Receiving advice from experienced media professionals is a common practice for early-career journalists, but in recent years peer, or horizontal, mentoring has become more popular. This includes exchanging advice and sharing resources with your colleagues and other professionals working at a similar level as you. While useful for workers across all industries, freelance journalists have found it particularly helpful.
Freelancing can be lonely and approaching established journalists and editors for advice can feel intimidating. Sometimes, despite their best intentions, notable journalists may struggle to identify with newer freelancers’ challenges.
The challenges freelancers face change with time, and advice can become outdated quickly. Reaching out to freelancers working at a similar level as a result can be of most help. A fellow freelance journalist who’s new to the industry may better understand what it’s like to chase unpaid invoices than an editor-in-chief who used to freelance 20 years ago and now works a staff job.
Moreover, specific problems can require specific solutions and a friendly environment that those not in your position may not be able to provide.
“We have many people in positions of power in this industry who do not know what it means to be a disabled journalist – and the same is true for folks from other marginalized backgrounds,” said John Loeppky, a 28-year-old freelance journalist who covers disability, sports and media. “I might go to [experienced journalists] to ask about a difficult sourcing question or an ethics query, but I'm more likely to go to peers as it feels less daunting, less scary, and more welcoming.”
Peers have more likely been in your shoes before, said Allyson Hernandez, an executive coach who runs a peer mentor circle. So when you are sharing your concerns and career journey with your peers, you realize "Oh my god, you mean I'm not the ONLY one who feels this way? Or has experienced this obstacle?" she added. Knowing somebody else is in the same boat as you counteracts the sense of loneliness you might feel as a freelancer.
The best part? Peers are simply more accessible. You might have to send a formal email or a politely worded text to a more seasoned journalist, but you can just shoot over a quick DM to your journo friends.
WhatsApp chats, Facebook groups, Twitter threads, Slack channels, and even Discord servers act as popular hangout spots for freelancers. Journalists come together on these platforms to exchange advice, share editor contacts and vent about the day’s struggles. “These groups are a fantastic way for journalists living in different countries or covering different niches to look for advice in one place,” said Paige Lyman, a 26-year-old freelance journalist covering gaming and entertainment. “There is already a big backlog of questions and advice that you can easily search through if you're looking for something specific.”
For new freelance journalists who haven’t considered joining groups like these yet, Lyman suggested “starting with groups that have a focus on the topics you cover, the area you live in, or even just connecting with other journalists whose work you enjoy reading.” Loeppky also recommended building your own community with writers you already know, if joining a large group of unknown freelancers sounds too intimidating initially.
None of this means you have to stop asking established writers for help. Rather than replacing it, horizontal mentoring can co-exist with traditional vertical mentoring. “You can learn from and teach other journalists and those in more senior positions something at any given time in a mutually beneficial way, regardless of experience, topics you both cover, or age,” Lyman said.
It is a good idea to create a diverse pool of sources to turn to for advice. Some questions are better answered by experienced professionals, and other times you just need a friendly ear who can understand and offer hyper-specific advice. So keep that option open. Who knows? Horizontal mentoring could be the key to your freelance journalism success!