Don’t Stop Me,
as Fast as I Can
About 50 media professionals turned out on a Saturday morning at UT Arlington looking for a piece of equipment they thought they’d never need: a paddle for negotiating Freelance Creek. Some had just been dumped there through layoffs and buyouts; others have been navigating its twists and turns for a while.
The focus was on the next stage in the career and creating a new identity — independent journalist — in a sometimes scary world.
Panelists came mostly from the ranks of professionals who have already left the mainstream media for other work: to start their own company, to build a freelance career, to teach. Carol Zuber-Mallison, formerly of both the Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News, has spent the last 16 years building a successful graphics business. Matt Pulle, former managing editor of Nashville Scene, is a freelance contributor to numerous publications. Bart Weiss is an independent film producer-director and founder of the Dallas Video Festival, and Catherine Team is a 30-year ad/marketing pro and creator of needmedia.com; both are on the UTA faculty.
Weiss, Zuber-Mallison and photographer Manuel Pecina handled the multimedia session. The business panel featured Zuber-Mallison, insurance professional Bill Paschall and Paul Foutch, a former business editor and reporter for the News who is now a financial adviser and stockbroker. Team, Pulle, Meda Kessler, editorial director of the magazine 360 West, and Gayle Reaves-King, editor of Fort Worth Weekly, talked about getting known in the freelance market.
Team recommended the book “Don’t Make Me Think” and godaddy.com as inexpensive tools for building your own website. For those needing stronger photo and video skills, taking a week to attend the Maine Media Workshop was recommended, as was “Professional Business Practices in Photography,” a book about negotiating contracts and copyrights for photo work. Pecina said the American Society of Media Photographers has mock contracts available. Another strong recommendation from the visual pros: Every journalist must know how to use a video camera. A $200 flip camera can shoot high-definition video, so the investment in equipment is modest.
Zuber-Mallison has been doing graphics for decades, but she, too, continues to add skills — she’s learning video editing software now. She recommended lynda.com for information on Adobe programs; $300 a year buys access to a multitude of training videos.
The business panel was packed with valuable information. Foutch talked about 401(k)s and making a financial plan. He recommended the Dave Ramsey course on achieving “financial peace.” Paschall stressed the importance of keeping health insurance; he noted that personal insurance plans can be designed for freelancers, but often with high deductibles.
Zuber-Mallison discussed the need for freelancers to set themselves up as a business and what that entails: keeping receipts, negotiating with clients, using a simple accounting program, reserving money for taxes and charging taxes to clients. Some clients want the “Cadillac” version of an assignment, while others require something simpler because that’s all they can afford. Request a budget before starting work, and be sure everyone knows who is paying for research and other expenses and what it means, in time and money, if the client wants to make changes after work has begun. Zuber-Mallison said journalists are valued for their ability to hit deadlines, what corporate folks call being “paper trained.”
A key aspect of successful freelancing, of course, is finding clients, finding assignments and helping potential clients find you. Pulle recommended that freelancers set aside a certain time or day of the week to just find stories. This helps keep the assignments, and therefore the income, flowing (better than finishing one story and then realizing you have nothing else started). Do initial reporting before contacting an editor — a “frustrating but valuable” practice, Pulle called it — and then make clear in the pitch what you know for sure versus what you are still reporting.
As an editor who frequently publishes the work of freelance writers and photographers, Reaves-King advised e-mailing a new editor before calling — and before that, reading the publication to know what kind of stories it uses. Keep resource materials short: a brief bio, a small number of best clips, a description of what kind of reporting, writing, editing or photography you want to do. Then be ready with one or two appropriate story ideas. Editors will rarely hand out developed ideas to a first-time freelancer.
Reaves-King passed along the recommendations of Wendy Lyons Sunshine, an award-winning writer and author whose web page, polishedwriting.com, is a gold mine of information for freelancers. Sunshine’s advice:
• Distinguish yourself from the crowd. Keep your name out there, which may mean blogging for cheap (free) rather than not writing at all if assignments are thin. Do a self-evaluation: What are my skills, and where can I best offer them?
• Network. Go to conferences, list yourself in places like mediabistro, and stay in touch with other freelancers, to trade assignments, etc.
• Establish relationships with editors. Think about your niche and niche publications, and be ready to sell yourself as much as the story. Show how you can make life easier for a potential client. Understand what the publication needs and speak to it.
• Be efficient with your time. Maybe you redo the same story for different publications, or spin off elements of one story as a second story for another news organization. The freelance market is getting tougher, so don’t get hung up on the type of platform or publication you’re willing to write for.
As an addendum to all this freelance talk, Reaves-King said laid-off journalists should seriously consider whether freelancing is indeed the way they want to earn a living. You probably won’t make as much as you did at your old job. To succeed in the freelance world today, you have to be flexible, be willing to promote yourself, to think outside the box, outside the blog and maybe outside of what you consider to be journalism.
