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Freelancers in the media

Freelancing could be the answer to media graduate employment dilemmas

While you’re job hunting, freelancing can help you get a foot on the media career ladder. But how do you start pitching content, get noticed, get enough work and ultimately, get paid?

Nothing screams ‘delete’ or ‘bin me’ louder than poor spelling and bad research

The art of pitching

There’s no failsafe route to successful pitching. It helps if you know the editor to whom you’re pitching, so maintain contacts and relationships and use a direct approach wherever possible, never ‘Dear Editor’ – it shows you couldn’t be bothered to find out. Spell names correctly. Nothing screams ‘delete’ or ‘bin me’ louder than poor spelling and bad research.

Pitch a travel feature to the travel editor, an interiors feature to the property editor and so on. Write a very brief synopsis of your proposal, stating why it’s relevant or interesting and what qualifies you to write, film or record it – your expertise, your interest, your qualifications or all three. You can find out how editors like to be approached through a publication such as The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook.


If you don’t succeed with one pitch try another. Recycle your ideas elsewhere (but don’t let on). Adapt to suit the market and pitch more than one feature idea at once if you have plenty. Keep your chin up. Rejection is part of the process of freelancing.

Get serious

Treat freelancing as a small business enterprise if it’s how you intend earning your daily bread. Get your laptop, printer and phone and designate an area in which you’ll work, even if you can’t afford a separate room. A table or desk, decent chair and lamp is enough furniture for the time being.

Get visible

Set up a blogsite or a website, or both, use Pinterest, Tumblr and a social media address so your contact details can be found easily. Keep your web presence up-to-date and refresh content whenever possible. If you don’t have any content published yet use your blog. Make sure it is spell-checked and grammatically correct. It’s your new shop window.

Get paid

Tricky this. The world of freelancing has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, but many publications and organisations still place a financial value on content that's good, whether writing, photography or broadcasting. Before you agree to work for nothing ask yourself what’s in it for you. Will it look good on your CV? Does it give you experience you need? And ask yourself how many times you can afford to do this. Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject of payment – even if it’s just £50 as a start. Good content has a value – look at how much the Huffington Post was sold for in 2011…

And here are the views of those who have already done it…

Freelance cameraman and film maker Cameron Wheels

When Cameron was applying for jobs straight out of university he found himself in a Catch-22 dilemma. His first class honours degree and good range of work and internship posts meant production companies overlooked his applications for tea-boy jobs, telling him he was too experienced, but his youth left him unable to drive hire vans and take on a more senior role.

‘I basically decided it was as easy to work for myself as work for somebody else,’ said Cameron, who set up a business under the name On Grapevine. ‘I got a couple of big breaks: my first job was filming a big PR campaign for Woolworths featuring Jedward and the world’s biggest pass-the-parcel at Christmas, then I got work filming pharmaceutical commercials for some big ad agencies featuring clients like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.’

He has since won a scholarship with Doug Richard’s School for Start-ups which gives him an insight into being your own boss and has helped give him confidence in his ability to run his own business. Now he’s higher up the chain he finds he’s able to be more creative and that in turns leads to better contracts with greater revenue.

Self-belief is important if you’re working as a freelancer or running a business as a sole trader, Cameron told us. ‘You need to listen to what people tell you, but you must believe in yourself – I’m one of my biggest critics and that’s a lesson I’ve learned.'

Multi-award-winning journalist Mark Nicholls

'Respect deadlines, adhere to them,’ said Mark, who was named 2012 Travel Trade Feature Writer of the Year by the British Travel Press. Don’t write 1500 words when you’ve only been asked for 1000; it makes extra work for the editor who has to cut your copy to length.

Delivering fair and accurate and clean copy that’s informative and entertaining will win you repeat commissions. Being flexible is an important aspect of successful freelancing, but though as a staff features writer Mark has written on all sorts of subjects and as a defence correspondent he was embedded in a war zone, (he’s also an award winning health writer as well as an award winning travel writer), he emphasises there are times to say no to a commission. ‘Don’t accept a commission on something you don’t understand or don’t usually write about. Know your own strengths and play to them,’ he told us.

Freelance journalist and broadcaster Justin Bowyer

Justin writes about cycling, running and films – three of his big passions – and is a regular radio broadcaster, but he didn’t start by pitching to national titles. He thought local, small and strategically when he began his freelance career. ‘It’s always easier to make an impression on local media,’ he advised.

Having an opinion you can back up is an asset, but that doesn’t mean following a crowd – nor does it mean being controversial for the sake of it, he says. Knowing your subject matter inside out is a given. ‘There are people who are massive experts in say, technical running shoes, but they’re just not very good writers,’ Justin told us.

Now that editors come to him, Justin said: ‘Work begets work.’ But though he networks, he prefers to stay in contact with people personally rather than through networking sites. ‘A number of times I make contact with someone, or meet up for a coffee and a person will say in passing they have a job for me,’ he told us, adding that staying in touch with course mates can also prove useful.

He points out that if an email is the first contact you make with an editor it is essential it contains no spelling mistakes, is grammatically correct and well punctuated and gets noticed for the right reasons.

‘I know an editor who gets hundreds of emails a month and 99% of them he has to ignore – he’s too damned busy to read them,’ Justin told us. ‘I get hopeful emails from young writers from time to time that are very badly written and that tells me something about the standard of care they are going to take with their article. You are never going to take a punt on someone who can’t be bothered to proofread their email pitch.’

Be friendly and make the tea

Freelance radio presenter, producer, voice-over artist and journalist Jo Thoenes

Jo started her broadcast career in Kenya by asking the boss of a yet-to-be set-up station what she could do to get a job there. After broadcasting across a series of stations in the UK, she now presents a radio show for BBC Oxford. Seize any chance you have in the media world, be friendly and make the tea, she advised.

‘I'd just say make sure you work really hard to keep in editors’ minds... drop them the odd email to keep them updated on what you are up to, so that when they need to think of someone to fill an emergency slot you are in the forefront of their minds,’ she told us.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, Jo advised. ‘Always ask about local quirks – the team won't think less of you if you are from off-patch if you ask about place names that are new to you. But listeners will ring the phone off the hook if they catch you mis-pronouncing something!’

Consider different platforms on which to expose your talent. ‘Most broadcasters have websites too now so keep your writing skills up and prepare to be a jack-of-all-trades,’ she told us. ‘Get to know the station style – it’s about being able to provide solid content for them in the house style rather than showcasing/show ponying your personal style.’

Her last piece of advice may be boring, but it’s essential for everyone working freelance. ‘Stay on top of your admin... know who you have worked for and what you are being paid. You are going to have to pay tax on it all, so get an accountant if you are worried about the ins and outs,’ she told us.

Writer, journalist, senior editor and managing producer of magazines, Sandra Kessell of TARGETjobs

‘For a first introduction I still like the old-fashioned paper approach. Why? Paper mail can be left and returned to during a lull in the production schedule, even if that’s a week after it arrived. My rule is “very interesting or bin/delete” but I read the first line of everything. One editor I worked with (now publishing director at a big media group) used to delete his ENTIRE in-box regularly on the grounds that anything important he hadn’t replied to would be re-sent after a day or two and the rest he could live without.

‘Besides all the good advice here I’d add that managing your schedule to meet deadlines is an important aspect of your new job description especially if you are working for more than one organisation – which will happen if your freelance career heads for success.’