Being a freelance journalist today is both good and bad. There has never been more opportunity for someone willing to go out on their own as a freelance journalist, but with the increased supply has come increased competition. Knowing how to navigate this world, find consistent work and be paid well requires having a plan and executing that plan. If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to offer you high paid, consistent work, it’s likely not going to happen.
- Understanding the industry & where the value is (and isn’t)
- The controversy of the unpaid internship
- 4 ways to provide more value to a publisher compared to your competition
- Adding more value & getting paid more
- Supplementing income from the corporate world
- How to land your first corporate client
Understanding the industry & where the value is (and isn’t)
With the proliferation of content over the last twenty years, individual pieces of content with few exceptions have decreased in the value they bring to both readers and advertisers. While you can argue that individuals are consuming more content than ever before, this attention is increasingly fragmented. While apps like Instagram and Tik Tok clamor for our endless attention, readers are spending less and less time reading written content. For individuals who still like to be informed or engage with written content, many find a glance at headlines in a social media news feed to be sufficient.
The business models of publications have been under pressure for decades as well. The gatekeeper role of Facebook and Google has become the more lucrative component in the value chain leaving crumbs for the end publisher (who has to pay for the actual work to get published). Hence, the never ending conflict between publishers and gatekeepers like Google.
Add it up and most journalists have found making a living difficult. Simply put the publishers are under financial pressure and are trying to produce more quantity with less funds. This often leads to experienced and higher priced journalists getting squeezed out. It’s easy to see this nearly everywhere. Well known sports journalists from the 2000’s find themselves now working for a number of outlets (if they’re lucky) to try and piece together the income they had previously. Experienced journalists are finding themselves navigating the freelance world unexpectedly. We’re indeed at a point in time where a freelance journalist guide is relevant to all journalists. Some might just not know it yet.
So, this guide starts at the beginning. Where the value is. Unfortunately, a single piece of content (even a very good one) offers very little value. Gone are the days where journalists can expect to work all week on an amazing piece of content, publish it and all parties involved view it as a worthwhile arrangement. The numbers just don’t work anymore.
So where is the value? To answer that question, you have to (gasp!) put yourself in the mind of the business owner or manager. What is the business trying to accomplish?
For most publications, they are trying to provide continuous coverage of a specific topic or niche in a way where the revenue is more than the costs to produce that content. That topic or niche might be a specific sports team, or an industry like real estate or it might be a city or town where the goal is to provide local news.
With pressure on the revenue side of the equation, businesses have responded by pressuring the cost side of the equation. Freelance journalists have an advantage in this environment in that they can provide value without the employer having to wrestle with the costs of full-time employment. Our goal here is to help freelance journalists navigate this environment so that they can charge more money, have more consistent work and make a good living doing what they love. A well executed plan can lead to both good income and security for the freelance journalist. But it’s going to take work.
The controversy of the unpaid internship
If you follow the news around online journalism, you’ve likely seen recent debates around the idea of an unpaid internship. Many in the field will be quick to comment on how an aspiring journalist should never accept an unpaid internship based on the principle that you should always be paid for your work. Others will respond and note that a certain unpaid internship led to the opportunity they have today. Of course, there are many who work unpaid internships that don’t lead to much opportunity. But the entire debate is worth mentioning here…
The controversy over an unpaid internship (and, if we’re honest, the controversy over unionization efforts of digital editorial staffs) shows a misunderstanding of how to provide value in today’s world of journalism. Eliminating unpaid internships and forcing an employer to recognize your union will not lead to better careers for journalists. By the way, unions just lead to publishers hiring more opportunity for the freelance journalist.
The freelance journalist’s goal should not be to get paid for a specific piece of content. The freelance journalist’s goal needs to be to build a steady stream of work from which they can earn more and more money. If an unpaid internship leads to achieving this goal, then, awesome!
How do you obtain a steady pipeline of lucrative work as a freelance journalist? That’s what we’ll spend the rest of this guide discussing.
4 ways to provide more value to a publisher compared to your competition
Your competition here is other journalists. Publishers need content. How can you get publishers to choose you over others? We’ll take it further. How can you get publishers to not only choose you, but to also pay more for it. Let’s look at the following key factors: reliability, quality, quantity and expanding your role. We’ll look at each one individually.
