We’ve received a bit of feedback — OK, we’ve received a LOT of feedback — about the start of SPJ’s National Freelance Committee, and we’re delighted that so many SPJ members were compelled to respond.
The bottom line is we’ve touched a nerve and tapped a previously silent (or at least quiet) segment of SPJ’s membership. The overwhelming sentiment expressed by freelancers around the country is, “It’s about time!”
Organizations don’t always turn on a dime, even those that many of us faithfully support. But I credit SPJ National President Mac McKerral with having the wisdom to recognize the potential of this underserved membership and the foresight to embrace the “vigah” that freelancers bring to the table.
I invite anyone interested in freelancing to attend the National Convention in New York City in September to get involved with the committee and to enjoy a panel discussion on “Making the pitch: the jump from local and regional to national markets.” After all, we’re going to be in New York, publishing capital of the world.
Among the many suggestions, we’ve heard an overwhelming call for professional development programs, covering everything from finding your niche to being a better businessperson. An SPJ press pass would allow freelancers the credentials to cover big — and often breaking — news events. And a stronger support network could help those who are often working in isolation — whether it’s with editing copy, legal issues, ethics, contracts, etc.
One of the clear realities for many freelancers is the lack of understanding among newsroom editors of just what a freelancer does. I’ve heard stories of talented reporters and writers who fail to land jobs in newsrooms because they lack “newsroom” experience. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I’ll guess it has something to do with working for a boss, following the rules, etc. There’s a belief among some newsroom editors that freelancers are too autonomous. Maybe they have a point, but that doesn’t mean they should be blackballed from newsroom jobs.
SPJ should start this dialogue for several reasons. For starters, freelance writers are some of the country’s best writers. They push themselves, on their own, to research, report, write and edit for newspapers, magazines, Web, radio and television. They often work twice as hard for half the pay. They help management keep its costs down, while delivering high-quality content.
Freelancers are businesspeople and, as such, have other issues to deal with, including collecting fees, launching or maintaining Web sites, keeping multiple projects under control and establishing some method for networking. The freelancers we’ve heard from are hungry for connections, and SPJ can be that place where meaningful connections and relationships are built.
I thought I’d share some of what co-chair Dawn Reiss and I have heard via e-mail these past few weeks.
Cheryl Romo is a Los Angeles-based freelancer with 27 years’ worth of experience as a magazine editor and newspaper reporter (most of it investigative). She left the L.A. Daily Journal in August after nine years of award-winning work in the field of child welfare and juvenile justice and is a former SPJ chapter president. (Yes, they are leaders, too.) She wrote: “The first thing that comes to mind would be to have professional development seminars that feature successful freelance writers. I think we’d all like to get nuts-and-bolts advice about what works and what doesn’t and why. I also think it would be helpful for SPJ to sponsor writing panels that include newspaper and magazine editors who can share information about emerging markets for freelance work. Perhaps SPJ could co-sponsor these events with crossover organizations, like PEN or the Writers Guild.”
Adina Green from Long Island, N.Y., wrote: “Your (committee) can help build a community of individual freelancers nationwide. You might want to consider writing a piece about the relationship between newsrooms and freelancers.”
Kim Kavin, from Hartford, Conn., wrote: “I was thrilled to read in my January issue of Quill that SPJ is doing more to involve freelancers. I would like to do more freelancing for newspapers, but I find them much harder to break into than magazines. Perhaps this is one topic the new committee might consider discussing. Newspaper editors don’t seem to trust freelancers as much as magazine editors do. I’m not sure why, but addressing the issue might help more of us work together.”
From Jill Miller Zimon in Cleveland, Ohio: “I think the toughest part about freelancing, especially if you are coming to the career from a different one, is finding and networking with other freelancers. I don’t feel like I have much leverage. It would (be) great to have a ’buddy’ or ’mentor.’ ”
William Orem, Springfield, Ohio, wrote: “Hello — your call for hellos from freelancers across the country was forwarded to me by a friend of mine at the AP. (Freelancers are good at sharing information.) I’ve been doing science writing for some time but am now trying to branch instead into arts review and film review. Any connections for arts or science writers struggling to find jobs would be great help — perhaps some kind of board where people seeking writers could get in touch with us?”
