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Monday, October 11, 2010
Freelance Toolbox

Building from the basics

By Michael Fitzgerald

A new SPJ member asked me about how to drum up freelance business in today’s market. Use 55-gallon drums of oil, I want to say — they’ll help keep you warm in the winter.

The freelance market is even less certain than when I started in 2002. But it also has opportunities that didn’t exist then — people not named Andrew Sullivan can make money blogging, for instance. Freelancers can boost their profile via social media tools, making it easier for editors to find them. And the market seems to be recovering from the recession, barring a double dip recession. After the carnage that afflicted the freelance market over the past year, where talented freelancers with proven track records might see revenues fall by a third to half, advertising is up and assignments seem to be flowing again. In my corner of the freelance world, I was recently approached about a blogging gig that would pay $5,000 a month, for between half and three-quarters of my time.

Drumming up new business is rarely that easy. Prepare for a tough market, manage your costs ruthlessly, and stick to a few basics:

It’s never personal: Even great freelancers get rejected. Don’t take it personally, even if the editor wants you to. I built a “good news” file of random compliments I received, to sift through when a rejection held particular sting. I also developed a network of friendly writers to commiserate with. Such things help us avoid taking it personally. That means when an editor decides to take out his bad day on you or your idea, the quicker you’ll be to get the idea to somebody who will treat it like the gem it is (or help you polish your diamond in the rough).

Make lists: Yes, it sounds pedantic, but they work, and I wish I’d made more of them. Three kinds of lists were important for me at the start: my skills and weaknesses, my friends and former colleagues who worked in the industry, and my wish list of publications I’d like to write for. My lists of strengths gave me something to build on, and weaknesses gave me something to work on.

My list of friends and colleagues helped me network, and sometimes they were in a position to assign me stories. Remember that friendship only goes so far. You must be prepared for friends to take your brilliant idea for a feature and say “I’d like 400 words on that.” Don’t take it personally. My wish list gave me goals. It took me about six months to build these into a business. Expect it to take longer now.

Grow your gigs: Even in good times, almost no one starts out by getting a few thousand words at $3 each from a national magazine. Leverage your specialties and expertise into columns or regular how-to pieces in blogs, trade publications or regional publications. These might not pay well, but they give you a start, and if all goes well, you’ll build from these into higher-profile publications. Some freelancers also pick an area they know well and work for companies and other organizations. Be careful to avoid conflicts of interest, but such work can support freelance journalism.

Be creative: Journalism, for all its doom-and-gloom, features plenty of exciting experiments. I know journalists who have filled in gaps in their income by branching into other media, either alone or with a partner. Some freelancers I know are finding they can fund their journalism through foundations. Others solicit funds through social media or their own websites.

Freelancing remains tough, sometimes brutally so. Building from the basics can make it possible to thrive, even so.

Michael Fitzgerald is vice-chairman of the SPJ Freelance Committee and a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow. E-mail him at michael@mffitzgerald.com or follow him on Twitter @riparian.

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