When Lindsey went back to school for a master’s degree in creative publishing and critical journalism at the New School, she decided she wanted to try freelancing. She thought it would be a good way to learn a bit more about the industry, and also make a bit of money. But freelancing was not at all what she thought it would be.
“I was under the impression that pitching was throwing an idea out there to an editor and they’ll be like ‘okay, cool, you have your clips, sounds good, take that idea and run with it,” she explained. “What I’ve realized is making sure that your pitch lands take a lot more than that.”
Lindsey is referring to something that freelancers often encounter: Editors asking for more work before a pitch is fully commissioned. This practice varies from editor to editor (and publication to publication) but is widespread enough that many freelancers have spoken out about it.
There is, importantly, a distinction between pitching and reporting a whole story out. Pitching is an important part of freelancing.
“What editors want to know when freelancers pitch them is ‘is there a story there, what is the story, and how are you going to tell it,” Wudan Yan, a freelancer and Executive Producer of The Writers’ Co-op podcast, emphasized. “When I talk to other freelancers about the business of pitching, I usually say ‘write your pitch as you would a story, show off your style, show your best work, tell the editor what the story is, what matters.’ It’s part of the business, especially if you’re a freelancer.” (Yan also did note that in her almost full decade of freelancing, she hasn’t encountered the expectation that freelancers need to report a story before pitching it).
CJ Janovy, the director of content of KCUR, explained that while the station doesn’t get a ton of freelance pitches, there are some big things they look for in a story pitch.
“The person really needs to have an understanding of what we do and what kind of content we run typically, and then need to know we haven’t done the story they’re pitching,” Janovy said.
“They also have to be able to convince me they have good sources that would talk to them.”
And many freelancers do, to a certain extent, understand why they would be asked to put in some work upfront.
“Editors are taking a chance on you and are hoping that they don’t give you an assignment and have you flake or have you come back and say ‘there’s not really a story here,” Leigh Kunkel, a freelancer who also teaches a course on freelancing at Grinnell College, explained. “It’s reasonable to ask you to be familiar enough to give a topline summary about what you’re talking about, and be able to answer basic questions about it, or say ‘I don’t have the answer to that but this is what I would look at to do it.’”
But when asked to do more than that — especially if it involves getting sources involved before the piece is even commissioned — is where freelancers get frustrated.
Most of the time, freelancing is self-taught. As Meira Gebel wrote in a piece in Business Insider, even the top journalism schools don’t teach enough. Kunkel, who went back to school to get a Masters from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, echoed this sentiment.
“Nobody is teaching students how to freelance,” Kunkel said. “They’re all assuming we’re going to be in newsrooms and that’s just not the case, whether it’s by choice (like me) or because the job market is really volatile, and a lot of times people are let go, through no fault of their own.”
Writers also always run the risk that a story may not work out. However, this affects freelancers more than those employed by a publication.
“As someone who has been on staff nearly a decade, I’ve seen stories from staffers get killed at various stages of the reporting process,” Kate Knibbs, who is currently a staff writer at WIRED, explained. “Sometimes, someone will be reporting something for six months and it will fall about. If you’re a staffer and that happens, it’s okay because you get a paycheck. But if you’re a freelancer and that happens and you haven’t even been able to pitch the story, you’re not even going to get a kill fee for your time.” Some publications do offer payment in form of a kill fee, usually between 25 to 50 percent of the agreed fee for the original article, but it’s not always honored and not every publication that contracts freelancers adheres to the practice.
Because of the independent nature of freelancing, it is often up to the writer to decide the time and resources to put into each assignment. Not everyone has the time to devote to extensive background research.
“I always needed money regularly and quickly, so a story that required a lot of pre-reporting wasn’t something I was financially capable of taking on,” Knibbs explained. “I would have loved to take bigger swings as a young writer but I didn’t feel like I could because I needed money and didn’t feel like the freelancing system allowed people who didn’t have that much of a safety net to survive.”
“People who are a little greener may have to show a little more and also may not know how to do that,” Yan added. “They might have to spend more time learning that and depending on people’s race, background, socioeconomic status, they might not have the financial or time resources of being able to dedicate it to research.”
These constraints often influence what kinds of stories are being told.
“Everything is mediated by what people actually have the time and resources for,” Lindsey explained. “The harder you’re grinding at your 9-5 job, whatever that is, and whatever social position you’re in, the less time you can spend on unpaid forms of labor such as pre-reporting a story that you don’t know whether it’s going to get published or not. It’s dictated by what kinds of people in this world have free time and free resources and already know that that’s a specific set of people.”
As Kunkel remarks, it’s a weird catch-22.
“You can’t get the experience until someone gives you the chance but no one’s going to give you the chance if you haven’t had the experience,” she said. “And the solution to it is to do all this extra work beforehand, but it’s still not guaranteed it’s going to pay off. In my opinion, asking someone to do this pre-reporting is not a good solution and seems like it will fall upon people who are already at a disadvantage.”
Hannah Docter-Loeb is a freelance writer who loves to write about pop culture, science, and her hometown of Washington D.C. You can find her work at hdocterloeb.com. This piece was edited by Marlee Baldridge. Copy editing by Gabe Schneider.
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