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Finding work
Inspiration for finding the story

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

For many freelancers the the toughest part of a tough job is finding the story. Where beat reporters have the advantage of tending small gardens of public interest, such as cops or schools, in which each blossom might decorate the next day’s publication, freelancers trod acres upon acres of generally disregarded underbrush.

Story ideas are everywhere if you train your brain to see them. The trick is recognizing when you encounter something interesting enough to make you go “Huh.” That is a story-idea moment! If something is interesting to you, there’s a good chance it will be interesting to someone else, too. A tandem of 12-year-olds just took the bridge tournament at the Grand Denouement Senior Living Center? Huh. Pitch it.

Location matters. If you write or produce for a local media outlet, constantly be thinking hyper-local. Get on neighborhood discussion lists; prowl the blogs; read the bulletin boards at the local library, town hall or co-op. Scan local online sites to see if you spot trends in your area. Read business publications; what they’re covering as news stories can be made into terrific enterprise pieces on entrepreneurs and employment trends. A biz story on a bump in tax revenue from area restaurants could be a feature story on a burgeoning entertainment scene.

To branch out beyond your immediate area, use your location to your advantage. What is happening in your town or region may be so peculiar or newsworthy that the entire country might be interested. In most cases, the wire services and staff reporters will cover politics, breaking news and sports. What editors need you for is to generate human-interest, trend and enterprise stories that beat reporters are too busy to write or see.

Make that exercise work the other way ‐ take a national story and give it a geographic freshness that might interest a national or local audience. Find an example of the trend somewhere off the beaten path and take readers somewhere special. To give the story a singular shape and direction, include as much local color as it can bear .

The best, easiest place to look for stories is in newspapers and magazines, where other reporters and editors have already done the hard work for you. As a freelancer, let those stories inform and inspire you. What do these stories not cover? Are there characters whose incredible experiences have been reduced to a few sentences but clearly have more to be said about them? Can you find a profile or human-interest story? Is another point of view not being covered?

Read everything. Modern Dog is just as relevant as CNN when it comes to finding ideas. Do you see a local angle to a national story? Don’t limit yourself to the editorial content; you may find your inspiration in the advertisements. Consider, for example, a feature on a robot made by Honda that the automaker used in an ad. Or a family-owned electric supply store that lost out to the gentrification of a Washington, D.C., neighborhood and posted an ad for a going-out-of-business sale in the Washington Post.

Look for the odd and surprising. In 2010, an expat Frenchman living in the Ozarks started to build a medieval castle in Lead Hill, Ark. That got a lot of attention, and even the New York Times wrote it up as a tourist attraction. Two years later, when the castle came tumbling down (financially, that is), the story belonged to a local reporter who pitched the Times a follow-up: You could buy a half-built castle in the Ozarks for $400,000! With 50 acres of land included!

Make smart friends who will help you. Let them know you’re looking for leads and ideas. By having smart friends who know you are looking for stories, you have just multiplied your reach, operation and analytical skills. Your inquisitive journalist’s mind will surely lead you into interesting discussions that can form the nucleus of a story.

A veteran reporter who trafficked in tips like no one’s business shared his secret: “Before I’m done talking to anyone, I always ask them what they know that is new.” His best sources of stories were people.

Good hunting.

Contributor: Bret Schulte


Last updated: December 2016

Copyright © 2012-2018 by Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.

Questions or comments? Please post them in the Freelance Guide Comments forum of the Freelance Community Board or email fcguide@spj.org. We’ll answer as soon as we can!


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