Laura A. Cerny, a journalist near Kalamazoo, Mich., wrote: “Among the issues I think freelancers struggle with are finding enough work and security in what they do and tapping into national work — especially in the newspaper arena.”
We’ve more than tossed around the idea of a national Web-based database housed at www.spj.org. It’s a project that requires a lot of planning and perhaps some funding. And there are questions about how it will work, but many freelancers saw it as a great opportunity.
Stuart Lau from the Cincinnati area wrote: “The suggestion of a national Web-based database for freelancers is a great idea! I applaud the SPJ’s commitment to support the freelance journalist. I’ve been writing for eight years, mostly for aviation-related trade publications (my full-time gig is an airline pilot) and have recently begun to pick up some work for a local business journal. A ’searchable’ database would allow specialty freelance writers to market their qualifications to a very large (and targeted) audience.”
Wallie Dayal, based in Chicago, wrote: “Perhaps SPJ could consider a referral system of sorts. Perhaps someone in specialty A could refer an opportunity in specialty B to a trusted colleague? Surely, this works best at an informal level and when the parties know each other’s caliber and product quality. However, in the absence of ideals, there is no movement at all.”
Some freelance journalists are seeking advice about specializing, but others are looking for broader audiences. Louise Mengelkock, associate professor of journalism at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, wrote: “My top three concerns:
“1. We’re invisible, especially those of us who have never worked for major media. We’re invisible to each other, to full-time employees of mainstream media, to the public and, of course, to the media in which we’d like to be published.
“2. The surprising lack of venues for high-quality freelance work that isn’t extremely specialized.
“3. The backlash caused by the Tasini v. New York Times Supreme Court ruling. My previous work, like that of other freelancers, has been expunged by newspapers so they don’t need to comply with the conditions of the Tasini ruling. I could go on, but that’s a start for me. (It felt good just to write about it!)”
Bruce Shutan, an L.A.-based freelancer, suggested: “More ink in Quill and at future regional and national conferences for SPJ on the need for freelancers to find a niche. That’s how I grew my business. I’ve found that nearly all industries are increasingly placing a premium on specialization and journalism is no exception. Freelancers need a support network. Look forward to our continued dialogue!”
Paul Wynn wrote: “How exciting to hear that SPJ cares about freelancers. (I’d like to see) a freelance section on www.SPJ.org with tailored information (reference books/articles on freelancing, tips/how-to stories, etc.).”
Jo’el Roth, a freelancer from San Diego, wrote: “Congrats on the formation of a freelancer’s coalition. We do face a unique set of challenges as we try to write for a living. My initial input: We need health insurance.”
We’ve even received phone calls from those who don’t necessarily call themselves journalists but are looking for advice. Gail Hartin from Houston, Texas, is a social worker that works with the elderly. She’s selling a Q&A column about elderly issues and wanted some advice. After connecting her with some people we thought could help, I received this e-mail from her: “It was a pleasure to visit with you about freelance writing. You provided valuable information to help us advance our column. Thank you for being willing to share your time and your knowledge.”
Freelancers are a welcoming and helpful group. The various networks share vast amounts of information with one another. Stay tuned as we fine-tune our initiatives to meet the needs of this dynamic group of members.
Lest you think freelancing is not worth the hassles, consider this from member Alice Jackson Baughn, from Ocean Springs, Miss.: “Congratulations on getting SPJ to form the new National Freelance Committee! I’ve been freelancing since September 2000, and my only regret is that I did not do it sooner.”
Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based freelance writer/editor covering small business, education, lifestyle and personality profiles. Send your thoughts about SPJ National Freelance Committee to her (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dawn Reiss (email@example.com).
Tagged under: Freelancing