Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Glad Game - Conflicting Advice

Regular readers may be aware of the fact that I've been interested in journalism since the age of fifteen. Occasionally I branch off in other directions, drawing pictures and writing fiction and whatnot, but I always come back to journalism as a core career aspiration.

I didn't study journalism at university because I thought it would make more sense to go and learn about a whole host of stuff and things, and write for the student press at the same time. I could learn technical or administrative things like writing /ENDS at the end of a submission later on.

I did however get into the habit of writing for whatever I could whenever I could to build up a portfolio of work. A couple of things paid (arts reviews in Perthshire local press), and a lot of things were done for love (The Vine, The Chihuahua, Odd Socks, and various society newsletters).

In my first job after graduating, I volunteered to write copy for in-house publications, the website, and community newsletters published in our area. This was done in addition to my normal duties and didn't involve so much as a byline, but it was experience nonetheless.

Currently I write for a number of hyperlocal sites and a couple of comical ones, all for free because nobody has worked out how to make money from them yet. I figure this is a good way of building up contacts and experience, but having been volunteering for over a year now on top of working in unrelated jobs to pay my rent, I have started to think that I ought to cut back on unpaid work a little.

There is an ongoing Q&A on The Guardian website with a chap called Chris Wheal which aims at helping answer the questions of unpaid journalists, and I thought it might be a good place to ask how to make the transition from often unpaid volunteer to paid journalist. I perhaps assumed a level of hyperlocal knowledge that Chris didn't have, because here is what went down.


I am starting out as a freelance journo, and I have a pretty good portfolio of work online - I write for a lot of hyperlocal sites in Edinburgh including The Guardian, STV and other independent news sites, and I think I'm gradually getting my name known. I do not have an official journalism qualification and I have mostly been volunteering my services for free to gain experience, but I am slightly concerned that I do this indefinitely I will remain a citizen journalist / blogger forever, and never make the transition to making a living from my writing.

Do you have any thoughts about the point at which you should stop volunteering and start charging? I would also appreciate any advice you have on working out the best people to pitch to, and ensuring you have the correct contact details - sometimes it's hard to tell whether you're being ignored, or you've contacted the wrong person.


Sounds like asking directions from south-east London to south-west London. The only real answers is "I wouldn't start from here".

Oh. Well. I have, so…

How, having worked for free, do you start charging? You have already set the value of your work at zero. How can you justify charging for something you have not value before?

I know that is not helpful but that is the potential barrier you need to overcome.

Under what agreement did you write for these organisations for free? How much editing did they do on your work?

It was always voluntary, as they have no money to give me. I wrote for these sites to gain experience and build a portfolio because I don’t have the official qualification almost every journo job vacancy wants, so I felt I would need a very strong CV to overcome that. In terms of editing my work – not that much, by and large.

Have you tried approaching the people you worked for?

No, I haven’t, because they’d look at me like I’d gone wrong. “Oh hai Edinburgh Reporter / Broughton Spurtle / STV Local, you look nice today… Anyway, I know you don’t make any money and that you rely on voluntary contributions to keep your sites going, but I need to become your only paid contributor now yeah? Cause volunteering is like, exploitation? Kthxbai.”

I'd probably start by making contact and seeing if you can meet for a coffee/drink. Find out what they liked about your work and what they might like you to do in the future and then bring up the issue of being paid. You may need to accept a lower payment to start with but make clear that if they like your work they should be paying you full rates, so only agree to a small number of pieces at a lower rate or a rising scale over the next few pieces.

Well, I could ask my assorted editors what they like about my work, yes. But that still wouldn’t give them the resources to pay me for it. What I need is advice on working out the best people to pitch to, and how to ensure I have up to date contact details – you know, like I asked?

At the end of the day you may have to refuse to supply any more unless they agree to pay you.

At which point they will presumably say OK, bye, best of luck.

Each commissioning editor will be different. They will have different drivers. What motivates them will be different and you need to stress the skill you have or the way you will work that will help. So one may be impressed by a cracking intro, another by a high profile subject, another by perfect English and few corrections. Whatever it is that motivates the buyer is what you, the seller, needs to provide.

Yeah alright, I’ve got The Freelance Writer’s Handbook as well. I get that different editors go for different pitches on different days. But that doesn't help with the fact that I don't know any of them personally, so I don't know who specifically to pitch to or on which day. And it doesn’t get me past the fact that because I'm a total stranger and they presumably get pitches all the time from people they already know and trust, that by and large they ignore my emails.

Understand what will make them buy and offer that. And remember, charge them for your work. They are publishing it. You're worth it.

‘Understand what will make them buy'? HOW? I am going in completely blind, pitching to total strangers, half the time not being 100% sure that I'm even targeting the correct person. I know what I am trying to sell and the audience I'm trying to sell it to, of course I've researched that - but which editor am I meant to speak to about it? Switchboard don't bloody know. Systematically emailing all the editors whose names you can find generally meets with no response. Other journos tend to go ‘sorry, not a scooby, that's not my area.’ I know I'm worth it, but no other sod does…

So, what have I learned from this?

Well, it seems I need to be a damn sight more specific when asking for career help. And apparently I need to cut back on volunteering significantly to avoid de-valuing my work any further in the eyes of editors, who hate it when people try to build up their experience by any means necessary. So much for that to-do list I had put together to try and maintain a high profile.

In fairness, I have been spreading myself too thin, and I probably would benefit from concentrating more attention on fewer things rather than trying to be everywhere at once. But I find that the more I have to multi-task, the more productive and creative I am. It's a difficult balance to strike.

And what is there to be glad about here? Well, it annoyed me enough to buy a new book. Maybe this one will actually answer my questions.

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