Recently, Dan Mason wrote this post on things to do before being made redundant if you're currently working for a regional news organisation.
I went freelance 10 years ago after working on regional papers. These days my work has grown into running an agency with colleagues. That's why I wanted to share some advice for those starting out on a similar path.
I've learned some hard lessons. Although I left regional papers under different circumstances to redundancy (I needed to go away and be a mum) these pointers are based on the sorts of experiences anyone moving on from local papers to work for themselves are bound to encounter. In these toughest of times, I'd say they are more important than ever.
Recognise the fantastic skills you have
You know you can write, you know you can get on with people, you know you can work quickly and well under pressure and that you can meet strict deadlines.
For some, that may be despite what people around you have told you, for however long you have slogged away in your current or last job.
But did you know that this makes you a prime candidate for a wide range of projects? Work is still out there for you to find. Value the strengths a career in regional news has given you and think about how to make the best of them, as well as convincing other people they're worth paying for.
What sort of work do I mean? Anywhere the gift of the gab, (that's communications skills for my friends in PR,) an approachable manner and a knowledge of how the media works are key skills needed. Did I say 'key skills?' Isn't that the sort of corporate nonsense you can spot at a hundred paces? Yes it is. And there are people who will pay you good money to turn it into plain English.
Forget any 'them and us' notion you have about nationals and the regionals
Learn how to pitch national news and features editors as effectively as possible. Yes, markets are shrinking and budgets are being cut, but a cracking tale sent to the right desk at the right time will still sell. It just has to be better than it ever was and stand out more.
Don't worry about the reception you will get as a 'newbie' to this pitching lark. If you can write a regional splash on deadline you can sure as hell master 1,000 words with a couple of case studies and some expert comment in the time you're given to turn it around for a broadsheet section or monthly magazine. And if you have a stonking 'human interest' story, study the tabloids and women's weeklies to see if you can flog an exclusive. The features desks can be really quite nice when you ring them up, so long as you pick your moment well and convince them you can deliver. It's funny, the better your story, the nicer they are.
Don't take rejection personally
In business, advisers who cost a fair few quid an hour will tell you that 'no can often mean not yet'. As much as this glib soundbite may make you want to scream inside, it's true. That piece you suggested to an editor last week that was knocked back, or ignored, can still be sold elsewhere. Or it could be adapted for future use or even successfully slipped back under the nose of the same editor in weeks, months or years to come.
Take your contacts with you
Just look after them, that's all. People you've already met as a reporter can still supply you with stories for a long time to come - but you can be more ambitious about where those stories will end up.
Network, network, network
No I don't mean spend all your time at the local business breakfast networking club asking the local plumber if he needs someone to write a flyer to put through people's doors while you chomp on an economy sausage.
But it would be a good idea to at least find out about these sorts of organisations and again if they are really for you. They can and do bring in business and writers can be very active members - but it all depends on the chemistry and personality of the people in the group - most of all you.
But that's not all there is to networking. Get yourself in front of key people you hope to work for and build relationships. That can be face to face, by email or online. Which of course brings us on to...
Get to grips with social networking
Twitter and Facebook are your friends. Really they are. There's no end of pieces explaining how journalists can get the best out of them: here's one I wrote; these by Sarah Hartley and by Dave Lee offer a more in-depth insight.
Also, if you haven't yet caught the blogging bug, at least consider it. Lots of people will tell you it's a waste of time. Others, like Craig McGinty, a former Lancashire newspaper journalist, or Edinburgh-based Amber McNaught will tell you it can earn enough to do it full-time. I know who I'd rather listen to.
Don't compete on price
It's tempting when you start out working for yourself to tell potential clients (whether it's an editor, a possible commercial writing client or someone who wants a script writing for public sector DVD) that you are cheap and you can beat what the next writer will do the job for. Please don't do that. If you compete on price, you will lose the job on price. Your customer will move on to the next supplier when they come along with an even lower fee.
Work hard to convince them you are the best for the job. You owe it to yourself to give it a go. You want people to want to be able to afford you because you are the dog's wotsits. If they want you enough, and have the money, they'll find a way. Do you really want to work for them if they have no money and don't really want you?
Other important money matters
Don't drop your price or offer to do something for free if you can help it, thinking this will get your foot in the door. It often doesn't.
Don't take any work on from people, even from people you trust, you are friends with, have worked with before, or are existing contacts, without them signing all paperwork up front.
Master all aspects of contracts, order forms and terms and conditions. If you can, ask customers to pay up front, either the whole fee or some of it. Their reaction may give you a big clue about their ability to pay and what they are going to be like to work with.
Quit seeing other journalists as your competition at least some of the time and think of them still as your colleagues.
The support of others who have chosen the same career path can be invaluable. Sites like JournoBiz or Joanne Mallon's Mediawomenuk group are full of people who will offer their time, kindness and experience to help you decide where you should pitch your next feature or how much to charge a commercial client. I asked that very question yesterday and was set on the right track.
Take what time you can to consider where you go from here
This is stating the obvious, but what I mean is think about what you want from your work and how you can balance it with the rest of your life better. All the time, blood, sweat and tears you spent to get the scoops for your last employer may have left you exhausted (I know it did me). So think about what you want on your terms. Then work your damned hardest to find it. You may not find an exact match and yes times are tough but there is still worthwhile work out there with your name on it, do all you can to find it and you'll get pretty near in the end.
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