Surviving as a Freelance Journalist

My webinar for NAIWE on surviving as a freelance journalist is today. The PowerPoint is ready, I’m about to get caffeined up, and I’m thinking. What did I miss in my outline? Nothing really.

But it’s more of the intangible things I’m ruminating over. I’m thinking about what survival means.

I think you have to go through times of surviving. For those doing this as a career–and those who need the money–you go through bouts when you’ll write just about anything in order to pay the bills.

Then you go through periods of thriving.

But somehow, when you’re on your own–independent, self-employed, what have you–it always comes back to survival. Even decades in.

Why survival?

Because if you stop working at it, there’s no cushion to save you.

Some people in traditional jobs may not mentally show up every day, but they still go and their job is still there. Their company is still there. There are other companies to go to if one doesn’t work out.

For the journalist, if you stop doing it, there’s no other company to go to if you want to be self-employed…you’re it.

I am nearly 15 years in. Sure, I don’t go through times of no work but I have gone through lean times. When I felt like I was surviving. Or starving like I was 15 years ago. This is okay. (If nothing else, it keeps you on your feet so you know where you want to head next with your business.)

So don’t think that if you’re feeling like you are in “survival” mode that you are a failure…especially if you’re experienced. We all have to keep hustling to stay in business, and self-employed businesses ebb and flow. You’ll start hustling again. And if you are and nothing is happening, it will.

Just by sticking with it, so long as this is what you want to be doing, you’re surviving.


Help! My Source Bailed and I’m on Deadline

Christina Morillo

Tick, tick, tick.

Sometimes you can almost hear the clock ticking down until your deadline. As much as we try to work ahead, journalists are often in a pinch.

And it really stinks when a source bails at the last minute.

What can you do when a source backs out and you’re on a deadline? Not all hope is lost. Here are a few tips to help when your article–and your job–are on the line.

  1. Breathe–there are other sources. Unless your source is highly specialized, there are other people with expertise that can comment. It’s just a matter of finding them. And once you get a name, you can use your journo skills to make contact.
  2. Use a trade group or private company. Sometimes, the best place to get a source is from a fellow media team. They understand tight deadlines and can often point you in the right direction. When I write medical news, going through a hospital’s communications staff can be perfect because they pinpoint the person needed and tell me who’s available. Let them do some of the work–that’s what they get paid for.
  3. Explore other articles. One of my favorite ways to find sources is to look in articles that have covered similar topics. There, I can often find people who have commented that have the right credentials. Plus, they typically work well with the media because they’ve done so in the past. From there, you can Google the contact and get in touch.
  4. Google away. Speaking of searching for sources, one of my best tricks is to use a few keywords and add any credentials. If I need to contact a doctor who specializes in diabetes, I’m using phrases such as “diabetes M.D. contact”  or “diabetes M.D. email” and going from there. You could include a certain location or region to narrow things down.  Another tip is to use your keyword and “media contacts” in the search form because there are often tip sheets or organizations that have compiled experts in a specific field. So if I want to find a source that knows about groundwater contamination, I could use “environmental groundwater media” or “groundwater contamination media source” or “groundwater contamination expert.” Play with the keywords. You’ll be surprised at what comes up. And if it goes to a journal or report, such as a PDF, dig in there for applicable names.
  5. Go academic. Colleges and universities are great places for sources and they have highly specialized folks that can deliver a comment in a pinch. Try the school’s media department as well as the individual; if one person is busy, they can likely find another.
  6. Seek a source database. A service like ProfNet or HARO can be a heaven-sent when the clock is ticking. Just look through experts using their search network. Again, these people are familiar with tight deadlines and speaking to the media, which is an added bonus. (The last thing you want on a deadline is to have to explain to someone not familiar with the media about how the media works!)
  7. Think press release. Another place to find awesome sources familiar with a topic and working with the media is via a press release. Use a database such as Businesswire or type in a few keywords and put “press release” in parentheses and your search will bring up sources who have commented in a press release. From there, grab the name of the source OR the public relations person. (I tend to stay away from PR agencies when I’m in a pinch, especially, because they may take longer to find a source or want you to include their product or pitch in the story…not cool when you’re looking for an objective comment.)
  8. Be nice. The source that bailed may be useful in the future, so don’t burn the bridge. In turn, inform the new source that you are on deadline up front so you can determine if he or she can meet your timeline.

What other sources for sources do you like? Leave a note in the comments!

AP Stylebook Changes References to Race, Gender, Ethnicity

There were a few recent changes announced to the Associated Press’ stylebook. Many of the changes focused on race, gender and ethnicities.

