How To Freelance and Not Go Broke

January 29, 2020

Freelance Files: How To Freelance and Not Go Broke

By Julie Halpert

Freelance journalist Julia Halpert. Click to enlarge.

One of the greatest challenges if you decide to become a full-time freelancer is the obvious one: financial stability. This is something I'm constantly wrestling with and I was eager to hear how others manage to build thriving careers exclusively focusing on the science and environmental journalism beat.   

So I invited a bevy of successful freelancers to discuss their advice at the 2018 Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Flint, Mich., including:

  • Nancy Averett, a freelancer who has written for numerous consumer magazines and websites including Audubon, Pacific Standard, Discover, Environmental Health Perspectives and Bioscience, and who also teaches journalism;
  • Mary Hoff, editor in chief of the nonprofit environmental magazine, Ensia; and
  • Rachel Nuwer, an award-winning freelance journalist (and a 2018 winner of an SEJ Environmental Reporting Award) who regularly contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic and BBC Future, and whose first book, "Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking," was published last September.

Here are 10 takeaways from our conversation:

  1. Get a side gig. This is particularly important when you're just starting out, since you'll need a consistent and reliable revenue stream as you build clips. Even as an established freelancer, Averett supplements her freelancing with content marketing work. She ensures the work is outside of the realm of environment and science so there's no conflict of interest; medical writing is one area of focus. It satisfies her because it's still science-based, but there are "a lot of hospitals and medical schools that are looking for copy." Interviewing researchers and telling their story isn't too far afield from the journalism she's accustomed to practicing, she said. She added that there are plenty of writing opportunities at large research universities and you don't need to be an alumni of the schools to write for their publications. 
  2. Consider teaching. Working as an adjunct journalism instructor at the university level is another way Averett supplements freelancing income. The challenge with the side gigs is that it becomes "a huge juggling act. Your mind is always in ten different places at once," she said. The key is to pick side projects that aren't so draining that you don't have any time for journalism.    
  3. Turn one story into several. Nuwer has been able to earn a six-figure income solely through freelancing almost every year since 2011 when she graduated from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She's been successful in part because she finds ways to write about one issue for several different media outlets. When she received a grant to head to South Africa, she generated multiple clips from the trip, including a feature for Newsweek about rhino hoard and trade, coverage of a conference for The New York Times and a travel story for Delta Sky Magazine
  4. Apply for grants. Nuwer said they can be an important source of revenue, provided the grant application process isn't too time-consuming. She highly recommends the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which awarded her a grant, calling it the "least painful" grant application process. Check out SEJ's grants for environmental journalism as well. 
  5. Craft the perfect pitch. In particular, ensure it's tailored to the publication you're targeting. Hoff said it's crucial to read and follow the publication's pitch guidelines, since every outlet is different. Hoff prefers her pitches "short and sweet," just a couple of paragraphs. The first couple of sentences should be engaging so they capture her attention. Indicate why the story should be told and, if an aspect of it has been covered, mention what new dimension you'll be exploring and discuss why it's important. Pitches that don't impress are long and rambling and don't quickly get to the point of the story. A major taboo is pitching stories that the publication has already run. Do a thorough search of your story topic to ensure the publication hasn't tackled it before.  
  6. Target quality publications that pay respectable rates. High-quality outlets that accept submissions include The Revelator, Undark, Mongabay and Yale's E360. 
  7. Cultivate relationships. Use LinkedIn to reach out to editors — especially those newly hired who want to build their own roster of freelancers. Attend conferences and meet with editors in person to understand what they're looking for in pitches. Nuwer says that personal contact "is really important" and will make editors more likely to open your email and hopefully respond. However, Averett, who lives in Cincinnati, has managed to develop long-distance relationships with editors she's never met that have lasted for years, so this isn't essential. 
  8. Think about the big picture. Find local stories that have a national impact and would be of interest to a broader audience.  
  9. Negotiate your rate. Averett and Nuwer agree that you should always ask for more than editors offer you. It's also important to have an organized list that tracks ongoing assignments and monies owed to you for completed articles to ensure you're paid for all your work.  
  10. Read the fine print. Be wary of indemnification clauses in contracts, which hold you liable, should your content be challenged. Nuwer suggests getting publishers to either strike the indemnification clause or make it more favorable so you're protected in the event of a lawsuit. It's also worth considering purchasing liability insurance if you can afford it.

While generating sufficient income as a freelancer isn't always easy, it can be a gratifying journey. "I love the juggling act," Nuwer said. "I would encourage anyone who likes to hustle to try it out."

Julie Halpert is a founding member of SEJ and has covered science and the environment for over two decades. She is a freelance journalist with experience writing for numerous national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Ensia and Popular Mechanics. Much of her coverage has focused on the environmental impacts of the auto industry and green technologies. She also has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She was a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award, Audio News/Documentary Category, for her contribution to The Michigan Radio documentary, Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future. The documentary also won an SEJ award. For over 20 years, she has co-taught an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan’s Program in the Environment with fellow SEJ member Emilia Askari.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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