The key to making a living as a freelance journalist

by Jessica Weiss
Jul 1, 2013 in Freelancing

If you want to make a living as a freelance journalist, you can't simply research an article, write it and move on.

To survive, today’s freelancers need to be able to look at a story from multiple angles, know the industry and pitch accordingly.

U.S. freelance journalist Molly McCluskey, 2013 vice chair of the National Press Club's Freelance Committee, says this skill is the bread and butter of her freelance business.

For instance: researching one-way air travel turned into two articles for McCluskey, one for the Washington Post (“One Way Flights Make a Comeback”) and another for AOL Daily Finance (“Can One Way Tickets Save You Money on Airfare?”)

This business savvy doesn’t come naturally to all freelancers, but it can be honed with a little practice, McCluskey told IJNet in an interview. Here are a few tips from McCluskey and other writers:

Spend a lot of time thoroughly researching

Journalism professor Jennifer Kahn, a magazine feature writer, says she has 25 percent of her research and reporting done before pitching.

“Smart freelancers spend a lot of time thoroughly researching a topic, interviewing sources and tracking down statistics before approaching an editor,” McCluskey says.

That can be a large time investment, and it doesn't always pay off. But McCluskey says the importance of extensive research can’t be understated.

To keep research organized, McCluskey makes audio files of interviews, and then labels files in a coded system so she can use them later. Other writers use Google Docs, or extensive filing systems. Find what works for you.

Look for numerous angles in your initial research

As freelancers are preparing their initial research, crafting their first interview questions and looking at statistics, McCluskey says “it doesn't hurt to spend a little extra time going down the rabbit hole.”

“Researching a new museum exhibit, for instance, could yield a fascinating tale about its curator, a unique fundraising endeavor, and/or how the organization is using social media,” she says.

She tends to think of everything she’s working on as "topics" until they become articles. She compares this to the various ingredients in a finished dish. Each ingredient can be used in other dishes as well.

“The topic is the area you're researching, which can yield many articles.”

Turn one pitch into five or six pitches

The idea, of course, isn't to sell the same article over and over again. (Everything is eventually published online today, so be extra careful.)

“Researching for one pitch can turn into five or six pitches, all with different targets and angles, that can be pitched simultaneously to non-competing publications,” she says. “They are different articles, but mined from the same source.”

Of course, if one of your angles turns out to be especially timely, such as a breaking news story, that will take precedence.

Know the market

McCluskey says the goal is for every article to eventually find a home. Critical to this is knowing the market at all times: “who is publishing what, which publications are working with freelancers, which editor needs a last minute front-of-book piece.”

Part of this is also cultivating sources. “If you have a good relationship, you can return to them time and time again,” she says.

For instance, McCluskey has a good relationship with identity theft expert Steve Weisman, who was her source for a story about the prevalence of identify theft for AOL Daily Finance. She also interviewed him about his insight on Congress' claims that a provision in the STOCK Act would make representatives vulnerable to identity theft for an article on The Motley Fool.

Mine for valuable information to reuse

Since you’ve conducted such thorough research and interviews, you may just be able to reuse information later on.

While McCluskey was living in Galway last year, she wrote an I Heart My City piece for National Geographic. Since she had researched so thoroughly, she was able to include Galway in an article many months later for Bankrate.com, on “Six European Cities for a Steal” (coming soon).

As a freelancer, there is always a chance you can use research, an interview or a source down the line.

Jessica Weiss, a former IJNet managing editor, is a Buenos Aires-based freelance writer.

Image: Courtesy of Flickr user digitaljournal.com under a Creative Commons license.