When you’re a freelance journalist, you’re a partner of the business. You need to aim for being the most reliable partner they could ever imagine. Consider ways to go above and beyond making the editor or manager’s life easier. This goes beyond just hitting deadlines and having your copy turned in when you said it would. Here are a few ways you can go above and beyond in terms of being the most reliable freelance journalist partner for a particular organization.
- Be responsive – This one is as easy as it gets. Be extremely responsive and always answer when an editor or manager calls, text or emails. If the editor can’t say about you “he or she always gets back to me right away,” then you aren’t doing this right.
- Respond with more than just answers to questions – Every response you reply with to an organization should not only address the pertinent questions or ideas, but you should put real work into additional thoughts to provide additional value. For instance, let’s say an editor emails you to see if you might be available to do a piece on Tesla’s rising stock price. A mediocre freelance journalist might reply with something like, “Yes, I can do the piece. When do you want it by?” A freelance journalist that wants to be at the top of the list for the organization might respond with something like, “Yes. I can have the piece done by the end of the week. If you need it sooner, please let me know. I’ve already made contact with a Wall Street contact of mine and obtained some interesting quotes around the idea that Tesla’s brand cult following has led it to more retail investor interest than any other company in the world, so I believe this can be a great piece.” Do you see the difference? By doing some actual work before you replied, you’ve already moved the entire process forward. You’re giving the editor confidence that you’re on top of this and are going to produce something of quality. And, you’re making his or her life easier. You’re cutting down the number of emails that need to be exchanged in order for the editor to get this piece of content done. You’re being overly reliable.
- You can take this even further. You can do work on the idea generation side. Don’t just wait for the editor to send you a potential topic. Be proactive and send topic ideas to your editor. And don’t just send a list of topics asking which ones he likes and doesn’t like. Put more into it. Something like the following might be worthwhile: “John, I noticed the recent article you published on Airstream RVs got quite a response on your site. While that article focused on the quality and construction methods of the company, I believe we could do a follow-up piece on how Airstream has had a resurgence in popularity in today’s Instagram generation. In fact, I’ve already done some research on how often Airstream is mentioned on Instagram and the numbers are pretty remarkable. Do you think this follow up would make sense? If so, I can have it ready for your review by this Friday.” Again, you just made the editor’s job quite easy. Rather than thinking to yourself, why am I doing the editor’s job?!? You should be thinking, how can I help make the editor’s job easier so that I become his or her “go to” guy or gal?
- Lastly, always produce copy that is ready to be published. This obviously means well written free of error and typos, but also make sure your work aligns perfectly with the style guide of the publication you’re using. Again, you should be the easiest content that the editor works with.
Quality is a tricky thing, because it’s not just about quality of your writing (though there is a certain degree of quality of your writing that will be required). Producing better stuff than your competition can take many different forms. Ideally, you’re checking as many of these boxes as possible. The more you can check, the more you can charge and the more you’ll be in demand. Here are the various forms of quality you can pursue along with the degree of difficulty of each:
- You have fame or notoriety with respect to the given subject matter. The difficulty level is here is high. It usually requires many years of covering a certain field. It often requires working at a publication with a large circulation. And even then fame or notoriety isn’t guaranteed. If you’re famous or very well know, then the perceived quality of your work will be higher and typically a publication will pay more for it.
- You have a very large personal following. This usually comes with fame or notoriety as mentioned previously, but not in every case. The difficulty here is also pretty high. Building a very large personal following is very difficult online. Why does this matter? Well publishers know that if someone with a large following writes something, it can often lead to that person’s following visiting and reading the article. It brings new audience to the publication. Publications will pay more in these situations.
- You have a unique personality. While not relevant to all writing, someone with personality can often produce a better piece than someone injecting zero personality into a piece. Can you make what you’re writing entertaining? This often can mean a sense of humor. The degree of difficulty here is not the same for everyone, but instead is more dependent on the person.
- You write more indepth content. Are you willing to go the extra mile to produce longer, more indepth content or are you concerned about charging for every word of your piece putting your editor or publisher in a tough situation where they have to choose between pinching pennies and getting sufficient quality? Put the work in to find unique data sets to include. Crunch the numbers and bring to the table unique insights and conclusions. The degree of difficulty here is easy. It’s just a function of how much work you’re willing to put in.
- You can get original reporting. Can you interview interesting, relevant and quality people on the subject about which you’re writing? All journalists know getting relevant insights and quotes from authoritative subjects can make a piece much more better. The degree of difficulty here is medium, as it can be dependent on you having good contacts. But, scrappy journalists can usually find decent quotes even with limited contacts.
