NOTE: A portion of this column ran previously on SPJ’s SPJ’s Independent Journalist blog.
A few months ago, there was breaking news almost in my backyard, and suddenly I had more freelance business than I knew what to do about.
I’d just come out of my Norman, Okla., basement on May 20, after an EF-5 tornado ripped an almost 17-milelong gash through Moore, Okla., and parts of south Oklahoma City, about 10 miles north of my house. My cell phone started ringing and didn’t stop for about a week.
One journalist friend at The Oklahoman called to see if I could be available for The Wall Street Journal. Another freelancer friend referred me an NPR interview. Another friend sent me a gig on Huff Post Live. The Weather Channel was referred by journalism professor friends. I turned down more business in two or three days than I’d had in a month.
My other freelance friends were just as busy.
Friend and Oklahoma City freelancer Heide Brandes got a call from a former journalism professor with a referral to do tornado coverage for The Washington Post, and she wrote for them for about three days. I referred her the WSJ job, and she wrote some for Reuters, too. Brandes’ work for Reuters has continued with other unrelated assignments after the tornadoes.
What did I learn during those hectic days?
NETWORKING PAYS OFF
All of the jobs after the tornadoes came from referrals from journalist friends, colleagues and connections we’d made years before. Some came from other SPJ freelance members. You never know where a referral might come from.
EVERYBODY HAS A STORY ABOUT WHERE THEY WERE WHEN THE “BIG ONE” CAME THROUGH
People who have been through that kind of trauma often want to talk about it.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO BE SELF-RELIANT WITH YOUR OWN FOOD AND BEVERAGES AND BRING YOUR OWN ICE CHEST
People who are out on a scene will try to give you food and bottled water. But you don’t know when those sandwiches were made or if they were made in an appropriate, healthful way. I made a mistake of eating a sandwich offered to me by a tornado victim after I’d been out all day. Apparently, the sandwich had been out all day as well, and I got food poisoning. Not good timing when you’re that busy.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
The first request from The Weather Channel was to find some of the hero teachers who covered their students with their bodies. I picked my way around the affected area immediately to one of the two destroyed elementary schools and found a teacher cleaning items out of what was left of her classroom with the help of parents and students. I was able to turn my first two stories and art for them within about two to three hours.
HAVE PROFESSIONAL BUSINESS CARDS
I used an SPJ and Radio Television Digital News Association lanyard from a previous Excellence in Journalism conference and inserted business cards, my SPJ membership card and a press pass from another organization, and that seemed to look official enough for the police and firefighters to let me into the tornado-affected areas. Best-case scenario would be to have a letter from the media that is employing you, but if you’re already in the field, that may not be possible.
KEEP YOUR PERSONAL WEBSITE UPDATED ALONG WITH YOUR LISTING IN SPJ’S FREELANCER DIRECTORY
When news breaks is not the time to be updating your website or listings. Jobs I’ve gotten from the Freelancer Directory have paid for my SPJ membership many times over.
REQUESTS FOR INTERVIEWS BY OTHER MEDIA CAN EAT YOUR TIME IF YOU’RE NOT CAREFUL, AND THEY DON’T PAY THE BILLS
Prioritize what you need to do and stick with it.
Carol Cole-Frowe is a fulltime independent journalist who splits her time between Oklahoma and north Texas. She is also an adjunct journalism professor at The University of Oklahoma. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.