• Advice

How to break into freelance journalism

As a rising junior in college, I am constantly reminded that the clock is ticking and soon I will have to find my footing in the work world. I love writing for my college newspaper, and want to know what a career in freelance journalism looks like in today’s world of 24-hour digital media.

Last week, I was lucky enough to interview three journalists who are Freelancers Union members. They shared their views about what soon-to-be college grads should know about the current media landscape.

Cameron Conaway works at the intersection of marketing and journalism as a Content Marketing Manager on a communications and task management team. He previously worked as a human rights journalist covering issues in South and SouthEast Asia.

Bridget Roddy targets marketing and SEO content writing, working with many small businesses and local companies.

Alyssa Haak is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in journalism about boating and yachts.

Here are ten tips these three journalists offered:

1.) Write as much as possible

Roddy shared her conviction that the only way to improve as a writer is to “write constantly and about everything.”

“Get your work published anywhere, even if you’re not getting paid for it (but don’t ever take an unpaid internship, that’s an absolute scam),” she said. “Let other people read your work and take their criticism to heart.”

2.) Notice that what means to be a journalist is changing

Conaway has noticed that in today’s world of digital media what it means to be a journalist is expanding and changing, and the term ‘journalist’ itself may even be becoming antiquated.

“Most positions seem to be for ‘journalists’ who can shoot video, edit that video, put it together in a short post, and create a social media outreach strategy for that piece of content,” he said. “The term journalist is rarely used in job descriptions anymore.”

3.) Learn classical journalism techniques

Yet because the internet allows many to share their voices with larger audiences, Roddy advises learning classic journalistic techniques to make you more desirable to hire.

“Anyone can have a blog and be a writer now but technical skills like mastering AP style and making people comfortable when you interview them will make your job easier and open more doors for you,” she said.

4.) Learn new journalism techniques outside of a classroom

Conaway believes that journalism professors can only teach students so much about the field of journalism, as “too often professors of journalism are no longer living in the real-world of modern-day journalism—they’re teaching what they knew of it 5, ten or fifteen years ago.”

Agreeing, Roddy suggested that current journalism students, “ Learn outside of school, find out what SEO is, get your own website, get business cards.”

5.) Find out what content marketing is

Conaway urges students to realize that many of the skills learned as a journalist can be used in the field of content marketing. He explained that students in all majors should know what transferable skills they have, especially journalists who are coming into a field that is “as mercurial as it’s ever been.”
“It’s certainly [a field] to keep in mind, which is a big deal because I’ve only met a handful of college journalists who actually know what content marketing is,” he said.

6.) The road may be tough

a.) A newer trend in journalism that Haak has noticed as emerging recently, is that newspapers are expecting employees to work for free, in part because of the decrease in revenue these papers are experiencing.

“The formerly high-paying print publications are cutting back edit pages (in response to the decreasing ad revenue) and the digital side of the publications are notoriously low paying. It's getting more and more difficult to write enough to pay the bills.”

b.) Conaway echoed this warning, saying that young journalists must be prepared to spend several years getting their footing.

“Even major media outlets are struggling financially, so it’s important to keep in mind that the field you move into may mean you spend a significant period of time (many years, possibly) just trying to pursue your craft while in a desperate struggle to make ends meet.”

c.) Ruddy added that newspapers are shifting away from having staff writers.

She said that everyone wants “ content for their website and I think most writing is shifting towards freelance and contract work, especially with the changing format of how people get their news.”

d.) Conaway thinks that the media landscape will continue to shift as more private corporations buy media organizations.

“This trend of powerful companies buying up influential (but often struggling) media outlets will likely continue, as it creates points of customer access for the company, grants them greater degrees of control over the media than they would otherwise have, and allows the media company to do at least some of the important work the world needs it to do.”

Because of this shift into the private sector having more control of journalism, Conaway, “believe[s] the intersection between journalism and content marketing is more important than ever before. Those who pursue that fusion will be best equipped to find pathways for success in this dynamic new media landscape.”

7.) Finding a niche

Haak explained that she has had “great success by having a niche.”

Her background in yachting and boating has eased “the burden of continual pitching and hunting for new story ideas.”

Conaway stated that journalists should think about working for podcasts.

“Newspapers are rarely hiring, but podcasts are growing and their developers need trained journalists.”

Conaway explained that tech journalism is a place where journalists are in continual demand.

“And then there are tech companies who are hiring for content marketing at breakneck speeds and who see a degree and/or experience in journalism as perhaps the best way to distinguish between the hundreds of resumes they receive.”

Roddy added that political writing is a sector of journalism high in demand.

“Politics are huge right now, whether you want to write about hard facts or opinion pieces there is a niche for that. I think that’s something that is going to be a trend for a long time even past this election cycle.

8.) Go for it, in spite of these concerns, It is a noble field to be a part of

Conaway urges passionate students to pursue journalism in spite of these challenges.

“There are few professions more noble or more important, and few fields of study that can equip you to discover the truth and communicate that truth as effectively as possible,” he said. “What skills can possibly be more important for humanity?”

Maddie Cohen A news and politics junkie, Madeline Cohen writes about media, technology and current events.