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.