Every college journalist should be freelancing right now

I am on month five of full-time, professional freelancing. I think only now am I finding the hum and the rhythm of this craft, particularly in the doldrums of a sour economy and struggling print industry.

You’re a college journalist, unsure about the future. So, tell me, why aren’t you trying to make in-roads in freelancing now?

I think it’s a sin if you aren’t at least contributing to your college newspaper – it’s a great, college experience, it’s challenging and a wonderful incubator for insight and vision. But, I think you need to be doing more.

Get that internship, sure, but if you don’t have one, or perhaps even if you do, you should be developing contacts and knowledge for the freelance game – because it’s a better back up than waiting tables.

It takes a great deal of time to develop a blog’s focus or find a writing niche. Indeed, marketing phenom Seth Godin calls patience the virtue of the Internet. You don’t necessarily need to start blogging, though there’s value in young journalists blogging, but the concept of patience and time is important for young journalists.

If your take is getting a job or freelancing to fill the cracks if that doesn’t work out, understand something I’ve been told repeatedly in recent months.

  1. Don’t start out freelancing — Get a job somewhere, with an editor and colleagues who can train your writing and can give you contacts. Find a niche, develop a network of publications. Get stable, have some money saved. Then, if everything comes together, venture out in the freelance world. If you have visions of freelancing in the future, develop it slowly with a stable paycheck and health care set up. (Learn how to start freelancing without any clips)
  2. Don’t start freelancing when the print industry is in meltdown — Because everyone is scared. Reporters are laid off and they’re hunting for work. Freelance budgets are slashed at even healthy publications. They’re not wasting it on a newbie.
  3. Don’t start freelancing during a recession — Print media shrinks those budgets even more than if their industry was the only one with the squeeze. But, now trade publications and corporate-communication departments are lessening spending and using established writers more. Plus, there’s a jump in unemployment, which naturally means more folks are trying to use freelance contacts to write. That hurts your chances of getting in, and, a bad economy is an easy excuse for anyone to avoid taking a chance on anything – including on you.

So, of course, don’t start freelancing under all three of these circumstances, but, um, well, here I am. I am a freelance journalist in Philadelphia in 2009.

But, I spent my first few months just figuring out the lay of the land. I’ve been offering advice to a few younger contacts, who are still in school. I know other journalism students who are smartly making moves while still in school. It doesn’t have to take over your life. Having fun in college and playing at the college newspaper, I think, are fundamental experiences for any journalist.

Classes matter, too, I guess – though I don’t know who’s training young journalists today, considering journalism schools are woefully behind in offering meaningful classes in today’s climate.

Still, it doesn’t take much to resign yourself to sending a single pitch a week. Start collecting sources and contacts because your e-mail address book is going to matter a lot more than you realize as a freelancer.

Get rejected, rewrite and resend. Figure out what pubs – online and in print – are taking and what they pay. Start figuring out that 10 to 20 cents a word is iffy, 20 cents 35 cents is OK, 35 cents to 50 cents is good, 50 cents to 99 cents is great and one dollar or more is sweet love. It took me way longer into a career in which I am depending on freelancing to live before I learned all that. Do it while in school!

Of course, there are four broad reasons a freelancer would choose to write a story and they affect those pricing reactions, but that’s another lesson, too.

Lessons, I’m telling you, that aren’t that complicated to learn but are important. I easily could have learned them if I tried freelancing in college — because it takes time and no one is really passing out this information freely.

Then I could have graduated and slid in much more quickly into a better situation.

Five months in, and I’m barely at financial stability. I’ve covered rent, food, utilities and student loans, which is great for a start in this economy and state of the industry, but I could be a lot further along if I had started earlier.

So, college journalists, what are you waiting for? Start pitching. Get paid, if only a little bit. I don’t relish the competition — so help me out when you can! — but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you that you have to start holding yourself to professional standards as soon as you can.

That means don’t do it for free. Add that to the list of lessons any reputable journalism school would be teaching today.

Cartoon from AAF.

7 thoughts on “Every college journalist should be freelancing right now”

  1. Chris –

    You always give such great advice. I only wrote a handful of articles for my college newspaper and I sincerely regret I did not become more involved. As a full time student with a part time job, I really didn’t have the time. Now I am scrambling for clips and opportunities at newspapers who want nothing to do with me because I am a newbie, and, as you said, competing with seasoned journalists who were laid off.

    So my advice to college students is this: MAKE THE TIME to contribute to your college newspaper. INTERN at newspapers, magazines, any journalism organization that will take you. TAKE ADVANTAGE of the opportunities you have because it only becomes more difficult when you graduate, especially in this economy! BUT THAT DOESNT MEAN YOU GIVE UP HOPE! You go after your dreams of writing no matter what and do EVERYTHING it takes to get there – and you WILL!


  2. It’s rough out there, and I’m glad I’m well into my fourth year of freelancing instead of my first.

    I would stress, though, that anyone looking for freelance consider a per/hour rather than per/word rate. I’ve gotten assignments that pay $2.25/word — Great, right? But not when you consider seven people edited it, the requested rewrites, and then the delay in pay (from a major publisher, no less). Or the piece I did for $2/word that the editor sat on until it was stale (after asking for one rewrite), then offered a kill fee for (I argued against it and got a full fee).

    I’d much rather write for a low PIA client for $1/word if I have a good relationship, they respect my work, and pay on time.

  3. First, props for using a Toothbrush for Dinner comic.

    Secondly, I agree, even though I also broke all three rules. (got out of school, had an internship, moved to a new city with no job, started freelancing)

    I’m only part-time, and so far mostly doing web work, but I’m getting there.

    The hardest part for me is coming up with story ideas that would appeal to my community paper, then dealing with NYC bureaucracy.

  4. @Diana:
    Thanks for the kind words. And you nailed it, start young, enjoy it more quickly later. And you gotta write for the college newspaper — you’ll have stories and awkward memories for the rest of your life!

    Now there’s some real insight there. The great lesson is a regular, promptly-paying client is very often better than a strictly well-paying (in per word allotments) client. Something to think about.

    Great comic! Thanks for noticing the reference. Doing Web work brings up a valued point though — diversity is a freelancer’s friend, diversity in clients, diversity in skills, diversity in work. Keep it up.

    And all, please, keep reading, commenting and writing!

  5. The truth, a lot of people don’t know about all the freelancing jobs out there so I can see how it would be hard. Plus, the competition is a pain. In case you guys are wondering, you can check out Vois. there are other sites too but I believe there is a fee. If it’s more work you guys are looking for as freelance journalists, you can check out this site. Projects are being posted everyday on there. BTW. Love the Comic. What a trip!

  6. I just happened to find this great blog post through Google (love it).

    I am a student journalist and have a lot journalism experience thanks to the student newspaper at my university.

    I’ve applied to several newspapers in my state since this last December. Due to the state of the newspaper industry, most of the companies I applied for have either cut their summer internship program or offering the positions with no pay.

    You’re advice was to never offer to do work for free for news organizations but I feel like that is the only way to get my foot in the door to getting clips from the professional news world. Especially as a young student journalist.

    Is it still better for me to offer local news work-for-pay with the possibility they would be less likely to have me on board over offering them free work so I can get clips?

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