Media recruiting tips: going freelance

This article first appeared in Press Gazette

Last month, I wrote about the positive reasons for changing jobs at the moment. But not everyone gets to choose; redundancies and closures are happening across every sector of the media, and, as a result, more and more people are being forced to go freelance. With this in mind, I asked a few editors what they thought were the golden rules – the media recruiting tips – of establishing yourself when new to the market. It seems to boil down to the following freelance tips:

  1. Use your contacts. Do not be afraid to let friends and former colleagues know that you are available. But…
  2. Don’t wait for them to give you ideas. Established and trusted freelances will always get first dibs on commissioned ideas; as a newcomer, it is up to you to present enticing, fresh ideas. So you will need to…
  3. Know your publication. Who are its readers? What are their interests? There is one golden rule that commissioning editors live by: “Why should we publish this now?” Find that hook, and you stand a good chance. But also…
  4. Make sure you know the publication deadlines. Nobody wants to take a speculative call or email while on deadline. For national dailies, for example, a call in the morning is best; for Sunday papers, don’t ring on a Friday.
  5. Write a tight synopsis of your idea; if your email is long-winded, they will think you can’t write anyway, no matter how strong the idea. And be aware of how your article might play online: let the client know how a picture gallery or audio interview might work, for example.
  6. Check that your idea has not appeared in the client publication – or rival – recently. Nobody likes to be seen to recycle ideas. And don’t pitch what you can’t deliver.
  7. Accept that there is little room to negotiate rates these days. Most commissioning editors have been given strict budgets and no room to manoeuvre.
  8. None of the people I spoke to like to be pestered, they say; but they also recognise that persistence is a virtue. When you first contact them, agree a date to get back to them if you haven’t heard. Do not email and pepper them with calls: stick to your schedule. They get dozens of unsolicited ideas a week, but will remember those journalists who are too much trouble to deal with.
  9.  Be prepared to be edited – often heavily. Do not be precious; defend something if it is absolutely necessary, but remember that the editor knows the audience better than you.
  10. Take no for an answer. Don’t keep going back to them with tweaks on an already rejected idea. Take it somewhere else, or give it up until you have that next brilliant (and different) idea.

Every editor I spoke to has a list of journalists who have failed to deliver, or who are needy and demanding and painful to deal with, and who will not be used again. The freelance’s job is to on good terms even if ideas are being rejected. Soon enough, you’ll get one that hits the nail on the head and you’ll be away.