The changes were announced at the recent ACES conference.

Here’s a rundown of some of the updates to the AP stylebook:

No more hyphens that denote dual heritage. Instead of hyphenating “African American,” it will now go unhyphenated. Same for “Asian American” or “Italian American,” and the like. (Note: The Chicago Manual of Style hasn’t suggested using the hyphen in recent years, but The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage uses hyphens in most expressions such as “Italian-American” but not in others such as “Jewish American” or French Canadian.”

“Dropping a hyphen does not appear to be a big deal but it reflects a growing acknowledgment among news organizations that racial and ethnic identities are individual, that the individuals have differing views on how to portray themselves, and that news organization should be aware of those desires,” writes Merrill Perlman in Columbia Journalism Review.

Change to Native American references. Formerly, you could use “Indian” to refer to “Native American” or “American Indian.” The update says the term shouldn’t be used as shorthand for “American Indians.”

People of color. You can say “people of color” but not use “POC” as an abbreviation. The 2006 stylebook featured “African-American” as an entry and said the preferred term was “black.” It said to only use “African-American” (yes, now “African American”) in proper names.

Latino/Latina/Latinx references.  The stylebook now calls for “Latino” to be the preferred noun or adjective for people of Spanish heritage. “Latina” is the feminine form of the word, and gender-neutral “Latinx” should be confined to quotations, names of organizations or descriptions of individuals who request it and should be accompanied by a short explanation.

Send me your questions about journalism or writing in general, or hire me. Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!

Crafting a Knockout Headline


Journalists used to be the only ones who had to write headlines. Now business owners are their own bloggers, reporters, and social media managers. Copywriters are crafting webpage headlines, subheadlines and even email subject lines. It seems like everyone who is either a writer or in the business marketing field needs to know how to write a good headline of some sort…even if it’s not a traditional news headline.

I cultivated some experience in headline writing when I was a copy editor for Gannett. I thought I would only be editing stories, but it turns out half my job was creating headlines–and doing it so they’d fit in tight spaces. You learn a lot of really short words when you’re short on space. (Who knew back then that I’d be doing the same thing on Twitter 10 years later, strategizing on which words to cram in a headline advertising articles I’d written for other news publications?)

Looking to pen an attention-getting headline that lures readers in and sums up what an article has to say? Here are a few tips.

Determine what word must go in. In news, it’s imperative to have certain words from your story in the headline. If I am writing an article for a health publication about a new cancer drug, I definitely want to get “cancer” in there, if not “new” and “drug” too. In more evergreen content, I may be able to add more phrases, but I still want to know which words must go in. What individual words do you think have to go in the headline so your reader gets the gist of the article? Do you need action words to make the reader take action, too? Keep this in mind as you identify those “must-add” words.

Know your audience and the medium. Space doesn’t matter as much if you’re on LinkedIn, but it can if you’re working in a print publication or say, for an email newsletter article. Again, if you’re writing for a newspaper, you want to get a few certain key words (not just keywords) in the headline so the reader has an idea of what the story is about. Also, you may want a more lax, attention-grabbing headline if the headline is not for a news outlet and is instead a social media post promoting a headline. In news, it’s more of sticking to a few words that sum up the article instead of getting a reader to click on it, though you likely want them to read on for more information. News readers want to be able to skim a headline and get the gist of the development–they may not read on. On the flip side, in copywriting, a headline can give a summary but also be used to engage the reader to take action or read the entire article. Look at past articles or content to get a feel for the tone.

When I’m writing about that cancer drug in news, my headline may be “New Cancer Drug Extends Life,” while an email or social media headline may be “The Cancer Drug That Could Help You Live Longer.” Big difference!

Add action. Depending on where your headline will appear, it’s important to add action. News readers want to know what the news is, while an email subject line (it kind of counts as a headline) will want to drive the user to open the message and convey what they’ll get if they do.

Think phrasing. I love what this article has to say about the phrases we can choose, as certain ones can be more effective for different mediums. Keep in mind that “will make you” and “this is why” may work awesome in an email subject line–but not so great for a news headline. If you’ve got more room, flexibility or the ability to add in a subhead, that’s where a good phrase can come in handy. Otherwise, I stick to identifying the must-feature words and building a headline around those.

Send me your questions about journalism or writing in general. Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!

Pitch–Don’t Perfect–Stories

I was reading a post this week in a community forum about an essay writer. She wanted to know how she could find “homes” for her work.

Instantly, I felt strongly that her question revealed the problem. She was writing, storing up essays, without any publication in sight. She was spending her time wrestling over the writing process instead of focusing her time on selling the work.

