Eight Business Tips For The Independent Journalist

Freelancing is a business, and you’ve got the goods — but are you setting yourself up for success?

By Bill Snyder, Journalist Member, Guild Freelancers

You’ve got awesome writing and editing skills, and when it comes to shooting a video with your iPhone, you can knock it out of the park.

But that’s not enough. Freelancing is a business, and if you don’t succeed at the business aspects, your talent may not take you very far.

If you’ve been working in a newsroom or finishing up in college, striking out on your own can be scary. And the idea that you’re running a business might seem strange. But here’s the good news: You can do it.

I know that because I became a full-time freelancer seven years ago after decades of working in newspapers and magazines. Has it always been easy? Not at all. But I make a good living doing what I love — producing high-quality journalism on topics I care about.

Here are eight of the most important lessons I’ve learned, plus a few helpful resources:

You’ve got clients

You’re not an employee; you are selling a service or a product than no one is compelled to buy. Think of the people you’d like to sell your services to as clients. It’s your job to make them happy, and producing your best work is just the beginning.

Be easy to work with — and that means thinking of the client’s convenience before your own. If the client wants you to work in Word, and you prefer Google Docs, do it their way. Prepare your invoices in a way that’s compatible with the client’s systems and bill on a schedule that works for both of you. Remember: You’re not in a newsroom or a classroom anymore, so never, ever lose your temper with a client. Your goal is to develop an ongoing relationship that will lead to steady assignments.

You have rights

Treating a client well doesn’t mean you’ve become a serf. Be very clear on the scope of an assignment before you start it, and be sure to get something in writing — email is just fine. Be clear on potential rework. Generally speaking, it’s reasonable for an editor to ask a writer to do one full rewrite and answer queries in a timely manner. If you run into a serious problem, Guild Freelancers can help.

Network Network Network

I have connected with nearly all of my clients via someone else with whom I worked. One of the best reasons to be in Guild Freelancers is to help build and maintain your professional network. Go to conferences and meetups. Follow and interact with interesting people on Twitter and Facebook. Stay in touch with former colleagues. I now have an ongoing gig with a university that started when I interviewed there for a full-time job and didn’t get it.

Expand your horizons

Look for new things to cover and new ways to cover them. Digital skills and ease with social media are becoming check box items. The ability to shoot decent photos and videos is a big plus. Need training? Lynda.com is a terrific resource and it’s free to members of Guild Freelancers. Groups including Guild Freelancers, the Northern California Journalists meetup, and the SPJ Society of Professional Journalists offer periodic training workshops. The cost of upgrading your skills is tax deductible.

Don’t confuse busy work with billable work

You can’t charge clients for sorting your email or installing a new hard drive or cleaning your office. Yes, you have to do those things, but don’t mistake them for work that makes money, which is what counts.

Set the right price

In general, the going rate for most decent publications is $.50 to $1 per word. National publications pay more; newspapers generally pay less.  But don’t get hung up on pay per word; what’s important is how much you make an hour. Some projects take very little reporting or research. If you can do a 500-word story in two hours from start to finish, you could charge 25 cents a word and still make $125, which amounts to a quite reasonable $62.50 an hour.

Taxes and Expenses

Keep track of every dime you spend on your business. Newspapers, magazines, books, mileage, parking, computer hardware and software, Internet connectivity, cell phone charges, etc., are all deductible.  If you have a home office, figure out its square footage as a percent of your home or apartment and deduct that percent from rent or mortgage along with utilities. Premiums for health insurance are deductible as well.

Use available resources

Lynda.com offers a wide variety of courses to sharpen existing skills or learn new ones. It’s free to members of the News Guild. LinkedIn is an important way to network with other journalists, and it also has job listings. A site called Bidsketch also has a list of online tools you may find helpful.

And of course, you need to be active on Twitter and as many other social media platforms as you find interesting and relevant to your work. Instagram is critical for photographers. Vine, Periscope, Facebook Live and YouTube are essential for video. Even SnapChat is emerging as an engagement tool used by big players such as the New York Times, Time Magazine and Al Jazeera English. 

If you don’t want to use Microsoft Office, many people have switched to Google Docs, or you can download an open source Office equivalent called Apache Open Office.