Freelance journalism: where do I start?

Freelance journalism: the romanticized version of news writing.

freelance journalism

Today, you’ll most likely find freelancers wielding digital cameras. This beauty is a Leica M4, a trusted companion of many journalists. CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia

Freelancing can be a great way to get clips when no one will hire you. It can also be a great way to get the clips you need to land an internship, especially if the collegiate press is closed off to you because your school doesn’t have a paper, it won’t hire you, or you are a late bloomer. People freelance for newspapers for other reasons. Some like having just a little journalism in their lives, and cannot or would not take full-time newspaper jobs. Others do it for clips, hoping to parlay those into internships or jobs. And a few entrepreneurs are full time freelancers, working for a stable of publications and preferring to remain self-employed.

Convincing a newspaper to let you freelance

A freelancer called our paper and asked for a freelance assignment. We didn’t know the person, didn’t have an assignment for her to try and didn’t pursue the matter. But the freelancer did. She read our paper, figured out what we covered—and what we were missing—and went to a local city’s meeting on her own. The meeting was a hot one, and we were not there. So, she called us the next day to pitch her story. She got into the paper and onto our stringer list.

Once you have determined the sections for which you would like to write, based on your interests and the newspaper’s receptivity to freelance pieces, you need to come up with a story idea. Newspapers rarely will give story ideas to untried freelancers. Editors want to know that you’ll produce before they’ll let you tie up one of their story ideas. But if you come with the idea, they may let you show what you can do with it. Do not write the article before talking with the editor. Some people like to write their articles without outside influence. This is the wrong approach. When you have a story idea, pitch it to an editor and land the assignment.

Anything else I should know about freelance journalism? Things to watch out for?

Increasingly, newspapers are asking people to sign freelance agreements. These explain the rights of the newspaper and the freelancer in this transaction. You cannot generally negotiate changes in the agreement. It’s either sign it or forget it, so if you want to do this article or photo and future ones, you’ll have to sign off. The agreement may stipulate that the article becomes the newspaper’s property and that the newspaper can re-use it, say, on its Web site, or let it circulate on a wire service. While you might like to get paid as many times as your work gets used, keep in mind that greater circulation does have some non-monetary value to you.

People who want to make freelancing their full-time jobs find more security and steadier income by building a stable of clients with a few that pay regular and decent paychecks, and supplementing those clients with others upon whom they are less dependent.

The rest of the newsroom:

This advice comes directly from my book Breaking In. It contains everything I know about landing and acing your journalism internship. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, and spent nearly 20 years recruiting and editing at the Detroit Free Press. For more tips and strategies for landing journalism internships and jobs, check out these resources:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email