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Friday, April 3, 2015
Freelance Toolbox

Look outside the box for editor relationships

By Ricardo Torres

Once we start digging into freelancing, it doesn’t take long before we find out that editors receive all kinds of queries every week. Even editors of publications with modest circulations receive lots of emails. So getting noticed can be tough, especially when one is just starting out. As a freelancer, especially, I've found that I have to get creative to make connections and garner assignments.

When I decided to freelance in 2011, right away I reached out to the Wisconsin Reporter, a political watchdog site funded the by Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. At the time, I felt inspired by my idol, Hunter S. Thompson, who was famous for his pieces in Rolling Stone magazine.

Thompson started writing for Rolling Stone after he sent editor and publisher Jann Wenner a letter telling him how much he enjoyed the magazine. That spurred a relationship that would span decades. Rolling Stone was a little out of reach for me, but I realized I could look right around me, at the outlets I like follow and the happenings in my neck of the woods, and take a similar approach.

Seek inspiration from your ‘idols’

At the time, I was at a bit of a loss for how to kick-start my freelance life. I was desperately scouring the Internet for possible leads. Eventually, I dredged up an email blast from Watchdog.org. It contained a brief summary of a Wisconsin political issue that had gotten plenty of attention. Gov. Scott Walker had passed his infamous Act X eliminating collective bargaining for most public unions, and the state became divided.

There was a massive recall effort by activists, and they were actively seeking signatures for their recall. In my inbox was a story by Matt Kittle, Wisconsin Reporter bureau chief, about how a Madison conservative radio talk show host found his name on a recall petition. The story talked about how some of the names appearing on recall petitions all over the state were fake or forged.

Take initiative

I thought Kittle’s piece was compelling and unique. I hadn’t seen any other stories along those lines elsewhere. I felt moved to email Kittle, letting him know how much I had appreciated the story.

I went on to say that if the news outlet ever needed someone in Milwaukee to cover something, I was around and would be happy to lend a hand. I briefly described my journalism background, offering to send him a resume and clips if he was interested.

Kittle responded promptly, thanking me for the kind words. I was delighted when he also asked me to go ahead and send him my clips. I sent the very best stuff I had at the time. He called me later that week, and it wasn’t long before we’d scheduled an informal phone interview.

Follow through

From there, the editor sent me on a “try-out” assignment for $50. It was a modest rate, but I was glad for the opportunity to prove myself. My assignment was to cover the grand opening of Tammy Baldwin’s downtown Milwaukee senate campaign office.

Thankfully, the story came together without too much trouble, and Kittle approved of the finished piece. That opened the door to more work. He wound up sending me on other assignments covering the recall and other news events. It became an area of specialty for me, in a way.

Find a ‘beat’

I was able to build up my clips and write about various events that I’m truly interested in, such as veterans’ issues, immigration and faith. Also, those assignments gave me the confidence to cast a wider net. These days, my time is more limited, but I still think it’s important to keep in touch with the Wisconsin Reporter.

I try to stay engaged with the topics I find interesting. You never know when an “old” story could become newsworthy again, or just need an update. We’re so often restricted, word-count and time-wise, that it’s worth tackling different perspectives when we can.

I’m passionate about hard-hitting journalism, but I’ve found avenues for my interest in my community, music and personal writing. These are my “beats,” too.

When I look back at that initial connection with the Wisconsin Reporter, it makes me realize that you can’t doubt the effect simple compliments can have on people. We work in a profession where we’re routinely called liars, hacks, propagandists and many more unflattering things. Just read the comment section on any news website.

When an editor or other manager gets an email from someone basically saying, "I saw the story you wrote and I dig it," that can go a long way for establishing a positive relationship. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Note: A version of this column previously appeared on the SPJ Freelance Community’s blog, The Independent Journalist.

Ricardo Torres is a journalist from Milwaukee. He is a producer for Newsradio 620 WTMJ and a reporter for the Catholic Herald. Website: Ricardothereporter.wordpress.com

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