How to forge a career as a freelance journo

Screenshot of speakers Penny O'Donnell, Fran Molloy and Gary Nunn.

Can I consider freelancing a career? How much do I rate per word? What’s the benefit of joining a network? Simple questions like these can be intimidating as a young journo.

When starting out, there is a lot of uncertainty, agree journalists, editors and entrepreneurs in a discussion on future freelancing directions at the Launceston Freelance Festival. Here are some of their best tips:

First of all – know what you want. “Deciding I’m going to be a full-time freelancer felt like being released out of prison,” says British journalist Gary Nunn, “It didn’t take the pandemic for me to realise that I like working from home.”

One of his key lessons: being flexible. Gary Nunn sends his pitches back and forward between the UK and Australia, writes for The Guardian, as well as for News Corp. Knowing that might sound controversial, by the end of the day it’s about being practical, he says: “In my guts, I am a storyteller.”

Journalist, part-time university lecturer and freelance editor Fran Molloy agrees: “Have a mix of work. Some for love, some for money. Some stories might not be exciting, but they pay the rent. So be as flexible and optimistic as possible.”

Being patient is also key. Especially straight after university. “It takes years for a freelance career to build up,” says Danielle Cronin, editor for the Brisbane Times. So joining a community or a network is an essential support.

In uncertain times like these, writer and Professor Penny O’Donnell emphasises the need to keep reinventing your business: “Technology means constant change for freelance journalism.”

How to pitch a story is an art in itself. However, all editors want the same: “It’s all about the story,” says Danielle Cronin. “I want a strong hook and high-quality writing.”

“What I respond to most is the idea, or if the pitch displays that the journalist has done his or her homework – does this story work with us as an outlet?” Plus, be clear about payment expectations. No need to be shy about it.

According to Fran, 50 cents per word are minimum. “Be firm about it.”

Just little things make all the difference, says Gary: “I forced myself to get up an hour earlier and sending my pitches out an hour earlier. That did help a lot. Be brief, current and well researched.”

Breaking international barriers isn’t as hard as it might seem, the British journalist adds: “Twitter helps a lot. And as your career runs along, it gets easier – you gain experience and contacts.”

Speaker Danielle Cronin.

Journalist Nina Hendy‘s best advice is straight forward: “Be an expert in something. Do amazing work, over and over again”

“Have a great website. Join a network or community. Spread the risk around, don’t put all eggs in one basket, meaning get more work from one or two clients.”

However, Nina Hendy doesn’t believe in resumes: “It’s not necessary to send a resume, your work should speak for itself. Everything is on my LinkedIn or on my website.”

Regarding the future of freelance journalism, all editors on the panel agreed: If you can, be as optimistic and as flexible as possible. Then being a freelancer can turn into the most rewarding career, despite all difficulties.