How to start a career as a freelance journalist.
October 7, 2010 8:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm a university student about to graduate with honours in Arts (majoring in English). I've spent the last three years working casually as a mostly unpaid freelance journalist for several rather small online and print publications, and now that my studies have come to a close I'm looking to move into paid work. If there are any mefites who have experience as freelancers and have any advice (or jobs!) for me starting out in this business, I'd really appreciate any input at all.

A little bit of background: I've been writing for online music publications (not sure if I should link due to rules on self-promotion) for about three years. I've been published online and in print, and I've conducted interviews with a lot of pretty big name (indie) bands: Death Cab for Cutie, The Mars Volta, Sarah Blasko, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, AC Newman and Shearwater to name a few. Despite my background writing in music, I feel that I can write confidently in many other areas. How do I prove this to potential employers? Where do I even find potential employers? Again, any advice at all is much appreciated.
posted by rigby99 to Work & Money (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, here is how you actually get a job.

1. Identify the places you want to work.

2. Meet people who work there or people who know people who work there.

3. Tell them you want to work there.

Now there's some subsets of that obviously! And yes, blind-resume-sending and cold-calling do something.

But what really works is meeting someone and having them be all, "Oh, rigby99, you're that person who wrote that thing that I saw and/or heard about."

A lot of this depends on what city you're going to be living in. Your reporting/writing job choices will vary from place to place!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:49 PM on October 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for your reply RJ. I live in Melbourne, Australia and from what I can gather the local journalism industry is VERY insular. I'm not afraid of putting in legwork to make networks and meet people and be generally irritating to get my name out there. But what is the next step? Do I blast prospective employers with samples of my work, or just a 'witty' cover letter that says how wonderful I am?
posted by rigby99 at 9:06 PM on October 7, 2010

A good place to get some freelance work is - my fiance was an English major and recently started writing again, and he's gotten some good gigs Bid super-low in the beginning until you get established.
posted by radioamy at 9:36 PM on October 7, 2010

I'm a professional music critic. It's very hard to support yourself with this work, except by freelancing very widely or by securing a staff job at a major paper/magazine/site. (If there is an alt-weekly in Melbourne, it is unlikely that more than one writer makes their living from the music section.)

In some ways, this insularity could be an advantage. Become familiar with Australian (and particularly Melbourne) music critics. That is, with their work. Read the reviews and especially features (which pay better, and imply seniority) in local paying publications. Note the writers who seem like kindred spirits. There probably aren't very many. And note the ones who give the impression that perhaps they have enough work to support themselves. There probably are even fewer. There may only be one. Email this person. Tell them you wish to be a music journalist, and ask if you can buy her or him lunch (or coffee/drink, but lunch is better I think) to learn about their experiences in the Australian music media. Go to lunch. Ask questions about everything, but particularly what should I do to find paying work. If you're lucky, their advice will be as specific as: email this person with pitches. Or: this magazine will be looking for a writer soon.

Careers swerve and seem built on serendipity. The best advice will be very very specific, from someone wherever you are, right in the thick of it.
posted by Marquis at 10:17 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh interesting, Melbourne. I would imagine it is very insular! Marquis makes excellent points.

You definitely need to get out and about and meet people casually, but in specific meetings, my rule of thumb is this: people love to be asked for their counsel. Never go to people asking for something. By which I mean, don't show up asking to "strategize about your career" or asking for help. Go to people and ask to hear about their experience. You can email people and say things like: "Hi, I'm an admirer of your work, and I'd love to ask you about how you got started and see if you have advice for me." Asking for informational meetings works wonders. Coming begging for a job is a huuuuge turnoff.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:57 AM on October 8, 2010

If there are any mefites who have experience as freelancers

you already have three years of clips, so please please please stop doing work for free, and stop doing work for cheap—reading "mostly unpaid freelance journalist" made me die a little inside. don't take a job that will end up paying you less than minimum wage for your time. seriously: it will suck to turn stuff down, but turn it down. haggling over money sucks but you have to learn to do it. if it doesn't actually pay you, it's not a job, and if you're willing to do it for free or cheap, clients are never going to bother paying you or anyone else properly. dog walkers don't pick shit up for free, and neither should any other professional.
posted by lia at 8:25 AM on October 8, 2010

Response by poster: Lia: I know what you're saying (and why you're saying it), but there's a reason that I have worked unpaid thus far. Freelancing was pretty much a hobby for me while I studied. With no experience it was just not possible to ask for payment from publications that have no money anyway, and are only able to pay me in kind (comp tickets, pre-release albums, the chance to meet cool bands and go to record company parties). However working pro bono has led me to develop my skills and start to build a network of people. I realise that I need to start getting paid for my work, so that's why I'm looking for advice!
posted by rigby99 at 3:26 PM on October 8, 2010

I started freelance writing within the past year and it is tough, but I'm finding doable (sort of). I live in a small town in the U.S., so I have to hustle, but I have some writing jobs and income now. It would be really tight if my partner didn't have a full-time job. I write for a few websites, as well as do some social media, which is another thing a lot of people are looking for. Writing for the web might not be something you're interested in, but there are a lot of websites out there that need writers/bloggers/ people that can communicate effectively and creatively. I am sort of teaching myself along the way, but feel free to mefi mail me if you want to talk about it!
posted by Rocket26 at 9:20 AM on October 10, 2010

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