Good enough to publish is good enough to pay for

I work as a freelance journalist, and have done, on and off, since 1996. This is actually pretty unusual – in journalism in Ireland, freelancing is typically seen as something you do as a means to landing a staff job with a newspaper.

For me however, that has never really been a goal – I freelance because it’s a great way to have a lot of say over how you use your time, who you work for and basically to get maximum control over your work life balance. However, because the newspaper market is small (and contracting, but that’s another blog entry) most full time long term freelances know each other – particularly when they specialise in a niche. Recently, a journalism student inquired in an online media forum about how to break into journalism in Ireland.

As a rule, I don’t really participate in online forums. I just don’t have the time these days, and ultimately find them to be unsatisfying — rarely is anything achieved or resolved, so it’s usually a better use of my time to steer clear of them. Anyway, I got drawn into this conversation because the question is one which everyone starting out has asked at some point. In addition, someone claiming to be a working journalist advised the original poster that they should expect to work for free for some time until they get established. I appreciate that things are tough out there, and it’s hard for new people to get a foot in the door, but I do believe that if a story is good enough to print, then it’s good enough to be paid for.

The idea that people should have to work for free is slightly sinister to me.

That said, I will say that quality is a factor here – if you don’t have experience, then the odds are that your copy is going to need work before it can be printed. Good editors will do this for new people maybe once or twice if, and only if, the story is worth it – but you don’t want to wear out precious goodwill that way if you’re trying to get established.

Freelancing is a business like lots of others – the trick is to come up with good ideas and then identify the media outlet that the idea would best suit. Then pitch it properly, having made sure that the outlet in question hasn’t recently published the same idea – in other words know the market you’re selling to. Time your pitch so that it doesn’t arrive just as the commissioning editor is having a melt down on deadline day – and if it’s a good idea they may bite.

They might ask to see examples of your work, and if you have good tight copy, send it in, but that’s never really happened with me. Normally, they just commission the piece – the trick then is write your story and make sure it’s extremely clean. Know the house style of the outlet your writing it for, and make sure your copy needs minimal work. Also make sure it fits the brief of the commission.

If you’ve done all that, then you deserve to be paid. If you’re easy to work with, deliver on time and have good ideas, you’ll get lots of work. If your copy is sloppy, not to brief, badly researched, late and you’re difficult to deal with, you won’t.

I’m happy to concede that things may be harder now than they were when I got my start, but people used to say the same things to me back then too.

I do remember wondering how the hell anyone made a living out of this game when I was struggling to get one or two features published a month – I literally wasn’t making enough money to pay my rent, let alone eat anything. The reason was I was pitching for work to the same national papers everyone else was – there was a lot of competition for column inches.

So one piece of advice I’d give to people starting out is to identify a niche and attack your goal in a roundabout way through that niche. Not everyone can have big features published every day in a national paper, but you also don’t need that. There are many trade journals and specialty magazines that aren’t having their doors beaten down by newcomers and while the pay won’t be great, you probably will get work if you make it your business to find out what they publish and how to pitch to them.

It may sound like awful work – who wants to write for a veterinarian magazine or for an industry trade mag? – but what you need to build up is a steady core income. Once you have that, you can afford to pitch for more prestigious outlets because you won’t be depending on them. If you get one or two a month, then that’s fine. Your goal is to build your reputation with the commissioning editors you know. Over time, you can develop your reputation and slowly phase out work you’re not that interested in for work you are.

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