In the digital publishing world, quantity is an important part of every publisher. Unless you as the freelance journalist are writing for a site that has a subscription paywall where the readers are paying for access to the content, then quantity is going to be an important consideration for the editors and managers of the business.
For any publications that operate with any sort of news flow, aggregated news is going to be a part of their operation most likely. The publisher’s goal with aggregated news is to get a simple piece of content that acknowledges and comments on a particular news headline in their field. Cost effectiveness is always key when it comes to aggregated news.
So, why does this apply to you? By offering a particular publisher a solution for aggregated news, you can build your relationship. Hoping for a couple columns a week at $250 a piece? Let the editor know that you can also bang out aggregated news pieces on Mondays and Wednesdays for $30 a piece when they come up. Mention that you’d be willing to even monitor the news flow during these times (working essentially a “news shift”) and you’ll handle anything that comes up. Again, your goal isn’t to work news shifts, but your goal is to become a reliable and trusted freelance journalist partner for the organization. Plus you can perhaps earn some extra cash for some easy writing during these periods of aggregated news work.
Understanding the role of quantity for an organization can help you propose solutions as a freelancer to the organization. If aggregated news isn’t relevant, perhaps it’s a multi-tiered price structure for various types of content. Knowing that the organization needs a lot of content, offer shorter, easier-to-produce pieces at a certain rate then the more indepth pieces at a higher rate. Your flexibility and understanding of the business’s goals will demonstrate your willingness to be a long-term partner with the organization.
Expand your role
While there are countless writers vying for the same work as you, you can set yourself apart by expanding your roles. There are a number of ways you can do this, but I’ll provide two examples here in this guide.
Editing and management – If you’ve got a decent role going where you’re providing regular content on a given topic or range of topics, you can attempt to expand this by editing and managing others’ content for the same organization. Let’s say that you’ve already done a great job at being proactive and making the job of your editor easier. Now you can go even further. Perhaps you know some other good writers that could help the same publication. Why not offer to bring them in, but also manage and edit them? You can plug in the content into the schedule and essentially handle all of it. You’re outsourcing an entire piece of the organization’s editorial operations. You’ll want to figure out how you’re compensated for that. It might be that you are paid directly for “editing hours” and the organization pays the writers, or you might pay the writers yourself and have the organization pay you for all of it.
SEO – Search engine optimization (SEO) is a topic referenced constantly that few people actually understand well. SEO is super simple, but hard to do well. It comes down to backlinks and indepth, quality content that targets specific keywords. You can expand your role with an organization by becoming an SEO expert.
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This can help you in a few ways. First, it can impact the topics and content pieces you pitch to write. When you pitch a topic, you can mention that you’ve already done keyword research around the topic and you believe a piece targeting keyword X would have a good chance of ranking well in Google.
Second, you can offer to actually handle SEO work for the organization. You might layer in a level of keyword research across their entire editorial schedule so that every piece created can be optimized accordingly. Moreover, if you’re working with a smaller company that perhaps doesn’t have a fully fleshed out technical staff, you can offer technical SEO insights to the company that can improve their results. Specific technical skills around SEO are beyond the scope of this guide, but there is a myriad of content available out there on this subject if it’s something you’re interested in.
Adding more value & getting paid more
By doing a combination of the above elements, you can make yourself indispensable to an organization even more so than perhaps some of their own full-time employees. This is a great place to be. This is the path to charging more for your work and making more money.
Not only will you be getting the lion share of relevant work because of how reliable you are and the quality in which you produce the work, but as your role becomes more vital to the regular operations of the organization, you can begin charging more for your work.
Do you not move too quickly into conversations about higher rates. You might wait an entire year. And you need to make sure that year has been spent being a vital part of an organization. If you’re writing 2 pieces a month for an organization, you aren’t going to be able to ask for more money unless there’s something super unique and special about those pieces. You need to have been inserted into the ongoing and regular operations of a business for some time before you can broach the subject of higher pay.
Let’s assume that this criteria of length of time has been satisfied. How do you ask for money? It’s important to reference the quality and amount of time put into your work when asking for more money. Something like this: “As my freelance business continues to grow, I’m getting more and more requests from reputable organizations. I find the work I’m doing with your organization to be both among the most valuable and fulfilling work I do. As I plan ahead and look to the future, I want to make sure I’m able to continue devoting the same level of time and care into the work I’m doing with you. As such, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss some adjustments to the pay rates we’re currently operating under. As always, my focus will be on to deliver value above and beyond what I’m being paid, and I trust that the previous year of working together has proved that. If there are new ways I can add value to the business, I welcome those conversations, too.”
