Surviving and thriving
NOVEMBER'S London Freelance Branch meeting offered tips for finding new work and going into new fields of work, under the current trying circumstances. Our flat-screen (as against round-table) discussion was kicked off by trainers Steve Mathieson and Louise Bolotin, with contributions from Branch Committee members Magda Ibrahim and Nick Renaud-Komiya on their recent experiences. At least 73 members joined in.
Steve Mathieson worked as a freelance journalist from 2000 to 2007 and since 2014, mainly on technology and government for publications including Computer Weekly, The Register and the Guardian. Since 2019 he has run a data journalism module for Masters students at Birkbeck College, University of London. He delivered his first training course on freelancing in 2016, and now runs the NUJ's "First steps in freelancing" and "Winning and negotiating freelance work" courses.
Steve notes that "there's been more interest than usual in these courses, including interest from people who are on staff but expect not to be in the near future. I've been stressing the importance of being adaptable and diversification." Participants in the courses had mentioned branching out into public relations and corporate writing.
"In some ways the world has been catching up with how many freelancers work," Steve observes, "and arguably that has given us a head start. We're often used to working remotely. I've been working from home for several years and I am fortunate to have the space and the kit to do it well. It's as though the rest of the word has caught up - now we are fitting in with editors and clients who work that way too."
At least one of the people attending his courses has described "going from famine to feast". People's experiences "range from this to pretty awful". Some business have rebounded. One gave Steve a week's cover for someone diverted to do a big commercial project.
Succeeding at present feels like "a combination of luck and taking the opportunities that are there". Steve was due to edit an issue of a magazine that would have been printed to be available at a two-day conference. Inevitably the conference was shifted online - and changed to run over a week. This allowed him to try something different: "it turned into five daily online newsletters. It was a bit of a workout but the client was very happy with it."
Steve's journalism covers technology and government - and both are growth areas at the moment. He did, though, lose a couple of clients in the spring. Some stopped commissioning freelances at all.
So he took the chance to learn new skills: "I took advantage of training provided by my main university client, Birkbeck College, to learn how to teach online - and I turned that into a new line of business." He became familiar with Microsoft Teams and Birkbeck's particular software. "Be prepared to change your plan," he says, "until you find something that works."
Finally, "there are those with whom you maybe have had a more oppositional relationship, such as press officers." They may still have jobs, but, Steve notes, "they are likely to be doing one-and-a-half jobs. Now may be a good time to start cutting them some slack."
Louise Bolotin has served on the NUJ's Freelance Industrial Council and Professional Training Committee. She also previously co-tutored two of the NUJ's freelance courses and now teaches versions of them on Zoom - next on 26 November. She has worked for BBC Radio Manchester, launched a hyperlocal news site and had bylines in national newspapers and magazines. She works mainly as a sub-editor these days, with her bread-and-butter income coming from commercial editing work.
Louise says: "I've been quite busy trying to bring work back to me - most of it has involved spending my way out of the mire, on the basis that you sometimes need to spend a bit to earn a bit. I've invested in some training and a new website. I realise not everyone can afford to do that, though."
"I lost everything the week before lockdown," Louise recalls. "I was laid off from the local paper where I'd been a freelance sub and at the same time all my commercial work was cancelled. I suddenly had absolutely nothing."
Under lockdown she "had time to review - and realised I'd let some things slide. I invested in training - I paid for a Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading course. I also found many webinars and free training courses - the Federation of Entertainment Unions (FEU) offers "really good courses". She found that the webinar on "cash flow planning through the crisis and beyond" helped alleviate financial panic. Also having attended the FEU "grow your business by email marketing" course led Louise to be issuing her third newsletter next week. FEU courses "are so good and they are free to NUJ members".
These FEU courses are under threat: see the call to save them.
The Society of Freelance Journalists "has really helped me keep me going when I've been struggling and feeling like I'm never going to work again," Louise says. Also the Freelance Journalism Assembly "offers lots of training courses and schemes for emotional support and mental health, and those have been really important." It also offers courses in pitching, personal branding and finances - "and it's free to join".
While Louise was doing shifts she "hadn't pitched a story in two years. I got really active - and I got into the Daily Telegraph first time with a piece on why I couldn't see my partner."
Meanwhile, "I polished my CV and updated my directory entries, including the NUJ's own freelancedirectory.org. LinkedIn has led to work." She's fully booked this month - "for the first time since March I've had a full month's work." But the standard uncertainty of freelancing continues: "I've nothing booked for December, yet."
