HackPack builds virtual and offline communities for freelance journalists

by Natalia Smolentceva
Oct 30, 2018 in Freelancing

When seeking freelancers or fixers to cover breaking news around the world, most editors used to go on social media — until Justin Varilek, an American journalist and entrepreneur, came up with the idea of a simpler and safer mechanism to connect editors and freelancers.

That is how HackPack, a virtual newsroom that connects journalists, editors and experts, came into being in July 2015. This professional community now connects more than 12,000 members from 160 countries and is rapidly growing.

What is HackPack?

“Our goal is to provide access to journalists on the ground when the big conflict stories happen,” said Varilek. “So when breaking news happens in some random place in the world, there is already a community of experts whom you can work with.”

But because conflicts aren’t happening all the time, the platform offers journalists an opportunity to build up their portfolio and expertise — and earn some extra money — in the meantime, he added.

HackPack is free and easy to use for freelancers. After registering for an account, users can set up their languages, location and areas of expertise (or beats). Based on this information, you will receive custom information about grants, fellowships, full-time jobs and freelance opportunities in your feed. By adding a phone number, you will be able to receive urgent requests for breaking news or quick freelance requests on your phone. There is also a weekly newsletter that highlights opportunities for journalists and features members of the community one can contact for ongoing or upcoming stories.

Journalists can also use HackPack more actively and pitch stories directly to editors. When something big is going on in your country, write in the feed: “xxx is happening. I am available to cover it.” Editors will see this and will be able to contact you to request a story or work with you as a fixer. The best story ideas get promoted to editors around the world.

Several big media and marketing companies are already using HackPack to find talent, including NPR, BBC and Spoon Agency. In July, HackPack is launching a subscription scheme so publishers and companies will be able to manage freelancers and pay journalists directly through the platform. This helps in reducing time and costs on accounting and bank transfers.

Making money as a freelancer

“The news industry is what we love and care most about,” Varilek said. “But we understood that it doesn’t quite pay, so we figured how we can help journalists make money while they are waiting for good news stories to happen. That’s why we are also highlighting other media-related jobs: in content marketing, research, investigative reporting on companies.”

Varilek himself worked as a freelancer and with freelancers to learn all the pitfalls of this way of life. His best advice to freelancers: diversify your income. “Have one or two more or less constant employers who are able to pay fundamental bills and then build up on the number of other clients who can bring more money and interesting assignments.”

Many freelancers have a part-time job at an NGO or marketing company and cover the topics they are specialized in for a number of publications in their free time.

Another key aspect is language abilities: good knowledge of English is crucial for a local journalist to be able to work as a freelancer or fixer for a foreign media. Speed and professionalism of communication also play a big role in the relations between freelancer and editor. “Some people are just being ‘buddies’ with the client and it is not what the large media want: they want you to clarify, ask more questions and be professional,” Varilek said.

As most of the communication between editor and freelancer takes place online, tech skills are very important. “Handle all the possible technological tools: Telegram, WhatsApp, Google Docs, quick email responses,” Varilek said.

A sense of community

“Biggest problem of being a freelancer — you just get bored,” said Varilek. “You are at home working on articles, you don't have this newsroom anymore where you can talk to people and hang out. So we created a virtual newsroom: a newsroom in your back pocket.”

While there are journalists of all ages and career stages at HackPack, Varilek said it is especially useful for journalists between 24 and 32 who are looking to expand their clientele, collaborate with each other and have a community.

HackPack’s next goal is to strengthen and expand its community worldwide. They have already been organizing offline events to bring journalists together in Moscow and Berlin. On June 28, there will be a secret meetup in London about investigative journalism (click here for more info). Also this month, they plan to launch a new website feature — online communities, or Packs, based on the geographic location, where journalists can more easily collaborate and connect with each other.

Images courtesy of HackPack.