnessed a fist-fight in a church basement, all for various stories. Pratt also chairs SPJ’s Freelance Community. Drop her a line at annaprattjournalist @gmail.com or on Twitter: @annapratt.
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