Her method for selling the work was then to ask other writers to find “homes” for the essays. But her job as a writer–or at least as one who wants to earn money from working–is to do that work too. As you know, a freelance journalist rarely just writes. I can’t tell you how much time I spend searching for markets and connecting with editors. But in doing that work, I know where my work can find a home.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with penning essays and then selling them. Some of our best work can come when we’re not writing an assignment under a deadline. But when you’re looking to make a living out of it, you often have to pitch them first. Or at least know where you eventually want to propose the article. Otherwise, you’re just saying you have a stash of stories waiting to be sold.

So does everyone else. That’s never going to sell your writing, or sell yourself as the writer.

Focus on the Pitch Prior to Writing

This is what I see as one of the top problems that new writers face when they’re trying to break into this field. While I’m an advocate of the “just write” mentality, you’re wasting your business resources–and time–when you write without a focus on selling an article or essay. You’re also wasting your time if you try to perfect your work on your own, because an editor will want to make changes to it after they acquire it.

How do you know a publication will want your article if it’s already written? Maybe the editor wants to give his or her input for a specific angle. If you write it out and spend too much time “perfecting” it, you will be spending more time on it.

In looking at the writer’s guidelines, a publication may want to buy an essay after it’s completed. But don’t assume it. Many outlets want a thoughtful pitch before you begin writing. The editor wants to hear your idea, add something to it to give you direction, and receive a draft that meets his or her requirements.

This is a bit different in the essay-writing field, where a lot of publications want to buy essays on spec. A lot of those markets are low-paying, though.

Here’s my advice in this situation: Have a few publications in mind before you start writing away your best stories and wondering why outlets aren’t lined up to purchase them. If you do draft a piece, don’t worry too much about editing it–just get the idea down. Pitch your essays out so you receive an assignment. Editors rarely ask a writer they’ve never worked with what kinds of essays are sitting on their hard drives.

Your time is precious, and so is your creativity. Nothing kills a creative writer like the person with a trove of stories waiting to “find a home.” Shelter cats find homes. Your work needs to be sold if you’re going to be a reputable working writer.

Find yourself a home with a publication and connect with the editors there. Build up your portfolio. Then, hopefully by the time you have that killer essay idea, you only have to write an elevator pitch about it and you will have that awesome, paying assignment already lined up.

Got questions or just want to connect? Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!


5 Questions You’re Not Asking Sources, But Should Be Asking

As journalists, our job is not to simply ask questions–but to ask the ones that get original comments and insights that inform the reader! While I don’t cover many topics that are controversial and don’t have to ask gripping questions, I like to throw out a question or two during an interview that my source hasn’t heard. As such, I get answers that other publications may not be receiving, which gives my work a different angle. Editors love that.

While some organizations only want the news, you may add value to it by asking a question that other reporters may not think to bring up.

Here are a few that I try to include during interviews.

  1. What surprised you about this? Sometimes we get so wrapped up covering the who/what/when/where/why of things that we forget to prompt our source to give their personal opinion. Instead of inquiring about what the source thinks, ask them what surprised them about something. I love doing this for medical studies because an author likely knows what the outcome of an experiment will be, but you may get more insight into why findings should matter for a reader if you can tell them what surprised the expert. You can also use other feelings in place of “surprised” for other topics, such as “What angered you about this?” or “What pleased you most about this?”
  2. What is the media getting wrong in the coverage about this? I love this one because it gives you a chance to get it right. This can be a huge win because some sources have been interviewed multiple times and see inaccurate articles being posted with their comments referenced or taken out of context. They may be reluctant to share with you because you’re “the media.” When I can come in and “clean up the mess,” I please the source and the publication I’m writing for.
  3. What don’t you want people to take from this? We often ask sources to explain something or share how they feel about it. This doesn’t let the source speak to the reader who may not be fully comprehending the story or the ramifications of the news. This question addresses it!
  4. What does this mean for people? Got a source that can’t quite seem to break technical information down in layman’s terms? Note the audience of your article and ask the source what it means for that specific group of people. When I write consumer health news, I talk to a lot of researchers and doctors who are wrapped up in the findings and may not be able to translate the details into valuable information for consumers. This question helps you target your audience and get your source to speak to them directly.
  5. Anything you want to add off the record? While I’m all about getting the best comment to quote, sometimes you may understand the perspective of an issue by asking for information off the record. Not only can it help you understand an issue or action taken (or not taken), but it can give you insight to prompt another source who will speak about something on the record. It can also lead you to another story idea!

Got questions or just want to connect? Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!