Working as a freelance journalist

Posted by Lydia Wilkins

Prior to the pandemic, freelancing was on its way to becoming one of the biggest working groups in the UK. (They don’t call it the Freelance Economy for nothing.) But as restrictions roll on, enthusiasm for journalism has never been greater – and there is no shortage of aspiring journalists to match.

For an industry that holds itself as a bastion of hope, journalism can feel incredibly exclusive and lacking in diversity. For those from backgrounds traditionally under-represented in the creative industries, becoming a ‘traditional’ staff journalist – one in a newsroom on exclusive contract – can seem a lot harder, with more barriers in the way. So, could working as a freelancer be a more accessible career for many of us?

I myself have been a freelance journalist since finishing my NCTJ qualification back in 2018, largely because newsrooms were not accommodating to my disability. Working from home has been pretty much the same since then – and every so often I get a hopeful email wanting to pick my brain about going into the trade. Advice? Me? I have learnt a few lessons along the way about freelancing – and they are as follows:

1: Qualifications can matter – but there is no set pathway.

When in education, the concept of being a journalist – especially an Autistic one! – was sometimes laughed at, with an expectation that you had to go off to university. I had a rough time in education and was diagnosed in my late teens with Asperger’s Syndrome; ostensibly ‘suffering’ from Autism (an offensive term at that) meant apparently I wouldn’t be able to be a journalist. I didn’t want to go to university either; all the campuses I visited were not accommodating and preferred to talk to my parents instead of me, the prospective student.

So: consider what being a freelance journalist means to you, because there are no set routes into this. Qualifications can give you an advantage, but so can skills – so weighing up the balance here is a good way to go. I myself applied to the Journalism Diversity Fund (JDF) to complete my NCTJ qualification – and it was the best decision I ever made. Other skills can be learnt through free or affordable short courses, online tutorials or via other freelance friends by skill-swapping.

2: Having eggs in multiple baskets will protect you in the long run – and means more money.

You’re The Business by Anna Codrea-Rado is a relatively new book, but it has quickly become the must-have handbook for freelancers. It also points to a really interesting concept around income. Millionaires have around 7 different income streams, but this is also a way to safety proof your business as a freelancer, especially when it comes to extreme events. (*Cough* pandemic *cough*) It could also potentially mean more income overall.

Freelance journalism does not always pay well, particularly when you are just starting out and building your portfolio. It’s all about how you package your writing, which is the service you’re offering.

So, sit down and think about it: what sort of journalist do you want to be? If news reporting is your beat, then great; but it can be anything from features to interviews, live blogging or live tweeting. Having a niche can also have its advantages; mine is covering social justice and disability issues. (And because I basically can’t choose, the wording is very loose!)

You can pitch to national newspapers and digital publications; more on that in a second – there is no reason why you can’t! But that is a balancing act, so think about the other income methods you can build meanwhile.

Copywriting, social media management, content marketing, research work, proofreading, editing, Patreon, Substack, blogging, podcasting – these are all valid methods of income for savvy freelance journalists that you can invest in learning about and upskilling in. Learning about passive income streams is also a great way to diversify your freelance business.

Pitching is great but it has a lot of drawbacks – not least the time commitment – plus, so many titles are tightening their purse strings right now. It’s difficult to make a living by relying on pitching alone so, protect yourself.

3: Pitching is what we all have to do – but first you need the right contact

Be it for a project, a podcast, or an article you want to write, it’s all about the pitch when you freelance – and there is always room to improve. But first, you are going to need to find the right contact to bring your vision alive.

Got an article idea? Make it specific as you possibly can, with a punchy headline to go with it. Think of it in terms of a category; is it a lifestyle piece, news, or is it about film? Find the editor who deals with this section. You can predict most work emails if you look at newspaper contact pages; most will be first name + last name @ newspaper title . email end.

If it’s for another organisation – i.e. a brand you may want to work for or collaborate with – why not call them up directly?

Most information is out there online – it’s just a matter of sifting through to find what you’re after. Keep a note of the contacts you make, follow up often, and ask them how they are – it’s a way to make partnerships that last in the long term.

Oh, and keep a notebook with you. Scribble your ideas for projects, pitches, podcasts, newsletters – you won’t remember them all, and this can be a useful bank of ideas when you need it most.

4: Get good at making contacts – but communication is more than just talking.

Newsflash; medically I am a terrible communicator. I struggle with communicating constantly. Freelance journalism is all about communication – but it is more than just one single form. There’s more to communication than talking.

If you struggle like me, think tactically; ask for help such as via email introductions, emailing people, scripting out how you want a conversation to go, particularly when you are over the phone. Keep a list of assertive phrases handy too – you never know when you might need them.

5: Ask questions and assert yourself when needed.

The relationships we make can be unbalanced at times, especially when you work with editors. Before you write, agree a price, word count and due date; once you invoice the law in the UK is that you are supposed to be paid within 30 days. Assert yourself when needed, especially when it comes to problematic behaviour.

6: Never lose that sense of wonder; make sure to take care of yourself.

Freelance journalism is so interesting; you have incredible amounts of freedom to explore a range of topics; you get to meet so many interesting people; you will gain a wealth of experience. It’s hard not to lose a sense of wonder at the world and to feel pessimistic, especially after rejections.

So, my most important tip? Take care of yourself. Be strict about your working hours and make self-care a ritual. It will ultimately show in your writing.

Lydia Wilkins is a freelance journalist covering disability and social justice issues. Her debut book, The Autism Friendly Cookbook, is due out in 2022.