While you don’t necessarily want to leverage opportunities with other outlets against a specific organization and the pay you’re getting with them, it doesn’t hurt to let people know that you are truly getting more and more opportunities because your work speaks for itself. Again, only you know when you have truly gotten to the point where you are a vital part of an organization, so be honest with yourself about the timing here.
Supplementing income from the corporate world
The corporate world is a very untapped world for a freelance journalist. Here’s something most journalists don’t realize: there is more marketing dollars in the corporate world than there is in the editorial budget for media organizations and publishers. Building a successful career and level of income as a freelance journalist is much easier if you’re able to pull some money out of corporate marketing budgets.
Just about all businesses are seeking to grow their online presence. While not every business sells something online, almost all businesses market online. A company that sells tractors might not sell tractors online in the sense that you pay for a tractor online and then they ship it to you, but they certainly market online hoping to get leads, get people to their store and get people to buy a tractor. As such, the number of businesses available to sell online marketing services to is nearly unlimited.
As you consider this, you need to be selective about which types of businesses to promote. There are a few factors that can help you narrow down potential clients.
First, businesses that sell a higher priced product or service is going to be better than ones that sell low price goods. A company that sells boats is going to be better than a company that sells t-shirts. The reality is that it’s easier to justify charging for content if just a single sale that results from that content is significant. If your content leads to a boat purchase of $40,000, it’s easy to show the value being added to the business compared to if your content led to the sale of a $18 t-shirt. So, start with businesses that sell things for a decent amount of money. It doesn’t have to be boats, but maybe something that is at least a few hundred bucks.
Second, you’re going to be writing content and that content needs to be able to have depth to it. This is much easier if there are some technical or complex elements that can be dissected and discussed in the content. If it’s hard to write 2000+ words about a topic relevant to the business multiple times per month, then you need to find a different business.
Lastly, it will be better to target B2C (business to consumer) businesses as opposed to B2B (business to business) businesses in most cases. While it’s possible that a B2B company needs online marketing, the B2C companies will often be more eager to spend money to increase online presence. Consumers are typically searching the web for various services and products moreso than businesses.
How to land your first corporate client
Step 1: Find businesses to target
The first step to land your first client is to make a list of potential businesses. These can include professional services business such as accounting firms, financial firms and law firms. Probably stay away from services such as plumbing and other labor type services. You’re unlikely to get as much success there.
Also consider businesses that sell higher priced items. Things like furniture, cars, RVs, boats, bike stores, camping equipment, etc. You’re going to want to target locally owned places where you can easily speak to decision makers. Don’t try to sell your services to Best Buy or Home Depot unless you have an inside connection there.
Step 2: Make a pitch
Your pitch needs to be much more than a pitch. You need to go ahead and do some work before you even approach them. You should analyze their website and provide a free analysis for them. How much traffic are they getting? Are they getting any organic traffic? Are they getting any non-branded keyword organic traffic? Then, compare them to some competition.
Next show them some opportunities. “Here are three keywords I believe a well crafted piece of content can rank for. I’ve already done the analysis and I believe they are attractive keywords to target and they are relevant for your business. To build a relationship, I’m willing to write the content for these keywords at a drastically reduced rate simply to prove my value. If this works for you, I’ll do the content and show you how to publish it on your site, then I’d appreciate a conversation about ongoing work at more normalized rates.”
Step 3: Go above and beyond on the test content
You need to blow them away with the content you provide them for at reduced rates. While your writing should be excellent, include some data or well researched information that you can’t find with a simple google search. If you can add original quotes with some reporting, even better. Deliver articles that are longer than you said you’d deliver without making them needlessly long. Simply put, these pieces need to be outstanding. Learn how to optimize content for search to ensure that the articles have the best chance of performing.
Hopefully, this freelance journalist guide has given you a few tips to pursue as you build your business. The reality is that if you can build your pipeline of work, it can be more lucrative to be a freelance journalist than a full-time employee somewhere. And the view that employment means more security is absolutely false. Likely you’ve already experienced a layoff or know journalists who have been laid off. It’s much easier to be fired by a single employer than to have 10 clients fire you at the same time. It’s absolutely possible to build a very successful business and career as a freelance journalist that leads you to nail your financial goals.
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