Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Network and support for freelancers

1268046_10102069884870981_1769739499_oGuest blogger: Elle Toussi

Nearly one in three working Americans is an independent worker. Wow! That statistic from the Freelancers Union website can make you stop in your tracks and take a moment to reflect.  Looking at just the United States, that is an extensive number of people who are deciding to be independent and they come from all walks of life and industries.

Making the decision to go freelance can be a daunting and scary decision to make. Will I have stability? What about healthcare? What happens with my retirement? My 401k? There are lots of questions to address. For those here in the Freelance Community at SPJ you already know the importance of one very important element in the world of freelance: network.

Being a freelancer can be a very lonely process, so making sure to be a member of organizations that create a community within your industry or craft is important. These groups help foster support. I have found that to be key.

One group that has helped is the Freelancers Union. I’ve taken on the task to be a co-leader for their monthly Spark events in Los Angeles. This is where they host a monthly gathering of freelancers and as they say, “Learn stuff. Find your spark.” On the first Wednesday of every month there is a new topic to be explored and Spark events take place in over 18 cities nationwide.

It’s always important to weigh the benefits of joining another organization or group, but let’s see if I can break it down for you.

It’s Free. Yes, you heard that right. To be a member of the Freelancers Union comes with no cost. No annual payment. Just simply join the network and like every organization or group… you get what you give. So really be active and participate in all the organization has to offer.

Benefits. Trying to navigate through health, dental, disability, life and liability insurance can be overwhelming. The Union has figured a way to make sure no independent worker is left behind when it comes to these important benefits. You too can figure out a way to save for retirement and you can get help with the process.

Network. Take a moment once a month to gather with fellow freelancers at a local Spark Workshop event where you can network and learn. You never know when you will connect with someone that will create a lasting friendship or a possible work collaboration. There is nothing more important than your network, especially as a freelancer.

Discounts. Independent workers with the Freelancers Union can take part in special discounts from companies, products, co-working places and much more.

Resources. You need help creating a contract? That’s great, you can create a custom contract with the Union here. You need help with taxes? That is definitely something to take into consideration when going freelance and the step-by-steps are available on the website. For example these tax-saving tips here. The blog is also a great place to look up different topics and tips & tricks. Chances are there is something you need help with and there is something already posted that can help you.

Don’t just take my word for it. October 7th is the next Spark Event covering, “Make Your Contract Your Best Business Ally.” Sign up to an event near you and check out to see what all the fuss is about. You might find yourself inspired and going every month.

Elle Toussi is an innovative cross-platform journalist, with more than four years of experience reporting on the film industry, the Middle East and all matters pertaining to Southern California. She has trained under the guidance and mentorship of award-winning journalists at CNN, NBC Los Angeles, KTLA, Screen International and USA Today. She has also freelanced for National Geographic Channels.

Currently bi-coastal, she plans to continue her coverage of Middle Eastern affairs after her time in Jordan where she was immersed in the Syrian refugee situation in 2014. It even inspired the creation of her non-profit, In One Minute, where she plans to use the power of mobile technology and philanthropy to meet specific needs of women around the world. The non-profit organization provides stories of women by giving them a platform to tell their story. Helping one woman at a time, one minute at a time. 

Toussi is an Iranian-American born and raised in Southern California. Her passion for covering Middle Eastern matters and the role of immigrants in the Southern California region is inspired and largely due to her upbringing by her hardworking immigrant parents that relocated to California many years ago. She currently contributes to CBS Local, AXS online and has contributed to Screen International and Examiner. Stay tuned for her latest work on

One freelancer’s take-aways from EIJ15

Guest blogger: Hazel Becker 

hbheadshot2Excellence in Journalism 2015 (EIJ15), the big SPJ journalism conference that took place in Orlando, Fla., last weekend, offered several opportunities for freelancers to meet each other and share their stories.

There was much to absorb – too much, perhaps, in just three days devoted to learning how to be better at what we do while also making connections with other journalists and doing the business of the three sponsoring organizations: SPJ, the Radio Television Digital News Association, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Here are a few quick observations:

  • Freelancers were everywhere! Whether we call ourselves “independent journalists” or something else, there are more of us every year, and our numbers are increasing in all forms of journalism.
  • The blurring lines between delivery media seem to be making it easier for us to step out of our print/broadcast/digital boxes. For the most part, we are all doing the same thing – telling stories to audiences that need, want, or enjoy hearing them. So are employed journalists – and whether the producer is independent or on staff is less important than it was in the past.
  • Freelancers continue to seek each other out. We are becoming less fearful of “the competition” – each other! – and beginning to realize that the challenges we face are not unique. We have much to learn from each other.
  • While we face obstacles that employed journalists may not come up against – primarily on the business side – we are not alone in experiencing upheaval in our work world. The way news and features are generated and disseminated is in turmoil for our entire profession, leaving everyone unsettled.

I left EIJ15 with several vexing questions. Most troubling to me, for independent journalists, are these two:

  • How can we best respond to publishers’ increasing demands that we bear the liability not only for our work but also for theirs?
  • How can we bring some rationality to the jumbled marketplace in which we now do business, to make it easier for freelancers to connect with publishers willing to pay for our services according to the quality they are seeking, and the effort required to produce that quality?

The coming year promises to be interesting. Perhaps we will begin to see the road ahead before EIJ16. See you all in New Orleans!

Hazel Becker is a freelance journalist and publications consultant in Washington, D.C. She produces and edits business stories primarily in the areas of taxation, insurance, and personal finance. 

Interviews: To record, or not to record?

