Moving from freelance to staff writer

The freelance life is difficult, what with sporadic income, disorganized editors and the need to be perpetually self-disciplined. Perhaps you’re thinking about getting a staff job on a magazine or newspaper.

There are certainly advantages to having a job. High on the list are steady income and benefits. Also, you can concentrate on writing instead of marketing, you have deadlines to keep you going, and you become part of a work family. You can learn valuable skills without paying for classes or training programs. A job can also help you make connections that will help in the future if/when you return to freelancing.

On the negative side, staff writing jobs can suck up all your time so that you have nothing left for the fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction that makes you happy. You can do both, but it’s hard. You also might have to relocate to find a good job. Where I live, in a small town on the Oregon coast, the only staff option is the local newspaper, which pays barely above minimum wage. I tried it and went back to freelancing. Are you able to transfer your life to another city or another state?

Balancing jobs and writing is a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for oh, about 40 years now. I spent many years working as a staff writer and editor at various newspapers and magazines, but I always wanted to freelance. When I was freelancing, I often yearned for the security of a job. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?

But if you have to earn a living from your writing and you haven’t yet made it into the national publications that pay $1 a word or more, you might not have a choice. You need a job.

It’s honestly not a good time for magazines or newspapers. Both have cut pages and staff drastically in recent years. If you study the bylines, you may find they use more freelancers than staff writers. Odds are better in public relations, corporate writing or advertising. But you can find a job if you really want to.

It helps to have a degree in journalism, English or a specialty in something like science, business, or technology. It helps to have strong computer skills. These days, staff writers often find themselves designing pages, writing for web sites, or blogging. You’re also going to need some clips and people willing to give you good references.

Where do you look? Some online outfits that promise to find you writing jobs charge a fee and never find you anything that’s suitable. If it sounds fishy or an ultra-traditional person like my dad wouldn’t approve, it’s probably not a real job. Good resources for jobs include: www.journalismjobs.com, www.mediabistro.com, and your state newspaper association—search for _________ Newspaper Publishers Association. For magazines, try www.foliomag.com, where you can read industry news and post your resume. Also try the Public Relations Society of America at www.prsa.org, which posts jobs and resumes. In addition, you can find some job listings at www.fundsforwriters.com, www.writing-world.com, and other writing sites.

The best resource may be your telephone book. Look under publishers and see what’s listed. Then find copies of their publications to determine whether you’d want to work for them and contact the office to find out if they’re hiring. If they don’t have an opening right now, ask if they’re open to freelance work. Being a reliable freelancer is often a good first step into a full- or part-time job.

Good luck in your search.

 

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>Should you write Internet "content?"

>Lately I have been looking into various online “content providers” as a source of income. These companies provide articles which subscribers can use in their blogs, newsletters or whatever. I don’t know whether I can recommend writing for them. Certainly each has its own personality, but you’ve got to be careful because there may be no byline, no compensation, or no clips you can use. Plus, who reads them, and where will your stories end up? They may have limited credibility, offering information as fact without saying where it came from. It may be just websites feeding off each other in a never-ending cycle.

Some online opportunities are good. There’s something called Patch.com that is doing community news in various cities around the U.S. The publisher spoke at the Future of Freelancing conference at Stanford in June, and I had a meeting with him. If I lived in one of the places where they were publishing, I would definitely write for them. I wish they would come to my area because I really love community journalism. They’re doing good stories, well-researched and up-to-date. The pay is average but reliable. You can find a list of places they cover at their web site.

Other sites make me nervous. One I considered applying to as an editor requires applicants to write nine stories and edit ten. If they approve of the work, they may pay for it, but they don’t promise that. I’m wondering if this is just a way to get work done for free. I have experienced that before. I did a lot of work at one point years ago for a similar site, and they eventually dismissed it as not worthy and didn’t pay a cent. Once in the pre-Internet era, I tested for a job in San Jose where I was asked to edit so many articles that it became clear this was how they were getting their work done, by getting job-hungry applicants to do it for free.

I found numerous opportunities on flexjobs.com, journalismjobs.com, and writerfind.com. Some sound pretty good, but others ring alarm bells for me. Even if the site is totally honest and pays properly, will this type of writing advance your career? Does it pay a flat fee or offer a few cents per click? Does it pay enough to overcome whatever credibility issues might arise? Is it good practice for beginners? Before putting your time into these jobs, look hard at what they publish and study their terms for writers.

I’ll be looking into this more in future posts. Meanwhile I’d love to hear your experiences with online content providers.

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Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?


>Don’t forget online markets

>Commenting on last week’s blog, Susan Johnston urged me to address online opportunities for making money as a freelancer. Depending on print alone is not enough anymore, she said. True. Not only are many freestanding online pubs accepting freelance, but lots of newspapers publish articles and blogs online that you won’t see in the paper. Although I have written a book about freelancing for newspapers and spent most of my life writing for the print media, I have also published online, and I agree. Although I’m committed to defending newspapers until the last one hits the recycle bin, no one hoping to make it as a freelance writer should depend on only one medium.

I took a finger-stroll through online freelance listings and found a lot, enough to make me wish I had time to apply for some of the opportunities. But if you have time, check out journalismjobs.com. You can find more by googling “newspaper freelance online” like I did.

A few cautions: Some of the listings are scams. They may not pay anything and they make be taking advantage of you in some way. One listing, for example, bases its unspecified lowest pay on a minimum of 1,000 hits. What if you don’t get a thousand hits? You get nothing. I once wrote a deeply researched article and provided a long list of web resources only to be told there wasn’t enough interest in my topic. I had imagined a great following and lots of money coming in. Instead, I wasted my time.

Your best bets are with established newspapers or long-running sites that are very open about what they want and what they pay. In fact, although usually I don’t advise writers to ask about money in their queries, if you have any doubt, make it clear that you do this for money, not just for the glory of a little Internet exposure. Ask about the pay and the terms before you commit to anything.

If it sounds fishy, it probably is, but there is money to be made online, and you could spend all day checking out the opportunities.