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Saturday, July 11, 2009
Freelance Toolbox

Launching your freelance efforts

Ruth Thaler-Carter

In these scary days of a shrinking job market for journalists, with newspapers closing at every turn and journalism jobs at risk from bloggers willing to write for free, freelancing is an ever-more-tempting option for SPJ members.

For some of us, it’s a joy and a thrill; for others, it’s simply a necessity. Here are some things to consider in making the move to freelancing.

Start by looking for freelance opportunities at your own publication, where you have a built-in “in,” and at any ancillary items it produces, some of which might pay better than the newspaper.

Attitude adjustments

• One of the biggest mistakes that new freelancers make is to be passive.

As journalists, we may be used to digging out stories on our beats, but we also are used to being given assignments. Freelancing means going after and creating your own assignments. Jargony as it may sound, you have to be proactive to freelance successfully; you have to find your own stories and your own markets.

You will have to do the work of coming up with story ideas and finding new publications to buy them. Treat your freelance efforts as a new kind of beat assignment, and go for it. Journalists also have an advantage over a lot of aspiring freelancers: We have experience, we have clips, we have contacts, and we know how to get a story. Substitute “story” for “assignment,” and you’re on your way.

• Journalists with deep experience in their beats can take some of that experience and turn it into books. Look back over your history of publication, and see what could be turned into booklets or book-length works that you could self-publish or sell to a major publisher to generate some income and maybe even a whole new career. Just be sure not to violate the copyright of your newspaper or magazine in “repurposing” your previous work.

• This may seem scary to someone who has done only writing for an entire career, but consider it anyway: Look for ways to apply your experience in new settings. You could offer a class on writing or editing through a local college, high school or writing center; colleges have both noncredit and credit programs in journalism, high schools often offer continuing-education or adult courses, and writing centers always need new blood.

If you are an effective speaker, offer yourself as a presenter at conferences; better yet, create a workshop that you can present yourself.

Do the research

Before you get started, give yourself a refresher course on copyright laws and be sure to investigate health insurance.

Get a copy of Writer’s Market (or plan to spend a couple of hours a week at the library, making notes from that copy), and start trolling for publications in the areas where you have experience.

Position yourself

• Update your résumé; create a promotional brochure and Web site; and consider starting a blog. The more visible you are, the better your chances of being found for freelance assignments.

• Join LinkedIn and Facebook, and put together detailed, business-oriented profiles. Add the LinkedIn URL to your e-mail signature line and make it a live link from your Web site.

• Be visible in online discussion lists and groups where colleagues (and prospective clients) congregate. This way, clients and colleagues feel comfortable with hiring, referring or subcontracting to you.

• Get out there in person; go to meetings of professional organizations, especially those whose memberships include prospective clients, such as your local Chamber of Commerce. Before you start looking for freelance assignments is the time to network with colleagues and prospective clients, but it’s never too late to network. Thanks to the Internet and e-mail, you can freelance from anywhere for clients around the country and around the world, but it never hurts to be visible locally as well.

• Contact all your past and current employers to say that you’re available for freelance assignments. And never discount serendipity; you might reach a former employer just when they’re hiring and not have to freelance in the first place.

• Try Web sites such as craigslist.com, elance.com, guru.com and helium.com. They don’t offer a lot of high-paying jobs, but you might find enough to keep you going for the moment. You also can hold out for decent fees.

• Take any downtime to learn new skills, hone existing skills and buy the equipment you’ll need for freelancing.

Finally, grit your teeth and do cold queries. They’re a challenge, but they often work.

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