Freelance journalism is not a career that you spontaneously associate with bucketloads of money pouring into your account every month. For the past eighteen months especially, a growing number of self-employed journalists had to compete for scarce commissions and deal with uncertainty.
Plus the trend of focusing on the free part of freelancing shows no signs of abating, even more so for younger journalists. Raise a hand if you have been offered "exposure" instead of payment in the past year.
As many more joined the ranks of freelancers during the pandemic, either by choice or following a redundancy, the new book The bounty writer: how to earn six figures as an independent freelance journalist penned by veteran journalist Andrew Don could not be more timely.
Journalism.co.uk caught up with Don via email to talk about making money, writing engaging stories and the importance of sending company accountants a Christmas card. The interview is lightly edited for brevity.
As a freelance journalist, what significant changes have you seen in the media industry over the past decade?
The sheer power of social media has been breathtaking and the simplicity of accessing global stories as they happen. We have witnessed increased pressure on B2B journalists as managers have cut staff numbers. We have seen what were previously weekly and monthly magazines become online publications that update news not just daily but hourly and even more frequently.
Gone are the days when only journalists on nationals had demanding deadlines to work to. Most of us are dailies and even hourlies now.
Multi-media has been a massive change requiring journalists to have more diverse skills than ever.
Never give another person the power to demoralise you or erode your confidence in yourself as a journalist.
Accusations of "fake news" is an ugliness in common parlance, bandied about by the bigots of this world to try to discredit honourable journalists. Then there is the fake news that really is fake news, put about by the disreputable, doing all of us a disservice and eroding trust.
In your latest book "The Bounty Writer", you share some tips on earning six figures as a freelancer. What are your top three?
Never give another person the power to demoralise you or erode your confidence in yourself as a journalist. Anyone who attempts to do that is not worth a second thought and they probably have such deep-seated insecurities that the only way they feel they can validate themselves is by giving out negativity. We have all come up against people like that at one time or another.
Remember you are an independent business person. Freelance journalism is a business – your business. You have to think like a business. You have to know your numbers even if, like me, you are rubbish at maths.
You have to make your business of freelance journalism profitable. To do this you have to be disciplined about the time you spend on each job. Spending five days researching a feature that pays £250 for a thousand words works out at £50 a day. Factor in costs of doing business into your fees, such as IT expenses and other overheads otherwise you will struggle to make journalism pay.
I always tried to get the most I could.
To survive for nearly 40 years as a journalist, 30 of them freelance, and make good money, non-celebrity journalists have to have a blend of work and thrive well with long, long hours. No one is going to make a good living just writing features because, if you do them well, they take a lot of time.
You need a blend of work that does not restrict you to how much work you can take on. So, for example, in my peak years, I would produce early-morning news services for B2B websites five days a week for some and seven days a week for others with the help of other journalists I sub-contracted. I would then do other work during "normal" hours.
Work such as managing editor of Peach Report meant I could fit it in with other work I was doing in the day, whether features or news. A magazine I edited called SalonFocus could pretty much be edited at 11 pm if I so wished. It is by having this blend of work that helps maximise income.
Getting paid properly and on time requires good negotiation skills. How do you negotiate your fees and payment terms?
I always try to get the maximum I can secure for a job. A lot of freelance journalists think publications have set fees and that you have to abide by those. I always tried to get the most I could. Sure, they could go to someone cheaper but I always told editors in the most friendly way that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Most appreciated that.
I have always used humour in negotiations, too, because it is easy to get riled when someone’s offering you a lowball fee, and if I secured a higher fee than others I made sure I delivered. Never ever agree to be paid within a set time of publication. Payment should be within an agreed time from the point of invoice. I often sent company accountants Christmas cards – you would be amazed at the difference it made when phoning them and chasing payment.
What are the essential components of an engaging story?
Clarity, shortish sentences, having something worth saying and having an interesting, but not distracting, way of telling a story.
Have you got a favourite question you always ask your interviewees?
How are the kids? Or how is the dog? Or how are you getting on with your golf lessons? Seriously. You do not kick off an interview with the most important question on your list. You research a little bit beforehand about your interviewee's hobbies, about their character. Show them that they interest you. Break them in lovingly and gently. Then once you are amicably drinking tea together go in for the kill.
Of course, it depends on what kind of interview you are doing, whether face to face or on the phone and how much time you have got with them. Often in a phone interview, especially for news, you just have to go in hard because they might be about to pick the kids up from school and keen to put the phone down.
What advice would you give to a young freelancer starting out today?
Freelancing is like surfing. You get big waves, you get little waves, but the secret is to always stay upright and if you do fall in occasionally, you can doggie paddle until you catch your breath and mount the board again.
Freelancing is not a lifestyle – it is a bloody hard job that can be daunting, lonely and maddening. But it can be lucrative, too, if you are strong-willed as I am. Mentors and IT gurus are worth their weight in plutonium. Nurture them and they will never let you down.
How did you deal with setbacks during your career?
I would harness internal anger about my situation to come back stronger and harder. I worked my contacts to get new jobs, I planned for the day when I could up sticks and lead the life I am leading now.
And how did you celebrate successes?
A damn good curry at Cannons Tandoori in Cannons Park, Harrow.
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