Taking the leap to freelance journalism

What does it take?

My first coffee of 2020

I try to meet for coffee with anyone who wants to be a freelance journalist because in this collapsing media environment, I believe it is more important than ever to provide support to diverse voices that our media so desperately needs. And because my story is non-traditional (from rural America, no journalism degree, no family money, no string of unpaid internships, never lived in NYC, San Francisco), I think it helpful for people to see that there is no one path to figuring out how to do the kind of work that makes you feel alive.

I met with a 25-year-old woman who read “Every Last Drop” and she said, “I read your article on water scarcity, and it made me want to quit my job that day and do what you are doing.” To date, it is the greatest compliment I’ve received, because my work is like dropping a message in a bottle and sending it off. I can only hope that the commitment shines through. She has a journalism degree but doesn’t work in journalism and wants to figure out how to freelance. The problem is - there is no roadmap.

Here is the advice I gave her

Create a plan and save money, ideally enough money to survive for six months if nobody pays you. I would shoot for $10,000 because even when you have work, most magazines pay 3-6 months out. Maybe you have a huge international project and you want to write a book - that is great, but start small. Work on a local project for a local publication or sell a personal essay related to your book idea. Never work for free (believe me, you will be asked to work for free and you will probably be tempted). Unfortunately, magazines will rarely fund a huge project from someone who has published very little. Seek out editors who you can build a relationship with in the long-term. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “The editor published my writing without changing anything.” That is the sign of a terrible editor. An editor is someone who will push you to improve your writing, and you are never going to turn in a perfect story. Ideally you want to work for publications where you will have an editor, a fact-checker, a copy editor and even a translator. Producing quality long-term projects takes a team.

Failure is great because it means you had the guts to go all in

Maybe you try to freelance for a year, and editors mostly ignore you and you don’t make enough money to survive. This is a likely outcome of freelancing for the first time BUT in that year, you learn a hell of a lot about how to negotiate rates, how to pitch, build relationships with editors, how to run a business (because in the end, you are your own boss) and how to manage time without any external structure. Maybe in that one year you wrote one story you are very proud of but you feel like a failure because you expected to write so much more. But that one story, that one beautiful piece of committed work exists, and people who recognize committed work will find you.

Let’s say you do fail and you have to return to some random office job

FINE, no problem. You can reassess, save money and try freelancing again if that is what moves you. Or you can apply for one of the very few full-time jobs in journalism and see if something works out for you. Or you can work on a personal project that you fund yourself over a year or two, and then you can sell that project. Time invested and commitment to a project can’t be bought or faked and a personal project can put you on the map. Show the world what kind of work is yours and yours alone, what you can create and execute in your community, with your family, where you are right now. This is the kind of work you need, and you can do it on your own terms.

Light your fires, do the work.