How to be a freelance journalist: real advice from another young, unknown journalist on freelancing

I am not going back to freelancing.

Last month, I came on full-time with Technically Media, a company I helped launch and produces Technically Philly.

Still, going back on my own, in some form, has returned me to thinking about and combing through some of the advice I collected in 2009, during my year freelancing.

Too many of those perspectives and resources seemed valuable to not share.

A former Inquirer managing editor gave me this neat take:

“Imagine you have an agent with four hours a day to sell your work. You give that agent a list of people to call and a couple of set scripts or talking points. You also demand that the agent keep an active spreadsheet of calls made, messages left, follow up contacts, networking calls — of editorial management and customer service tasks. A portion of those calls will be cold calls to editors. Ah. The rub: you don’t have an agent. You are the writer and the sales force. Assign yourself those tasks. Devote time to plan and to organize this effort. Do the gritty day-to-day stuff to keep those contacts fresh. Oh yes — and still write 12 hours a day.”

Tips that came across from freelance contacts and banging my head against the wall long enough:

  • Have a website, stupid. Have clips and links to others.
  • Don’t list rates on your website because that’ll depend a lot on a lot of things. (The friend who first schooled me on this noted that hourly rates lie a lot, as they don’t show the hidden costs to a freelancer. So , say, a $40 rate might leave you with $16,000 for the year.)
  • Do put an email address and a phone number.
  • Think of having two projects per week, which would be really good, offering two days a week on each project and a day of office and administrative work (like invoicing, organization and outreach). That’s 100 jobs a year and two weeks off, in a dream, but, of course, that gets way more complicated and blurred, particularly when you’re stick a couple years in.
  • Having regular work is key — I liked a worse-paying gig because it offered a regular stream of income that allowed for some stability.

Basic business tips –Freelancing was a first introduction to a lot of business basics that have helped me navigate our incorporation and development of Technically Media

  • Your Employee Identification Number (EIN) is to your Social Security Number,  as a business is to a human. If you are freelancing full time, you ought to get one, so you can get a bank account and sequester those business assets and expenses from your personal ones.
  • Get a business credit card for business expenses, I was instructed to do, though I didn’t follow through. The idea is that it’ll further help you to keep business expenses separate.
  • Make business expenses — Travel costs, software, office supplies, office space and the like because, as a freelance photographer friend told me, “it’s much better to invest in your self than to pay more taxes than you have to.”
  • Flat rates tend to be the most agreeable, so per-word and hourly rates are good for internal math, a signed, sealed and deliverable flat-rate with expectations make for the best relationships.
  • For cold email pitches, you’re lucky to get a 15 percent open rate — That’s not conversion or click, that’s an open rate, and that figure came from a friend who used a paid newsletter service to track click rates.
  • Lots of services exist to get you contacts, but the relationships matter most. Still, information like this, sure helps.
  • If you’re young, and they know it, people will try to pay you less because of it

Reading that helped:

Yes, I’ve written plenty about other freelancing advice. Three more notable ones:

5 thoughts on “How to be a freelance journalist: real advice from another young, unknown journalist on freelancing”

  1. With all due respect, I can’t imagine why anyone would even want to be a journalist these days. There’s tons of work out there for business writers, seo consultants, etc. I think real journalism is probably gone the way of the dinosaur.

  2. Journalism will survive one way or another. Grant, foundation and philanthropic-supported public affairs work, abutted by flashy packages that bring traffic or attention can do important work.

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