Reaves-King recalled a former DMN colleague who was so tired of hearing people say that “journalism is all I know.” While the news industry is pretty dysfunctional, a journalist’s skills — the ability to write clearly, research, get the facts and convey narratives in words, pictures and videos — are highly valued in many businesses.
Life After the Layoff:
and Then Some
by Gayle Reaves-King
In the last several years, Fort Worth SPJ has organized a number of sessions to help our colleagues in North Texas better survive the continuing rounds of layoffs at news organizations. Exceptional professionals from various walks of life have offered wisdom and insight. Some circumstances have changed, but a lot of what we’ve heard is still relevant.
Here are what I consider the “greatest hits” from those sessions.
Keep some, if at all possible. At just about every session, financial experts such as Paul Foutch have emphasized that medical expenses are the No. 1 cause of deep financial trouble. I think this is the single most valuable piece of advice I have heard through the years.
COBRA is the first line of defense on health care coverage after a layoff, but it’s expensive. As an option, try to get on your spouse’s group plan or obtain health insurance through a professional association such as SPJ. SPJ offers discounts to its members but not group plans. Another possibility is “gap” insurance, a temporary solution that covers catastrophic events but not preexisting conditions. Those who figure they will be self-employed for a while might consider individual policies, which will have high deductibles. The last resort, for the very ill and for those who have exhausted COBRA, is the Texas high-risk pool. If you live in Tarrant County, look into signing up with JPS Connects, which is income based. Lots of musicians and freelancers are part of it.
Experts warn that you should carefully read insurance contracts to make sure that preexisting conditions are covered and that loopholes don’t lurk in the fine print.
Don’t panic, but don’t be a Pollyanna. You may think you have a nice cushion in the bank, but you may be out of work longer than you think. A few years ago, the rule of thumb was that for every $10,000 you were earning it takes a month to find a job. Make a realistic plan with options. The name of this game is conserve cash and maintain cash flow.
Do not use a lump-sum severance to pay off a car note or a credit card balance. Instead, pay each month what’s needed to keep those accounts current. Apply for unemployment. Think about boosting your insurance deductible. Immediately sit down and find ways to trim spending, especially credit card spending. Trying to survive by putting basic expenses on a card is a losing proposition.
Consider part-time or far-from-perfect jobs in the interim. This can be critical in keeping things together until you land the new job that you can live with long term.
If you have kids in college, now is the time for a come-to-Jesus talk. Help them secure more financial aid or get a part-time job. Introduce them to the joys of public transportation.
Making a strategic financial assessment is so important at this stage. What will you need to do if you have not found a job in two months? Three months? Six months? One of our experts suggested this: Make a list of what you own that can be sold. List your fixed (versus discretionary) spending, then determine what moves you can make to cut or postpone expenditures, what can be done to bring income in — and then prioritize the crisis. For instance, selling a second vehicle might be an option in the second or third month of unemployment. Think creatively about what can be done to extend the time before you have to do something like sell the house. Borrowing against assets, against a 401(k) or via a home equity loan is more severe and should be considered probably in the third, fourth or fifth month of unemployment. Borrowing on a credit card is very dangerous. And bankruptcy should be the last consideration. “Don’t think of it as an option. It is not a short- or long-term answer,” one of our financial experts said.
Checking your credit rating is crucial during this period since potential employers may be doing the same thing, and it may sway their hiring decisions. Individuals may check their credit reports for free once a year. The three major credit reporting companies each show different things — check all three. You can dispute inaccuracies online.
This is not the time to crawl in a hole and lick your wounds, as much as you might want to. Energetic networking is the key to getting hired again. Renew old acquaintances. Update the résumé. Be aggressive, like a good journalist.
Many of our panelists have advised that investing time, energy and, where possible, money in adding skills will pay off. “Be fearless — try anything — learn anything,” said Catherine Team, a veteran of the advertising/marketing wars. To learn how to do something, it was suggested, first do it as a volunteer.
And, this is key, understand that the skills you have as a journalist are very much in demand in other industries —perhaps at higher pay and with better working conditions.
Author Barbara Ehrenreich once told a college graduating class about how she pitched a story to a well-known newspaper. The newspaper bit, but for only a fourth of the amount it would have paid just a few years ago. She was bothered, but then she had an epiphany: She’s on a mission and she’ll do whatever it takes.
The recession, Ehrenreich said, is showing journalists that they are not part of the elite but of the working class: underpaid, jerked around and liable to be laid off just like an auto worker or mechanic. A laid-off auto worker doesn’t go into the garage and keep assembling cars by hand. But as long as there is a story to be told or an injustice to be exposed, Ehrenreich said, journalists will find a way to do it, recession or not.
Even poverty and a dying industry won’t stop us, she said. Because we are all on a mission. Our journalism degree isn’t a certificate of entitlement, it’s a license to fight.