Freelance Files: Aspiring Journalist Makes Her Own Way Into Field
By Madeline Halpert
I got a late start in the journalism world. And by a late start, I mean a year after I graduated college in 2019, when I was 22.
Unlike those who discovered their passion for journalism early on in college, I missed the window for some formative summer journalism internship experiences and a chance to build my portfolio by contributing to college newspapers.
Unfortunately, by the time I decided to pursue journalism a year after graduation, even the most entry-level openings demanded previous writing experience and internships required a recent graduation date. So after a month of reflection — and some disillusionment — I decided to create my own path.
Last March, I began to freelance, at first for no audience. I sent imperfect story pitches to as many editors as possible and published the stories on blogs when no one accepted them.
Eventually, some did. Eight months later, I’ve managed to build a small, but consistent, network of editors who assign me pieces and engage with my story ideas.
For young, and even more experienced, journalists, navigating the freelance world can be a challenge. Editors often have specific expectations for pitches, but don’t always share these guidelines with writers. And even when you’ve crafted the perfect pitch, a story idea can still be met with radio silence.
Here are some helpful tricks that I, and more seasoned freelancers and editors, have learned along the way to help new journalists navigate the freelance world.
Self-publish: Getting that first piece published is always a challenge, especially if you don’t have previous work to showcase to editors. While it’s never ideal to write for free, several sites such as Thrive Global and Medium offer a great platform where you can publish your work and (for the search engine optimization-savvy) engage readers. Dedicate as much time as you would for a paid piece and link to the new clips in your pitches to editors.
- Network: Freelancing, especially during a pandemic, can be isolating. Networking can help you feel connected to other reporters and may lead to new opportunities. Gloria Dickie, an award-winning freelance journalist and recent board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists, puts it this way: “I strongly encourage new freelancers to reach out to journalists they admire and get involved with professional organizations that suit their interests.”
Over the past eight months, I’ve done just that. I’ve reached out to dozens of reporters and editors, while making sure to make clear in my requests that I wasn’t after a job; I just wanted to learn from these professionals. And I did. And even though it wasn’t my intention, it did lead to writing opportunities with publications I greatly admire.
Also, take advantage of the services that SEJ has to offer, which includes an incredible mentorship program in which veteran journalists help young reporters hone their skills, learn more about the journalism world and make useful connections in the field.
Hone the pitch: Perhaps the most difficult part of jumpstarting a freelance career is learning how to write engaging and appropriate pitches. “Few places produce useful pitching guidelines, and it's baffling to an outsider, and sometimes even to an insider, how different outlets choose what stories to publish and who gets to write them,” says Gabriel Popkin, a freelance science and environmental writer. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. Sample pitches, such as this guide from Tim Herrera, an editor of the New York Times Smarter Living section, can be extraordinarily helpful.
Freelancers “are less likely to be taken seriously if they don’t do a minimum [amount] of homework,” says Janet Raloff, editor of Science News for Students. Most editors appreciate and respect a well-written pitch where the writer has clearly invested time and effort, Popkin says. “Over time I got feedback that allowed me to produce better targeted pitches, and editors who liked my work started offering me commissions as well,” he said. Take some time to review the publication’s website, read their work and familiarize yourself with the tone of the publication before you craft your idea. Have an idea for the perfect story? Make sure somebody else hasn’t already written it; an advanced search on the site should clear this up and potentially save you, and an editor, some time.
Subscribe to newsletters: Study Hall, the online support network for media workers, provides one of the most comprehensive lists of publications looking for pitches from freelancers. It also often provides editors’ emails, so you don’t have to send your ideas to a publication’s general email account, where it may never be read. Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week and the site Freelancing with Tim also provide useful freelance journalism tips and pitching guidelines.
Start a website: As you start to build your portfolio, a website is a great place to keep track of all your work. It also provides another chance to showcase your work in a blog format. WordPress, Weebly and Wix provide relatively easy to use and free website building tools.
Maintain relationships with editors: Once you’ve had the chance to write for a publication you like, expand on that opportunity. “When your piece is finished, make sure you take time to thank an editor for giving you the opportunity to write for them, and ask them to keep you in mind for future assignments,” said Julie Halpert, a freelance journalist with over 20 years of experience and a founding member of SEJ (oh, and my mom).
It’s much easier to pitch ideas to an editor who already knows the quality of your writing. Receiving assignments from an editor can also take the additional work of crafting a pitch off your plate. You never know where these relationships with editors may take you.
For me, a conversation with a reporter I admired from an award-winning non-partisan publication led me to a permanent freelance role, and eventually an exciting, three-month, full-time position as an election administration reporter with Bridge Michigan.
While at times it’s been tricky to chart my own path, I’ve had the chance to learn so much about a range of different topics and to connect with insightful and engaging editors. Take comfort in the fact that there are many kind, skilled veteran reporters and editors who are always willing to share their wisdom with you.
Madeline Halpert is a Michigan-based freelancer currently covering election administration for the nonprofit news site Bridge Michigan in partnership with Votebeat, a pop-up nonprofit newsroom founded by Chalkbeat. A recent Fulbright scholar, her story on talking with relatives across the political divide was published in the New York Times (may require subscription) earlier this year.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 44. 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.