Although the talking points at a recent SoCal JAWS gathering on the business of freelancing were about how to get work and get paid, the strongest takeaway from the afternoon of twenty women swapping tips and horror stories was that independent journalists need a tribe.
Nearly everyone who had worked as a full-time journalist had been laid off at some point—for several veteran L.A. Times staffers the wounds were still fresh—and many were keen to build a personal brand that might offer more job security than legacy outlets.
Others were relatively new to the game, picking up stories on the side of content writing, social media management or teaching work in hopes of landing a coveted staffer or contributing editor gig.
Science writer Linda Marsa, who has been making a living freelancing for 35 years and led the discussion, emphasized the importance of playing up your strengths, developing an area of expertise, understanding how to expand your reach through social media, and networking with other journalists… and pretty much anyone else. She also admitted that you can’t expect your pay rates to increase over time, as a salary might, and that most journalists need do to some corporate work to pay the bills.
By the end of the afternoon, everyone was swapping phone numbers and Twitter handles, with plans to meet up at BinderCon or AWP or brave the freeways to hunker down at the same coffee shop for workshop ideas, craft pitches or just write.
Here are the other takeaways from Linda and the rest of the crowd:
Building Your Brand
- You are in business for yourself, so know your product. Are you a great stylist or a great reporter? Know your skill set and pitch stories that reflect those strengths.
- It’s hard to get work as a generalist – specializing in something helps you manage your time better.
- Constantly expand your skill set – like learn how to report a story on Snapchat.
- Offer multimedia elements to accompany your story – like a 10-second video, photos from your iPhone, great pull-quotes for Twitter.
- A contributing editor gig will give you legitimacy in the freelance market.
- Have a website – this will let both editors AND sources know you are legit.
- Use Twitter (and Twitter polls) to start conversations and draw people to your work.
- Belong to as many organizations as possible and go to all the conferences. 90 percent of assignments come through contacts, while only 10 percent come through queries.
- It takes three years to build up a freelance career and you can count on losing 30% of your clients each year.
- Everyone is L.A. is networking all the time — make connections every way to can, at parties, sports events — you never know what will lead to work.
- Talk to editors at dream publications at conferences and on Twitter – that way they’ll know who you are when you pitch them.
- Strive for diversity! We end up writing about people who are like us.
- Push back as necessary with editors, but don’t burn bridges – you never know when you’ll need work from that person in the future.
- Use TweetDeck (or something similar) to organizer your contacts—editors, sources, etc.
Contracts and Getting Paid
- If there’s no formal contract, write a letter of agreement that outlines the agreed upon pay rate, deadline, kill fee, scope of the project, and any other expectations. That will hold up in court if a conflict comes up later.
- Try to get paid on assignment, not on publication—which is basically like making a loan to a multi-million dollar publication.
- Avoid “work-for-hire” contracts, which means the publication owns your work and can do whatever they want with it.
- Don’t sign indemnity clauses, which mean you will be on the hook for legal fees if the publication gets sued over the story.
- Take gigs with a lower per-word rate if they require minimal reporting; if the editor is asking for a lot of revisions or additional interviews, ask for a higher rate or longer word count.
- If you get asked to provide a quote or rate sheet up front, be sure to have language in there that says this may change as the project evolves.
- Communicate clearly with your editor as you work on your project – nobody likes surprises when the deadline rolls around.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel with every story – build on past reporting and look for new angles on a story (“salami slicing”), just as you might advance a beat as a staffer.
- Have outside work to fall back on in a dry spell, but keep corporate writing and journalism separate – if you cover the same topics you might run into a conflict of interest.
- Have separate personal Facebook and professional Facebook accounts – a lot of people use FB to find work or promote stories
- Don’t work nights or weekends. Set a schedule that leaves time to rest and get out in the world (which is where you will find stories).
JAWS: How do you become a staff writer?
Linda Marsa (LM): I weasel my way in. Start following editors. Read publication. Start pitching them. Include your website on your signature.
JAWS: Do you have a contract for every piece of writing that you do?
LM: YES! Or have everything specified in an email: I will write TK words for $TK and it’s due on DATE TK.
JAWS: What is “work for hire”?
LM: A “work for hire” contract is you are going to write whatever we want and we can do whatever we want with it.
JAWS: Indemnity clauses?
LM: I am getting out of investigative reporting because it’s so hard in this environment. Indemnity clause says, “If anything goes wrong and we get sued, it’s not our fault and you will pay all the legal costs.” You never know when a source is going to get a hair up their butt. If the publication is not willing to get rid of indemnity clause, then you should rethink the story or at least doing the story with that publication. You want a clause that says, “After you approve and accept this work, and we have agreed on the final version, I am indemnified.”
LM: Emails will serve as an implicit contract. Don’t assume they are going to pay you! Nail down: slant of story, due date, word count, fee, whether you pay on publication or acceptance, expenses. Make sure you don’t write on spec! And be okay with walking away.
The nanosecond that you realize a story is going to take longer than you thought it would, reach out to your editor! Discuss it with them. It pays to be transparent. You might feel like you are being high-maintenance but you are not! This also helps you maintain a good relationship with your editor. Think of yourself as being in a partnership with your editor.
JAWS: How many revisions on a typical story?
LM: One major revision and maybe one polish.