[from my weekly Thoughtful Thursdays series on the Oregon News Incubator blog . . .]
As a follow-up on the “sharing what we know” post, here’s an email Q&A I did recently with a Portland area student who is curious about journalism and chose this profession as the focus for a school project. He contacted me for my perspective on the industry.
Q: What field did you expect to enter originally?
A: Originally? I entered college as a mechanical engineering student, with my eyes set on NASA and astronautics. I graduated with a degree in religion and hoped at that point for a career in film production. I’ve also worked in multimedia and IT/web development.
Q: What do you do on a typical workday? What do you spend the majority of your time doing?
A: There really is no typical workday. I spend most of my time juggling different projects and potential projects, doing research on both — from background web searches to scheduling, prepping for and conducting interviews. I also spend a lot of time reading, to keep myself apprised of news in my specialty areas, to better acquaint myself with specific newspapers, magazines and websites, and to keep up to speed with what my colleagues are up to.
Q: What are the greatest rewards and toughest demands of the job?
A: Time management and keeping focused are two big challenges. It’s really easy to get distracted, especially with the ever-escalating 24-hour news cycle always pulling at me. The greatest reward — because it’s certainly not the normally paltry paychecks — is getting to meet and talk with really interesting and generous people whom I otherwise likely would never have crossed paths with, and having the opportunity to tell their stories. On the fiction side, the big reward thus far has been working what seems like endless hours to weave multiple story lines together in a way that actually works, so that the entire manuscript not only holds together but entertains and makes people laugh.
Q: If you could not continue in your present career what other kinds of work would you be qualified to do?
A: I have taught religious diversity classes to high school students and at senior centers. I’m a seminary-trained interfaith minister, a certified hypnotherapist, a master in several different energy healing traditions . . . But most other tracks would still be closely related to my work as a journalist/writer, tech writer and communications consultant.
Q: How does your job affect your lifestyle (dress, leisure time, home life, social life, overall quality of life)?
A: It’s a mixed bag. I get to set my own hours and work out of a home office, but it can be lonely without the camaraderie of the water cooler or a staff newsroom. I do feel like I’m always working — even when I’m not at my desk, I’m often even unconsciously looking for new ideas or story leads — but I think that’s true of any creative professional.
Q: How would you best advise me to prepare for this occupation?
A: Set up informational interviews with other journalists and editors, particularly those at publications or media channels that you admire or aspire to. Work on college newspapers or news/radio channels and do internships before you graduate, if possible. I didn’t go to journalism school and so can’t really recommend (or not recommend) going that route. Practice by interviewing your friends and blogging a lot. Learn how to transcribe, and learn short-hand if you can (I wish I had). Study how journalism is reaching beyond just the written word — to audio, images/photography, video, interactive multimedia, etc. — to tell rich stories and convey information in powerful ways, and pick up as many tech skills as you can, while still making sure you have a solid grounding in how to do research and how to construct a story.
And make sure you have other skills to fall back on.
Q: Are there some books, groups or other resources you could recommend?
A: The Reynolds Center offers decent (and usually free) training, aimed more at business journalists but still useful to writers in other fields. There are great books on freelancing and how to build a writer’s platform/brand — e.g., The Renegade Writer (Linda Formichelli); My So-Called Freelance Life (Michelle Goodman); Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future (Dan Schawbel); Six-Figure Freelancing (Kelly James-Enger); Ready, Aim, Specialize!: Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money! (Kelly James-Enger). There are also a ton of blogs and other resources aimed at writers of all different specialties — one of my favorites is Michelle Rafter’s Wordcount.
Freelance Success is a great online community/association for independents.
Q: What opportunities exist for advancement and/or lateral movement?
A: As a freelancer, I suppose you’d measure advancement strictly by your own metrics — whether that’s how much money you’re making, your quality of life, what magazines or newspapers you’re writing for, how many people are reading what you write, etc. It’s going to be a different formula for each writer.
If you’re on staff, you’d ideally be able to move up the ranks at your publication to Senior Correspondent or whatever. You may also be able to move into editing, public relations, education/training or advertising.
Q: How do most people find out about jobs in this occupation?
A: Everywhere! You get assignments and contracts based on networking, attending conferences, keeping an eye on job boards, and approaching editors or companies through cold-calling and cold-pitching.
What questions do you have about working as an independent/freelance journalist? How would you answer the above questions? ONI is all about sharing resources, information and ideas — and helping each other succeed and even thrive in this “age of transition” that journalism is now facing.
(Creative Commons photo by Yan Arief Purwanto)