Award-winning editor and writer Ruth E. Thaler-Carter breaks down the skills required to be a successful freelance journalist, after her nearly 40 years in the industry.
Thaler-Carter, an author of two books on the subject, provided an overview of establishing a brand and gaining a following as a freelancer in the “Freelancing 101” session.
The session focused on “establishing yourself as a freelance journalist,” with more SPJ sessions scheduled to cover freelancing tips and resources over the next two days.
Thaler-Carter started the session stressing the importance of communication when freelancing, encouraging new freelancers to check in with their full-time employers before freelancing while working for a publication.
“There is a lot of concern about what the job market, either full-time or freelance, will be like,” she said. “You do not want to jeopardize your full-time job.”
Thaler-Carter said freelancers can give their work an edge with top-notch grammar usage, experience, and interest in news.
“[Experience] gives you access to contacts and colleagues, but it also exposes you to office politics,” she said.
She encourages using these contacts and networks to learn more about the world and have easier access to potential story subjects or sources.
“It’s not enough to just know about journalism,” she said. “It’s not enough even to have a daily newspaper reading habit. You want to be able to plug into new trends and people doing interesting stuff, and things happening way outside your comfort zone.”
Limited project opportunities are one of the main concerns for new freelance journalists, but Thaler-Carter said reporting for any platform possible, alongside editing and self-publishing, allows freelancers to gain more experience in the field.
“Don’t get your feelings hurt if no one gets back right away,” she said. “I was interviewing someone for a magazine and they asked if I was on staff… I have now been working for this guy for five years editing for their clients. That’s something I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I wasn’t doing standard reporting.”
Public relations is another area of opportunity for freelancers, which could include writing or editing press releases, though Thaler-Carter called to attention the superiority issues journalists have against public relations jobs.
“I would be careful about being snooty about any area of journalism work, because we can make it better,” she said. “As long as what they have us work on is honest and ethical, there is no problem with these areas.”
Thaler-Carter also recommended having a base pay in mind, while also recognizing that not every publication will adhere to it, saying “people who don’t want to pay what you are worth are a waste of time.”
Establishing a presence as a journalist sets strong reporters up to new jobs, sources and audiences, from developing a digital portfolio to creating professional social media accounts.
Every publication pays and produces differently, according to the freelance author and editor. Remaining flexible and being organized is key, she said, to being successful in a variety of newsrooms.