Freelance journalism is one of the more hectic forms of freelance writing. If you want to become a successful freelance journalist, you’ll need to be comfortable with spending much time hunting down stories, traveling from place to place, and writing under short deadlines. If you enjoy all of that, and if you’re interested in some of the best opportunities for personal creativity, then freelance journalism may be for you.
When we talk about freelance journalism, we need to distinguish between two types: newspaper journalism and magazine journalism. As a rule, newspaper journalism involves a much narrower range of subject matter than magazine journalism, significantly shorter articles, and a greater focus on form. Typical newspaper articles follow a hierarchical format: the most pertinent information first, the least pertinent last. For example, an article about a local parade would start with “The X Parade will travel down Main Street at 10:00 Saturday in support of Y,” while it might end with “Onlookers are advised to bring umbrellas.”
Additionally, writing as a newspaper journalist means that you need the ability to find out about the news. Often, a journalist’s day looks like this: the editor assigns the journalist an article topic at 6 AM. By 8 AM, the journalist is making phone calls to various parties related to the topic. For a story on rising gas prices, this may include CEOs of oil companies, local gas station owners, car owners (interviewed on the street or at gas stations), car manufacturers, and local policymakers. Journalists usually interview anyone with a meaningful connection to the topic, and who can provide some good, succinct quotes and information.
Information-gathering goes on for most of the day, usually ending around the evening. The journalist then works on the article, fact-checking where appropriate, before submitting it for publication sometime that night, with the deadline depending on the individual paper. Then the journalist is able to go to sleep–until 6 AM rolls around again, and the next article topic comes in.
More leeway is available with the larger “feature” articles. These appear in film sections, lifestyle sections, health sections, or other less breaking-news-focused parts of the daily paper. Often newspapers publish these sections weekly, rather than daily, to save on printing costs.
For example, the film section may only appear on Fridays, the food section on Tuesdays, etc. The upshot of this is the freelance journalist has more time to research and to work on an excellent, well-rounded article. Using the same research methods (calling everyone connected to the topic, scheduling interviews, synthesizing succinct points from a large information pool), a feature writer constructs a more in-depth look at a given topic than a news writer can achieve in a short column of text.
Additionally, there’s occasionally more freedom in the choice of subject matter. Perhaps you know about an excellent local band in need of a profile? Maybe you volunteer in a community organization that does interesting work and deserves a write-up? How about writing an article on the health benefits of soybeans? A newspaper’s “features” section can be an excellent venue and a personal one, which can be rare in freelance writing. Additionally, feature articles don’t depend heavily on the hierarchical “news” format, making your job much easier (or harder, if you find it difficult to structure an article without set guidelines.)
Magazine journalism is similar to the “feature” style of newspaper journalism, albeit with much more generous word limits (and often more generous pay rates.) The downside is that a magazine may not have as many opportunities for publishing your work. The broader subject matter of a magazine may also result in topics that require more legwork and potential travel expenses (hopefully paid for by the magazine) than just a profile of a local policymaker. To be an effective magazine writer, you’ll need to look much harder for article ideas, but the payoff can be well worth it.
How do you scout out freelance journalism jobs? For newspapers, have some sample articles written, a good working knowledge of style guides (especially Associated Press style), and a willingness to work on whatever is available until the editor or publisher promotes you to work on more enjoyable assignments. For magazines, it’s best to research your articles and write them in advance; afterward, you can send query letters to the appropriate editors in hopes of becoming published. In either case, submission information is printed on the staff page of magazines and newspapers. You can also find submission information online at the publications’ websites.
The career of a journalist isn’t for everyone. Whereas many freelance writing projects are about a predictable routine of research and writing, the variety and novelty of writing news and feature articles eschew all routine in favor of a constant flurry of ad hoc interviews, phone calls, and general information-gathering. But to some people, this is far from a drawback. If you’re one of those people, start developing your portfolio now, get in touch with some editors (either by appointment or by query), and prepare yourself for a successful career in freelance journalism.