|Gloria Dickie, above, first focused on bears while a master’s student, then sold her first book about them near the end of her first year of freelancing. Photo: Courtesy Gloria Dickie.|
Freelance Files: Pitching High and Tight — An Independent Journalist Finds Success
Gloria Dickie spent more than five years freelancing after earning a master’s degree from the University of Colorado. A native of British Columbia, she lived a nomadic life for a few years, sold her first book and wrote for dozens of major outlets. Dickie’s experience proves how integral freelancing can be to creating one’s own destiny as an environmental journalist. Since January 2022, she has been a staff writer specializing in climate change for Reuters, a job made possible, clearly, by her dedicated, tireless freelancing. Freelance Files’ Co-Editor Christine Woodside caught up with Dickie this summer as she prepared to go on a tour to promote her book, “Eight Bears.” Plus, read a BookShelf review of "Eight Bears."
SEJournal: Tell us about your first year freelancing and where you published, how you made it work.
Gloria Dickie: My first year of full-time freelance in 2017 was definitely stressful. I’d just left the United States for my native Canada and was quite lost. I was writing a lot for online-only publications, like Hakai magazine, Mongabay and Arctic Deeply (which no longer exists). I also had started working on a book proposal, so I was balancing that with freelancing. I was more or less living out of my car, traveling around western Canada. In 2018, I traveled to China and it was a really impactful experience. I felt like I was finally where I wanted to be and knew I wanted to work more internationally. Until then I’d only ever worked in North America. Near the end of my first year of freelancing, I sold my first book — “Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future.”
SEJournal: Freelancing is a great way to take control of where to publish, hard as it can be. You got into your own driver's seat early on and published in major outlets. Tell us what your strategy was while pitching articles, your first freelance sale and how you lined up assignments in the first two years of freelancing.
I also tried to pitch people who I enjoyed
working with. If I had a bad experience,
I didn’t pitch those publications again.
Dickie: I pitched anywhere and everywhere, but would always try to aim high — pitching my dream publication first and then working down the list. I also tried to pitch people who I enjoyed working with. If I had a bad experience, I didn’t pitch those publications again. I would say after the first year or two, I started getting more assignments given to me versus cold pitching.
My first big freelance sale was a story to The Walrus magazine on the end of the grizzly bear trophy hunt in British Columbia, Canada. I spent a few months living up in northern British Columbia for that story, trying to build connections with trophy hunting outfitters and First Nations who had operated hunts. That instilled a lot of confidence.
But at the same time, I didn’t really focus on feature writing. It just doesn’t pay enough as an hourly rate. I tried to always pitch newsier stories and short features, and reserved long-form writing for passion projects. I think a lot of freelance journalists tend to overlook short-form writing — but it’s really difficult to only write features from a financial perspective unless you have another source of wealth. I think writers often aren't upfront about that.
SEJournal: What were your biggest sources of income in the years you freelanced?
Dickie: I was pretty diversified in my client base. I know some writers prefer to have one to two anchor clients, or they do other things like fact-checking or writing for businesses and nongovernmental organizations behind the scenes. But I never went that route.
At any time, I was probably writing for seven to 10 different publications. And I focused far more on hourly rate than word rate. I wrote for Mongabay a lot (shoutout to Society of Environmental Journalists member Glenn Scherer for constantly giving me work!), which definitely helped pay the bills. But beyond that, I didn’t really have a singular strategy. I cobbled like crazy.
SEJournal: Any advice on how to make the finances work when starting out self-employed?
Dickie: There are a couple of strategies I’d recommend to those looking at getting into freelancing.
Keep your day job. If you’re able, try to use
evenings and weekends to freelance
while keeping a steady paycheck.
One: Keep your day job. If you’re able, try to use evenings and weekends to freelance while keeping a steady paycheck. You can slowly build up your portfolio and client base without the pressure of having to pay rent and then, when you’re confident you can pull it off, go full-time freelance.
Two: Keep costs low. My main strategy for several years was to keep my overhead expenses minimal. I put most of my belongings in a storage locker and largely lived out of hostels and a backpack while reporting the book from 2017 to 2020. I couldn’t afford to pay rent in a main metropolitan area and cover my travel costs — I guess I took a bit of a “digital nomad” approach to journalism. This provided me a lot more freedom.
SEJournal: How did you get the idea for “Eight Bears”? Briefly describe how you developed your proposal and how you sold it to Norton.
Dickie: While earning my master’s at the University of Colorado-Boulder I focused on human-bear conflict over trash management in the western United States. Eventually, that led to more bear stories — I covered grizzly bears for High Country News and polar bears for various Arctic-focused publications.
Bears afforded a unique opportunity because 1) there are eight [species] of them, which is a very manageable number for a book, and 2) they’re geographically widespread. As a young journalist, I was hoping to gain experience as a foreign correspondent covering environmental issues, and bears provided the perfect literary vehicle.
I started thinking about a book that looked at the threats facing all eight bear species, but I wasn’t too dead set on it, to be honest. On a whim, I pitched the book idea — elevator style — at the 2017 SEJ annual conference in Pittsburgh to a panel of editors during the “book pitch slam” session. Matt Weiland of W.W. Norton was there and he was super enthusiastic about it. He caught me after the session and said he was interested in a full proposal. We had great energy and I could tell he was really engaged with the subject.
Still, I went the agent route — spent about another year workshopping a proposal — then it went to auction. Matt bid. And I felt like we shared the same vision and was impressed by his body of editorial work, so I signed with Norton. No regrets.
There you have it — an SEJ book origin story!
SEJournal: Finally, how did you make the decision to take a staff job at Reuters? Do you still publish freelance work on the side?
Dickie: The opportunity came up at Reuters and after a few years of COVID-19 lockdowns I was keen to get out in the world again. I felt I’d accomplished a lot of what I’d wanted to with freelancing and was looking for a new challenge. Working for a large news organization seemed like it would offer something different. I wanted to learn new skills and work with a team. The collaboration aspect definitely appealed to me after several years working alone — and the exceptionally isolating activity of book writing. I am no longer freelance, as it’s not contractually allowed.
Gloria Dickie reports on climate and environmental issues for Reuters. She is based in London. Her freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American magazine, Wired and The Guardian, among others. Dickie was an SEJ board member from 2016 to 2019.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, 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.