Hope YanceyGuest blogger: Hope Yancey

As a freelancer writer, I spend a lot of time working alone, so I’m often curious about how other freelancers do things and whether I am going about my writing tasks the “right” way. It’s a feeling I’ve heard others express, and I imagine many of us share this concern when we don’t have coworkers in the traditional sense or editors nearby to consult. Perhaps this bit of doubt is magnified for me, as my academic background is in subjects other than journalism, and much of what I’ve learned about the field has been self-taught.

I’ve been surprised to learn sometimes in conversations with other freelance writers that some of them don’t record their interviews with sources. My guess is this decision is based on individual time management needs. After all, if you record the interview, then you have to sit through it all over again afterward when you play back the recording. While every writer should certainly do what works best for them, I think there are many good reasons to record an interview – with permission, of course.

I would find it almost impossible to get long quotes verbatim without use of a recording. Even with the benefit of a recording, it’s not unusual to have to listen repeatedly to hear all the words. While a careful paraphrase is suitable in some cases, other times it’s necessary to state information in the form of a direct quote, so you must transcribe each word as it was said.

Aside from quotes, there are a number of additional details that enhance a story that I would miss or forget without having a recording. It’s been a revelation to me to identify how many interesting details I pick up on when I listen to a recording – details overlooked in my original note-taking. Accessing those details can make for a richer story.

I’ve also noticed characteristics of my own interviewing style I would like to adjust from listening to recordings. It can help me eliminate distracting habits or affectations of speech. When I was in graduate school studying counseling, the professors occasionally had students record ourselves interacting with clients at our internship sites and reviewed the tapes with us. It improved our skills as counselors.

Last but not least, recording interviews may serve a protective purpose for the freelance writer, since freelancers may not have the backing of their publication the way staff writers do, in the unfortunate event there is ever a challenge raised to published material.

In summary, while it may be faster not to record interviews and listen to them later, skipping that important step could be a significant omission. I take my digital recorder with me to interviews, asking my interviewees, “Is it OK with you if I record our conversation to help me with my notes?” Most have been understanding and quickly agreed to let me record them. In fact, I believe people are reassured when they see you are making an earnest effort to get the facts right.

Once, after an article appeared in the newspaper, one of the people I’d spoken with for the story emailed a thank-you note: “All the facts were correct, all the names spelled right, all the quotes were accurate … ,” he wrote. That’s just about the highest compliment I could have hoped to receive.

Hope Yancey is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C. She participates in SPJ’s Freelance Community. Follow her on Twitter @Hope_Yancey.

A support group for music journos

Guest blogger: Anthony Iverson 

Iverson_AnthonyFor as long as I can remember, I’ve loved music and writing — and for me, music journalism is a great way to combine these passions. This venture, though, has proven to be more difficult than I had initially thought, due to the current state of the job market and the fact that music journalism is always fighting to remain relevant. Plus, it’s no secret that music journalists don’t exactly rake in the big bucks.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried to keep this dream within reach by doing what I can to get my foot in the door, networking with whomever will give me the time of day. One of these doors opened via tweet from Oregonian music critic David Greenwald. The tweet called out to any current or aspiring music writers to join a Facebook group he moderates wherein writers discuss freelancing trends, tips and struggles.

I requested access and shortly thereafter was accepted into the group, free to roam through posts dating back to February of this year from a mix of freelancers, staff writers and editors of publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and the Wall Street Journal along with blogs like Noisey, Consequence of Sound and MTV Iggy.

The purpose of the group, as Greenwald explicitly states, is “for sharing advice, information, contacts and industry grousing. NOT for arguing about music.” The latter requirement left me skeptical, knowing firsthand how argumentative music critics can be. But as far as I can tell, everyone within the group has honored this standard and they have stuck to talking shop, providing insight and discussing the ins and outs of the industry.

Since joining the group, all kinds of questions have been posed and answered by members, whose experiences run the gamut.

Someone might want to know, ‘what is the best way to go about pitching an editor? If you have an interview lined up, ‘is it better to write the piece and then pitch it or vice versa? If I’ve written a piece based on an interview but still have unused sound bites, is it considered poor etiquette to use the remainder of the interview for a different article?’

The questions come from writers of all variations, beginners to veterans — all of which are treated earnestly and answered honestly.

The group is meant to serve as a community of resources to help one another pursue the same two passions they have in common. It has served as a less network-y form of networking — a sort of informal, ongoing conversation among a group. It has proven to be a great learning experience in the weeks that I’ve been a member.

Some editors have encouraged newer writers to send them recently published pieces while others have offered up assignments and even posted job openings.

This supportive nature is encouraging to me as I was struggling to find opportunities. Not only has this group given me ideas on different directions to take, it has offered the opportunity to submit pieces and build a rapport with others in the business — and all thanks to a bunch of complete strangers who give of their expertise freely.

Even if I weren’t already passionate about music writing, it would probably still inspire me to pursue it just as a result of the supportive nature of this small community. And now that I have access to this wealth of resources, I feel like I’m better equipped to move forward and continue on this path. So, I invite others to find similar virtual groups that can help provide moral support and practical advice.


Anthony Iverson is a publicist by day but a journo at heart. He formerly wrote for the High Plains Reader, Fargo’s only alternative weekly, and currently works as an assistant account executive at Weber Shandwick and a section editor at l’etoile Magazine while living in Minneapolis. An aspiring freelance writer, Iverson’s interests mainly lie in covering culture, politics, sports and his one true love: music.

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

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.


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.

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. 

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.

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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