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 (Twitter @annapratt) Email
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.