Many journalists decide to go freelance for the freedom the position can offer – you can choose your own stories and working hours, and the ability to work from anywhere you want is certainly an attraction.
But having to constantly pitch story ideas to editors and to seek funding for projects can be challenging. Being a freelancer also means that often you are working alone, without the support network that news organisations can offer to full-time staff.
Check out this advice from freelance reporters Iona Craig, Catarina Fernandes Martins and Sally Hayden, who shared their tips for aspiring and seasoned freelance journalists at the Well Told conference in London last weekend (28 May).
Find your niche
"Yemen for me was about being in the right place at the right time – I started living there in autumn of 2010, unaware that there was going to be a revolution within six months," said Craig.
"There were a handful of [freelance journalists] that moved on after the Arab Spring, but I stayed and when the war started and no one could get into the country, suddenly the demand was there and I was able to get in because of my connections.
"Find your patch, and something that you feel really passionate about – it's been helpful for me."
Get a mentor
Martins, who covers Southern Europe and focuses on major shifts in politics, explained it is useful, especially for freelancers starting out, to get a mentor to support them along their career – ideally it would be someone you know, such as a friend of a friend or a teacher.
Find your patch, and something that you feel really passionate aboutIona Craig, freelance journalist
"They reassure you, they challenge you, they help you find leads, they introduce you to sources and editors, and help expand your network," she said.
"I reverse-engineer their pieces and ask them questions about how they came up with ideas and how they found interviewees."
Collaborate with the community
"All the people that have offered me support, I have met through working – meeting people for coffee isn't always the best way to progress," said Hayden, who left a full-time position at Vice News two years ago.
"Focus on your work first, and networking second – look for the journalists you like, analyse their career, and look at their LinkedIn.
"It's much more valuable than trying to impress them when you haven't done much yet."
Hayden noted that exchanging skills is a useful thing to do for journalists who are looking to develop their aptitudes without having to always pay for training courses.
"Sometimes I collaborate on pieces of work, and share bylines with an editor," explained Martins, "and staffers also help me with contacts and other resources – find a community of people that you trust."
There are plenty of online communities and support networks out there for journalists, however, Craig warned not to be naive, noting that the journalism world is generally "quite sharp-elbowed".
She added that freelance journalists might "need a stab-vest to cover your back a lot of the time", especially when reporting on an area that is widely covered by many other reporters.
Pitch wisely and thoughtfully
Keep your pitches short, be persistent, and understand you won't always get a reply, the panelists advised.
"Don't focus on the national newspapers or larger publishers – there are so many outlets and you have to find the right one for your story," explained Craig.
"You need to keep in mind the freelancer etiquette – if you are deliberately stepping on someone's patch, then you should be asking them. It's practical too, because they might have better contacts for the story and could potentially help you out."
Make a business plan
Martin creates a business plan every six months, setting four goals for each year, looking at the type of coverage she wants to produce and outlining where she wants to be.
She explained that this is a big task, but that it helps her to make a game plan for how much money she'll need to fund a specific trip, and how many editors she wants to approach for her stories.
"It helps me stay disciplined – if I don't have it then I am lost. You have to define what success means to you," she said, recommending that freelancers read My So-Called Freelance Life to get themselves in the right frame of mind for the job, especially if they come from a staff job.
Hayden agreed, explaining that a strategy helps in both the short and long term to focus on what you want to achieve, keeping stress as low as possible.
"Every time I see something I might want to apply for, or everytime I come up with an idea, I update an email draft so that I have a bank of leads and information to refer to when looking for something to do," she said.
"Sometimes on Twitter, editors say 'pitch me on this address' and I write that down, then when I need to pitch I think about the stories that might be good for them – if you have a list, you have a back up for the scary moments."
Manage your money and time wisely
When Hayden started her freelance career, it took her a while to get used to managing her time and balancing her work.
You need to think about what more your story can add, or whether you can offer another perspective before you decide to do itSally Hayden, freelance journalist
"I freaked out thinking I wasn't going to pay my London rent – I just got in touch with everyone I knew and started doing shifts in various newsrooms, at one point doing three jobs at once and working every weekend for eight weeks in a row," she explained.
"It become ridiculous so now I diversify the type of work I do in order to stay flexible."
Money can also be an issue, Martins explained. "Some months I make a little, some months I make more. You have to be organised because there is no regular pay.
"It looks glamourous that we are travelling to all these places, but the rest of the time is spent fixing jobs, doing transcriptions or translations – and that is not glamourous at all."
And freelancers shouldn't expect their travel expenses to be paid – although the money spent on sending a freelancer out to report on a story abroad is significantly less than sending a large television crew, it's highly unlikely that publishers will fund these expenses.
"We don't really make a living out of what we do," explained Craig.
"Everytime I go back to Yemen it's all about finding the funding first – enough to get me there and cover my expenses. But I sleep on people's floors, I stay with families and not in hotels, and I try and get as many stories out of one trip as I can.
"The most I've done in a three week trip was two TV packages, two radio packages and nine written pieces – it gets intense, but you have to do it."
"Anybody going into a conflict area needs to have basic first aid and safety training – it is absolutely essential," Craig added.
"Make sure that you've spent some time in the region, wherever that may be, before throwing yourself in at the deep end. It's not the kind of thing you want to be learning on the job."
Hayden also pointed out that you have to look at assignments on a case-by-case basis, and undertake risk assemessments in advance.
"What are you doing, where are you going, why are you doing it, and is this story worth it?"
"In my hostile environment training, they showed us 10 different examples of people doing demining to show that the story wasn't original – especially in potentially dangerous situations, you need to think about what more your story can add, or whether you can offer another perspective before you decide to do it."
Thinking of getting started as a freelance journalist abroad? Check out this guide covering the basics of how to get settled, build contacts and deal with tax.
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