I’m often asked what I’m up to by someone from the PR industry or from a vendor. The aim for them is to get a better understanding of how I work, but the answer isn’t always straight forward. When I was working at Incisive Media, for Computing, and then later at V3 and the Inquirer, I worked on some types of content, focused on specific topic areas, and could more easily predict what I would be doing from one month to the next.
As a freelancer, this is completely different. In fact, on the most part I don’t know if many of the publications I’m working for at any given time will be commissioning me next month – even though some of them have been giving me steady work for a number of months or years.
So how do freelancers get their work?
• Pitching ideas
The most common process is to pitch ideas to editors that are seeking content this means having genuinely new ideas. Often, those within the PR industry will suggest topics or ideas that they feel are new and could work for a specific publication – but from my own experience, I find that most of my ideas come from reading around the topic and from my own interviews and conversations.
• Pitching people
There are some publications that like the idea of interviewing a certain type of executive, so perhaps I will pitch these publications with leads I have in this area. Once again, it’s worth noting what types of executive are interviewed – for one publication I would write IT leader interviews, and many people would confuse this with “any C-level executive in the technology industry”. It’s actually only for CIOs or their equivalent from end-user organisations.
• Long-term commissions
There are also longer-term agreements with publications that many journalists have. This could be news-shifts for a set period, or a number of features written every month, or a number of interviews to write per month. Once again, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are likely to change constantly for a freelancer, so what they’re doing in January may be very different come June.
Events have become essential for B2B journalists, but freelancers will look at them in a very different way. For example, a ‘likely’ number of potential interviewees to speak to at an event is not good enough. Why? Because a freelancer will likely have to ask a publication if they want them to cover the event for them, with news and interview angles in mind. Travelling halfway around the world and realising that two key interviewees have cancelled their interviews is not going to work – there needs to be a guarantee that these are going to take place. I need to ensure I can get a number of commissions for an event to be worth my time away from home.
Other important points include:
• Controlling the publication
There is an assumption from some within the industry that just because you’ve written for a publication for a long time on a freelance basis, you’re able to control their Content Management System (otherwise known as CMS), make edits, add backlinks, push back deadlines and even change the themes to make them suit a vendor or agency. This is almost never the case – although some editors are very flexible with deadlines and are happy to make certain adjustments, this is usually only when discussed with the journalist and is required because the journalist feels this needs to be done. This also applies to one of the most annoying types of e-mail freelancers receive…the dreaded ‘byline or opinion article’. This isn’t something we have control over, and even if for some bizarre reason we did, as freelancers it wouldn’t make sense for us to publish someone else’s work.
• Having your client approve an article, after it has been written
I’m not sure any journalist, in-house or otherwise, would be happy to be told after an interview that the client or customer needs to review the article before it is published. If this isn’t discussed beforehand, then it shouldn’t be happening at all. The difference for freelancers is that this could at best delay them submitting the article to the commissioning editor and at worst not be able to submit it at all. Without a published article, a freelancer can’t request payment, and without payment…. Well you get where this is going.
• Other ways we work
Unfortunately, freelance budgets have been dwindling at publications, despite a drop in the number of staffers working in-house. Fortunately, there are various other ways that journalists can earn a living. That includes moderating panels at events, hosting events, working on content with agencies or vendors, working on video and other multimedia content, and various other types of work. In other words, no longer are freelance journalists just ‘journalists’.
And just to end…
Although most freelance journalists do work from home and enjoy attending events and networking with other industry professionals, it’s worth bearing in mind that they won’t just write about a vendor in a publication because they’ve invited them to a great event or even hired them as a copywriter. Respected journalists, be they in-house or freelancers, work independently, with no bias, and only publish stories they feel are right for a publication and meet its editorial guidelines.
Ultimately, freelance journalists rely on interesting stories, strong spokespeople, and helpful PR agencies. Approach us with a remarkable customer news story and an insightful executive on the other end of the phone, and there might just be an editor we can pitch an article to.
Sooraj Shah is a journalist, editor and copywriter specialising in B2B technology with strong contacts in the IT and technology industry. He is currently Contributing Editor for New Statesman Tech and Contributor for Forbes. As a freelance journalist he has written for and continues to write for publications including The Guardian, Raconteur, Computer Weekly, CIO UK, Diginomica, The Register, Computing, Infosecurity Magazine, SC Magazine UK and Information Age.