Nick Renaud-Komiya is stepping down as co-chair of the Branch partly because he has had too much work. His main angle is as a personal finance journalist: "obviously when it came to lockdown, clients I had previously worked with needed people to work on, for example, explaining furlough, Having to keep on top of all the changes to that is a big deal, as Mike Holderness said earlier" in the meeting.
Nick's background is in health journalism - "I drifted over to personal finance by accident". Part of his income is now copywriting for business-to-business (B2B) communication - for example software companies creating patient records systems, which draws on his health experience.
In January, before lockdown, "I was facing a few months of not much on, and went into concerted marketing". So he had sorted out some potential clients before lockdown. Some of that he did through cold-calling people: "do you need extra freelance editorial capacity? I might be able to help..." and he reports that with persistence you can get through,
Magda Ibrahim spoke at a Branch meeting on 9 March and told us "how much I love working at the Evening Standard". But... "a couple of weeks after that I was furloughed, and then left."
She was "fortunate that at that time I was able to retain work with the Sunday Times that I'd been doing at the weekend." She got slightly more, in fact: "because of lockdown they wanted to reduce the number of different people going in to the office - I was fortunate to get more shifts."
So, Magda recalls, "the kids went back to school and I think: what am I going to do now?"
She "remembered how much I loved court reporting. So I took myself off - and found myself pitching to papers. I contacted someone on the digital side who I'd been in contact with to find out who to pitch to." That piece didn't come off, "but it led indirectly to me getting work at Sun Online, which is where I am now." She's doing shifts there as a digital news reporter and working as freelance stringer as well.
Magda has got work through email lists and newsletters and Women in Journalism - and she recalls that "their mentoring scheme got me that work at the Sunday Times."
She reiterated what Louise had said: "Put Yourself Out There". Expect to be knocked back. "I went from this job I loved to not having it any more - getting to the point where you don't feel bad about that can be a challenge." But "there is loads of work out there particularly on the digital news side... I'm hearing about people who need people to go in for shifts." Just contact people: "as long as you're being polite and friendly there's no reason you shouldn't send emails and other messages..."
Branch Committee member Pierre Alozie hadn't come across any advice specifically for photographers... Chair Matt Salusbury had been talking to photographers outside the house of Dominic Cummings - a the time A Downing Street Source. They confirmed that though work on culture and sporting events has stopped, the papers still need photos to fill the paper - so they're re-deploying photographers and using more news photos. Matt had also met people who've gone into scanning and cleaning up family album photos for private clients.
Pierre agreed that he had met sport and fashion photographers on demonstrations.
Steve Mathieson asked Louise about paying for newsletters. She replied that Professional Freelancer on Slack costs £90 a year, though there is a free taster. She had found it worthwhile to find "corporate work that will bring in real money." (See our report of the meeting on 13 July, when we heard about producing newsletters.) She also said that she "doesn't do very much pitching these days, because I'm mostly doing production stuff."
Steve said he looked at Contently.net, a US company which aims to match freelancers with corporate clients, although he has not found work through it. He shared links to some articles on the site which may be helpful:
- "Twitter, DMs, and Geotags: These Are the New Rules for Pitching in 2020"
- "Forget the Big Fish: Go for the Guppies to Get More Work"
- "The Art of the Quick Turnaround"
He also recommended joining an organisation of journalists in your main specialist field - which might be a reminder to himself to re-join the Medical Journalists' Association.
Member David Landau asked: what's the best way to exploit LinkedIn?
Louise summed it up: "be on there and work the feed" For a long time she "didn't interact, just updated my CV from time to time. Now I respond to posts and make comments and post announcements of my own content, my newsletter and so on. That generates interaction and that s what had led to someone I knew in real life putting work my way through LinkedIn. I get those emails saying 'you've appeared in 59 searches' and no-one has ever been in touch as a result of a search. Interaction is the thing."
Members offered a range of further links to explore:
- Open Classrooms
- Future Learn
- Sian Meades-Williams's Freelance Writing Jobs
- The Professional Freelancer
- Hattie Gladwell has a Patreon that is "similar to The Professional Freelancer but contains more curated pitches": Freelance Pitch Calls
- Write At Home
- Pitch Whiz "very cool..."
- Linkedin for journalists