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.

 


>Collecting presidents

>I’ve now seen my second president. The first was President Gerald Ford, and the circumstances were very different. Fourteen years ago, the former president was stumping for Republican candidates at a mansion in Saratoga, CA, and I was the editor of the Saratoga News. Photographer Ed Lee and I had access to everything and everyone. I took notes like crazy. Ed Lee ran around snapping photos, so excited it’s a wonder he didn’t faint. When the speeches were over, we were invited into the living room, where we shook the former president’s hand and sipped champagne from commemorative glasses. Of course we were two of many, but, as cynical as reporters are supposed to be, I was thrilled. I know, Ford wasn’t in office that long, he wasn’t one of the greats, he wasn’t even my party, but who cares. He was a president.

Back at the office, I cranked out my front page story while Ed developed his photos the old fashioned way in the darkroom. We were stoked.

I’d seen lots of politicians. I’d interviewed state legislators, countless mayors and city council members. I even photographed Gov. Jerry Brown in his office in Sacramento. But Ford had been president of the United States.

This week I saw former president Bill Clinton. I was just part of the crowd, standing at the Newport marina looking through gaps between the shoulders of tall teens in gray hoodies. I recognized the media running around with their badges and the black-suited politicians and secret service members clustered around the back of the stage, but this time there would be no hand-shaking, no introductions. I was just one more anonymous, middle-aged Oregon coast voter.

Cheers erupted when an SUV pulled up from a service road at 4:30. As the black-suited men walked toward the stage, Clinton was taller than the rest, his hair shiny white. I was close enough to see his face clearly, and I was as star-struck as anyone else.

I was also jealous of the reporters, missing my newspaper days, although I’m not sure what I would have written. Probably just a caption. He gave the same speech at every stop. The glory would go to those taking photos of Clinton standing against the picturesque backdrop of the Yaquina Bay bridge.

A lot of teenagers came, saw, snapped pictures with their cell phone cameras and left, enabling to me to move closer and closer. They didn’t know the history. They didn’t vote for Clinton when he became our first baby boomer president. George Bush has been president so long he’s probably the only president they remember.

I didn’t even have a camera with me because I hadn’t expected to attend. I didn’t know until the night before that Clinton was coming to our little coastal town. And I didn’t find out until that morning where and what time he would be speaking. If he had not been an hour late, I would have missed it because I was getting my hair cut.

What does one write about a former president seeking votes for his wife to become the next president, insisting she can still win when the numbers favor her opponent? I doubt that anybody really cared much what Clinton said. His basic message–the country needs fixing and Hillary can do it—was no surprise. Folks just wanted to see a former president. As did I. I’m thinking of collecting them, like commemorative quarters.

It was freezing out at the marina. Even in mid-May, bundled up in our heavy coats and stocking caps, it felt awfully cold, and after a while, I wanted so badly just to bend my knees, but I had gotten up to the fence and didn’t want to lose my place.
I was supposed to be somewhere else, but I couldn’t leave; this was history.

Clinton spoke for an hour, his white hair blowing in the breeze. I saw that familiar squinched-up face and heard that scratchy voice with the southern accent.
As soon as he finished, he disappeared. I suppose he shook a few hands and headed for his car while the rest of us walked in the other direction, hurrying toward warmth and dinner.

So what can a freelancer do with such a story? Odds of covering it as news are slim. You’d need a good connection with an editor who could get you advance information, credentials and a reserved space in the paper. You could write an opinion piece, e-mailing it as quickly as possible. Or you could look for a unique angle. How about interviewing the locals who were out there selling tee shirts or the kids attending as homework for their poly sci classes?

If you could obtain an assignment and permission from the campaign folks, it would be terrific to ride along with someone like Clinton all day, catching the in-between bits of life that the public doesn’t see. After all, he traveled from the desert to Portland to the coast to two college towns all in one day. He’s been doing the same thing all over the country. Did he eat? Did he sleep? Did he pop throat lozenges? Did he call Hillary to compare notes? What did he say about Newport as he cruised onto Highway 20? Did he or anyone else worry that he was behind schedule?
Narrative journalism is the thing these days. Capture the experience, not just the speech, not just the numbers of people who came.

I saw this president as a civilian and it felt strange. I’m writing this, I suppose, because I feel as if I must write something about such an event in our small town. Clinton’s visit will be front page news Wednesday, when the next issue of the News-Times comes out.

As freelancers, we need creativity and connections to come out of the crowd and join the media. Who knows? Maybe you could even shake hands with a former president.