Melissa Noel is an award-winning independent journalist covering race, culture and travel in the United States and Caribbean. With over 10 years of experience writing for publications ranging from the Huffington Post to NBC News, Noel is no stranger to the realities of making a freelance career in journalism work.
Recently, Noel hosted a webinar with ICFJ, titled “How to Start and Succeed at Freelance Journalism”, in which she shared valuable advice for both experienced freelancers and those just starting their careers.
Figure out your “why”
For early-career freelancers, knowing why you want to be a journalist is key, said Noel: “For me, it was really getting to push some stories from the Caribbean region and from the Caribbean diaspora to U.S. outlets, as I wanted to see more coverage [in these areas] beyond hurricanes and natural disasters.”
With this “why” in mind, Noel made sure that for every publication she pitched, she focused on the topics she was familiar with, as well as the beat she was trying to build – in her case, the Caribbean beat. This included pitching to national and international outlets, as well as local community publications.
“No matter what it was, even if it wasn’t a big outlet, I could do the job. If it was an international story, I could localize it. If it was a local story, what was the international spin or connection to a community?” she said.
By focusing on her “why” even when reporting for smaller publications, Noel was able to show larger outlets that she was able to do the job, while also highlighting the existing experience she had in her area of focus.
Think of yourself as a business
As a freelance journalist progresses in their career, the financial aspects of making a living out of journalism often become just as important as getting a byline or writing for a preferred publication. To keep financially sustainable, Noel suggested that journalists think of themselves and their skill sets both through the lens of an individual and as a business.
One way to do so as a business is to see how you can apply your journalism skills to journalism-adjacent roles. In Noel’s case, this ranged from teaching and training, to consulting for the travel industry. “What that allowed me to do was give me a steady income that I could depend on every two weeks,” Noel said. This provides her financial stability to support her journalism.
“What I learned along the way is that you have to work smart and sit down and think about what you want to earn, how you want to do it, and how you want to meet your goals,” she continued. This has meant not only factoring in startup and equipment costs, but also how to “scale up” earnings over time to a desired income level.
For Noel, thinking and operating like a business has also involved maintaining a calendar with major anniversaries, political elections and other events that she can reliably pitch stories about. This allows her to anticipate a certain number of published articles within a given timeframe.
Meanwhile, Noel recommended that more experienced journalists consider hiring an accountant who can help track expenses and navigate potential tax deductions.
Finally, in addition to applying for fellowships and grants to support long-form journalism projects, Noel formed her own LLC. This has allowed her not only to be more organized, but also to apply for business-specific funding.
Scale back, pivot or expand?
A freelance journalist “always needs to be improving and evolving,” Noel said, such as through workshops and online courses, many of which have become free or available at reduced prices during the pandemic. Freelancers should also regularly update their social media and personal websites, making sure to emphasize their focus areas. “For me, it’s ‘race, culture, Caribbean,’ so I get a lot of responses [on social media],” Noel said. “Promoting your work – do that often.”
Knowing when to scale back is equally as important, as the COVID-19 pandemic proved to many journalists, including Noel. “If the last year taught me nothing else, it was that I really had to learn when to pivot and use the other skills I had,” she said. With contracts canceled “left and right” due to COVID, Noel instead leaned into other journalism-adjacent work, like journalism training, teaching, and hosting virtual events.
When pivoting to other work, journalists are still able to hone their skills and learn new techniques to prepare themselves for when they’re ready to produce more journalism again. This might mean finding an agent to pitch for them, finding legal representation, or even hiring someone to support their work.
Be disciplined in work and self-care
At the same time, it’s important to be aware of burnout, which can be a real barrier in a freelancer’s career. It can be easy to lose your passion for the work – as happened to many during the COVID-19 pandemic. Noel suggested some simple solutions, such as separating your work and sleeping spaces if possible, or setting timers to remind yourself when to move away from the computer during work.
Even with these techniques, however, burnout can affect even the most disciplined journalists. In order to reclaim her passion for journalism during COVID-19, Noel said that she had to re-discover her “why.” She did this by teaching journalism to high-school aged students. “I remembered why I do this in the first place, why I am doing this kind of reporting on the Caribbean, [and] why I pick[ed] this kind of journey,” she said.
As a final piece of advice, Noel reminded freelancers to keep the last year in perspective. “What happened to the industry during the pandemic was unprecedented. Give yourself some grace and time – It’s important to just be kind to yourself and take a little step back,” she said. “Remind yourself of that “why” through doing things that will feel good. For me, it’s working with my high school students, and for you it might be something entirely different. And then get back into it.”
Devin Windelspecht is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. His writing has ranged from covering conflict resolution in Northern Ireland to football hooliganism in Serbia, with a focus on international affairs, social movements and climate change.