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If you’re interested in pursuing a career in journalism but don’t want to be tied down to a specific publication, why not consider becoming a freelance journalist?
As a freelance journalist, you get the independence to follow the trail of the narratives that intrigue you most. Depending on your niche and your interests, you may also get an opportunity to travel the world, exploring new places and ideas and sharing untold stories through your work.
Here’s what to know about building a career, including standard rates, different types of freelance journalism, and where to start when it comes to finding opportunities.
Being a freelance journalist is much the same as being a journalist with a full-time gig, with the main difference being that freelance journalists work for themselves and write stories for many different publications.
Working as a freelance journalist entails a lot of research, planning, interviewing, and transcribing—as well as a lot of writing (as you might expect). There are also the added tasks that come along with freelance writing in general, including pitching publications and self-managing deadlines.
Every day may look different as a freelance journalist, even if the core tasks are the same. It’s a chance to dip your toes into a wide range of story types and media outlets and to have complete autonomy over the challenges that you take on. And for a strong writer who’s also a self-starter, it may be the perfect choice for a creative career pivot.
Freelance Journalist Job Description
A freelance journalist is a self-employed writer who produces stories for publications on a contract basis.
Types of publications that a freelance journalist may write for include:
- Print and online magazines (examples: Vogue, Men’s Health, Esquire)
- Print and online newspapers (examples: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian)
- News websites (examples: Reuters, The Daily Beast, CNN)
- Trade publications (examples: Architectural Record, Media Law Reporter, Frequent Flyer Magazine)
- Company publications (examples: Red Bull Media House, Furthermore by Equinox, Essential Insights by Cardinal Health)
As for how to be a freelance journalist, there are a number of skills that an individual should be skilled at, such as:
Time management and the ability to seek out and develop unique story ideas are also key. Like all freelancers, you’ll also have to get a handle on managing your own taxes.
Freelance Copywriter vs. Freelance Journalist: What’s the Difference?
The difference between a freelance copywriter and a freelance journalist mostly just comes down to scope. Journalism is often a more research and data-heavy undertaking than copywriting and requires the additional skills of interviewing and transcribing (though these are all things that a copywriter may do too, if the assignment warrants it).
Copywriters also have more leeway with tone and may write articles with the specific intent of benefitting a certain individual or brand. Journalists, meanwhile, are meant to remain impartial, removing bias from the equation and simply conveying the facts and data as they exist. This is true even in gonzo journalism, where the writer is also the protagonist of the story.
One of the biggest benefits of pursuing freelance journalism is that you have a ton of control over what sorts of stories and jobs you seek out. There’s more than just general interest at play, though, and you’ll need to have a strong background and proven experience in order to get in the door at high-quality publications.
Here’s how to increase your chances of success.
- Get a degree: A journalism degree isn’t necessary, but it definitely can’t hurt. You could also get a degree in another research and writing-focused field, such as history or political science. Alternately, if you know what field of journalism you want to freelance in—such as finance or music—a relevant degree in that area might be the most helpful.
- Build a portfolio: The more work you have, the more work you’ll be able to get. It’s essential that you build a portfolio of writing samples, which you can then use to establish legitimacy and garner more interest in what you can do. This is a gradual process, so don’t feel like you need to have a robust portfolio all at once. Instead, start pitching ideas to small publications, blogs, and websites to begin building a body of work that can lead to bigger things.
- Grow your network: So much of finding freelance journalist opportunities comes down to who you know. Network as much as you can, and work on relationship building in the industry without the express purpose of finding jobs. You never know who or what will lead to your next gig.
- Pitch, pitch, pitch: Pitching is a critical part of how to get freelance journalism work. Whether you’re on the broad hunt for freelance journalism jobs online or you’re trying to get a byline in a specific publication, you’ll usually need to start by bringing the story idea to the editor—and not the other way around. With that in mind, here’s how to pitch to high-authority publications so that you don’t waste your time (or theirs).
Do you need qualifications to be a freelance journalist? Not in the traditional sense of certifications and degrees. Talent will take you far, and you’ll establish legitimacy in the field as you go. Still, qualifications can be beneficial, particularly when you’re just starting out.
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How much does the average journalist make as a freelancer?
Freelance journalist pay rates vary, but the average freelance journalist makes $60,119 a year, according to ZipRecruiter. That works out to hourly rates of $29 per hour.
There are a few different ways to charge for a story, and the details of how you’ll get paid should always be worked out in a contract prior to accepting work. The most common ways to structure pay are by the word or by the project. The more established you become, the more you’ll be able to charge.
Keep in mind that you will have to manage expenses as a freelancer in addition to income. In some cases, this will include fronting for travel costs related to your story, but many publications will reimburse you for these later on (again, though, make sure that you iron out those details before you accept an assignment).
Freelance journalism offers you flexibility in both the types of jobs that you take on and where you look to find them. Overwhelming though it may be, finding freelance jobs online is probably going to be the quickest way to go—and the most effective.
There are a couple of ways to go about doing this:
- Join a freelance marketplace: Publications, specifically company and trade publications, often post opportunities on freelance marketplaces. Others hire content management websites to source writers for them. Get on as many of these websites as you can to find new opportunities and help them find you.
- Pitch directly: Most publications have a section on their website devoted to how to pitch story ideas to them and what they’re looking for. A cold pitch strategy like this may fail more often than it succeeds, but it’s always worth a shot.
In terms of how to get freelance journalism work, securing assignments is half the job—if not more. Up your chances by creating a personal website, which will lend legitimacy to your work and provide a designated spot where your portfolio can live.
As with any type of freelance writing, it pays to specialize. Your niche may be related to what you’re most interested and experienced in, or you may simply stumble into it based on the initial jobs that you secure. In any case, here are some of the most common specialties within the field.
Freelance Music Journalist
Music journalists write stories on artists, album releases, and the music industry as a whole, and they also write concert and album reviews. This is a highly competitive niche and freelance music journalist jobs are few and far between, but it’s a great gig for those who can make it happen.
Freelance Financial Journalist
Become an expert on financial markets and advice as a freelance financial journalist. This niche includes writing articles to guide investors, as well as writing stories on general financial practices, trends, and outlooks.
Freelance Travel Journalist
Embrace your inner digital nomad with travel journalism. A freelance travel journalist explores places and cultures and then writes stories about them. Not surprisingly, they also do a lot of traveling in the process (which has its own benefits and drawbacks).
Freelance Sports Journalist
Sports journalism is a niche for those who want to report on sporting events, athletes, and the broader sports industry. Some sports journalists specialize and focus solely on one sport, while others write about the industry as a whole.
Freelance Video Journalist
This is an outlying specialty in that you work through video instead of writing. You’ll need to be skilled in taking and editing videos, as well as film as a form of storytelling.
How do freelance journalists make a living? It requires a sustained approach, with lots of backend work dedicated to securing new assignments.
Important to be aware of is that the highest rates aren’t always coming from the highest authority publications. Trade and company magazines might garner you more money per story than an exclusive byline at The New York Times or Newsweek, so it’s definitely worth casting a wide net with your pitches and not limiting yourself to the more prestigious names.
It might take some time to find your footing, but you can absolutely build a profitable career as a freelance journalist. This is especially true if you add other skills to your roster, such as podcasting or photography. Do your research to figure out what you need to do to start out in your desired niche, and don’t let your lack of experience hold you back from pitching. If you’ve got a story to tell and a knack for how to tell it, you’ve already got a lot going for you as a freelance journalist.
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