|Freelance journalists make up the single largest block of membership in the Society of Environmental Journalists, as this 2019 chart profiling members shows. Current membership includes 441 freelance members, up from 297 in 2006. Source: SEJ
Freelance Files: SEJ Initiatives Help Freelancers Survive, Thrive
By Karen Schaefer
After the recession of 2008, says the Society of Environmental Journalists' Executive Director Meaghan Parker, the number of SEJ members reporting that they worked for newspapers declined precipitously, and the number of members identifying themselves as freelancers rose.
Today, freelance journalists make up the largest single block of membership within SEJ. As of this writing, SEJ has 441 active and associate freelance members. That’s a big jump, compared to just 297 total freelancers in 2006.
“In recognition of that trend,” says Parker, “SEJ's board and staff have, in the last decade, attempted to find ways to help support the organization's changing membership.”
Freelance Files explores some of those initiatives below.
Fund for Environmental Journalism
SEJ has long recognized that journalists navigating the rocky landscape of freelancing need seed funding, training and other support. So in 2009, the Fund for Environmental Journalism, or FEJ, was born. Competitive grants of up to $5,000 are offered once or twice yearly for stipends and expenses such as travel, multimedia production and translation.
The FEJ worked brilliantly, for instance, for SEJ mentorship program co-leader Jane Braxton Little. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, she and her writing partner Winnie Bird decided they wanted to tell the story of how scientists were managing irradiated forests in Japan and also in Ukraine, site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
There was just one problem. Braxton Little needed to travel from California to Chernobyl, and Bird needed to travel inside Japan to Fukushima.
“It made all the difference between a long-distance, slightly canned story and first-person reporting,” says Braxton Little. “The grant allowed us to include descriptions of how these post-nuclear accidents looked, smelled and felt. Being in Chernobyl and Fukushima contributed enormously to the quality of the story, which won SEJ's 2014 Outstanding Feature Story award.” [For more about the mentorship between Braxton Little and Bird, read their account of their collaboration in the Fall 2014 edition of the SEJournal].
Since its founding, FEJ has provided more than $2 million in direct support for reporting on environmental issues. The last competition closed May 15, 2019. But you can sign up for FEJ info to receive announcements of upcoming competitions.
Conference training workshops, discounts
At my own first post-layoff SEJ annual conference at Missoula, Montana in 2010, I co-hosted a freelance beat dinner with Meera Subramanian, now an SEJ board member, where we talked with more than twenty journalists about topics ranging from multimedia to working in partnerships with other freelancers.
Since then, annual SEJ conferences have played host to a wide variety of more formal, but very affordable, pre-conference workshops ranging from audio and video training to deep background on trending environmental issues such as climate change (here are examples from the 2018 conference in Flint, Mich.).
Some of those workshops have also offered attendees big discounts to tools freelancers can use, such as audio editing programs. Those proved so popular that SEJ board and staff continue to expand the list of discounts for journalism goods and services, many added specifically with freelancers in mind.
Freelancers can now also download an SEJ membership card to demonstrate their affiliation with a journalism group.
And of course, SEJ conference agendas always include "craft" sessions, where participants can learn more about topics ranging from how to pitch a freelance story to how to freelance and not go broke. For freelancers who can't afford to attend annual conferences, most sessions are audio-recorded and archived on the SEJ website (check out the 2018 annual conference coverage page, for instance).
One of the best deals SEJ can offer its freelance members is a free, one-year mentorship, where an experienced journalist is partnered with a freelancer or younger journalist interested in acquiring new skills or honing a craft. Journalists are guaranteed at least four one-on-one sessions with their mentor over the course of a year.
The program was started about a decade ago largely in response to the needs of freelancers. Since its inception, Braxton Little says about 350 mentees have taken advantage of the program, about 75 percent of them freelancers.
Six of the 15 SEJ board members
self-identify as freelance or
While I've never been on the receiving end, I've been honored to mentor several SEJ freelancers, among them West Texas journalist Lana Straub. We spent hours on email, phone and Skype, deep in the weeds, honing Lana's mastery of the radio broadcast medium.
I got nearly as much out of our partnership as Straub said she did, in a piece we co-wrote for SEJournal in 2014.
Board representation, future support
SEJ Board President Bobby Magill says he has freelanced briefly between jobs, and found he was terrible at pitching stories. So he sympathizes with freelancers who are constantly looking for publications to place new stories.
And Magill assured Freelance Files that freelance members are well-represented on the board. Currently, six of the 15 SEJ board members self-identify as freelance or independent journalists.
But he adds that doesn't mean freelancers should expect a plethora of new freelancer-friendly programs.
“I know that freelancers have asked for things like health insurance,” says Magill. “We just don't have any capacity for that right now.”
SEJ’s Meaghan Parker agrees: “As a 501(c)3 educational organization, we can't offer some of the programs or benefits that a professional membership association might be able to. And we're also constrained by budget and staff capacity.”
That said, adds Parker, “The board and the staff are continually looking for 'low-hanging fruit' that would benefit freelancers without cutting into programs that serve all members.”
One such low-hanging fruit has been the implementation of multiple, sliding-scale hotel venues for SEJ members wishing to attend the annual conference.
Interestingly, SEJ freelance membership growth seems to have peaked, and there's been a recent small bump in the number of newspaper staffers. But Parker says that won't deter SEJ's board and staff from continuing to consider new suggestions for support for freelancers.
Also, be sure to check out the SEJ.org Freelance Resource page. Plus, SEJ also offers a member freelancers listserv: SEJ-Freelance. Go here for information on joining the listserv and accessing archives.
Karen Schaefer is a freelance journalist and independent radio producer based in Oberlin, Ohio who focuses her environmental reporting on Lake Erie issues. She is editor of SEJournal's Freelance Files column. Contact her with story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact SEJ Executive Director Meaghan Parker with ideas for programs for freelancers at email@example.com.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 28. 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.