7 Tips and Truths for the Independent Journalist

Have you noticed a lot of folks in your journalism networks ditching their full-time jobs and going independent lately? Me too.

It’s part of a national trend across industries, about which plenty of ink is being spilled and airtime spent. Over the course of the pandemic year, millions of people realized they wanted more out of life than to be tied to a workplace, a boss, and a daily grind — and journalists were no different. They spent the past year responding to a news cycle that was impossibly demanding, physically and emotionally, often without adequate staffing or support from their organizations. Many are now jumping ship.

News organizations should take heed — and quickly — if they want to hold onto their people. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today, I’m writing to all the folks who’ve already taken the leap into self-employment and to those considering it. Because I’ve been there. 

Almost eight years ago, I left a perfectly fine job — and a spectacular view — at Colorado Public Radio to launch my journalism consulting and editing business, Smelser E&C. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It hasn’t always been easy, though, and I’ve learned more than a few lessons along the way. Today, I’m sharing seven truths and practical tips for those just starting out on this exciting and sometimes daunting journey.

1. Financial uncertainty is guaranteed.

A few times over the past eight years, I’ve thought I might have to ditch this whole journalism thing and go work at Starbucks. If any self-employed person denies having similar thoughts, I’d advise you to question their veracity. A new client or opportunity always presented itself before I started barista training, but there’s no denying things can get a little scary sometimes when you work for yourself.

You’ll soon learn that “feast-or-famine” is more than a cliche. One month, you may find yourself so busy you’re turning down work; the next, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. If you don’t have the stomach for those ups and downs, you may be better off sticking it out with your employer. 

2. Marketing is part of the job. So is bookkeeping. And engineering. And contract negotiation …

You probably quit your job — or hope to — because you want to focus on the thing you love most, whether that’s investigative reporting, or narrative storytelling, or editing, or training and mentoring, or podcasting, or strategy, or whatever your passion may be. The good news is, self-employment lets you do that. You get to decide exactly which engagements to take and which to turn down, and I can’t begin to describe how empowering that is. 

On the flip side, self-employment makes you keenly aware of things you probably took for granted at your old job. If your computer dies or your equipment craps out, there’s no IT person or engineer to come running to your aid. The money stuff — which journalists are trained to avoid and often find distasteful — that’s your job too. Negotiating and writing contracts, sending invoices, chasing payments, tracking expenses — all you. 

And then there’s the marketing. You’ve probably spent your career telling other people’s stories, but when you work for yourself, you have to be comfortable telling your own. Marketing means building and maintaining a website, collecting and editing testimonials, having a presence on LinkedIn and social media platforms where your clients hang out, sending newsletters, speaking at conferences, networking regularly, and yes, writing a blog. It’s a serious time commitment and, for many journalists, a whole new skill set you’ll need to cultivate.

3. Line up clients before you quit.

The leap into self-employment can be scary, but the fear factor is a lot lower if you’re not leaping into a total void. On my last day at Colorado Public Radio, I had two engagements already lined up — huge shoutout to WKSU and WMFE for their faith in me during that startup phase. 

Before you hand in your resignation letter, start quietly reaching out to your network. Ask people whose discretion you trust to spread the word that you’re planning to hang out your shingle, and see what bubbles up. If nothing does, it may be a much-needed reality check about the level of demand for your services; if you get a nibble or two, you’ll have the jump start you need for a successful beginning.

4. Don’t undercharge.

This is the biggest mistake independents make, myself very much included. My rates have gone up 300% since I launched my business — not because I suddenly started gauging my clients, but because my initial rates were laughably low.

Like most people, I based my initial rate on the hourly equivalent of my full-time salary. That means I failed to consider three important factors: 1) the uncompensated time I’d need to spend on the activities listed above; 2) the cost of providing my own equipment, furniture, and supplies; and 3) benefits. When you’re self-employed, you pay for your own health, dental, and life insurance; nobody contributes to your 401k; and you certainly don’t get paid sick time or vacations. All that stuff has to be factored in. AIR has done some great work around rates for various types of audio-related services, so that’s a great place to start if you’re a member.

There’s so much more I could say about rates — hourly vs per-project, different rates for different clients vs one rate for everyone, etc. But if you start with the principle of asking for what you really need and what you’re really worth, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

5. Never work without a contract.

Nope, not even if the client is your best friend in the whole world. Not even if you would trust your client with your life. Not even if your client is Mother Teresa. Get a contract.

6. Charge for late payments and cancellations.

Most of my clients have been stellar about paying on time; the exceptions taught me to protect myself with a late payment clause that’s now standard in all my contracts. Likewise, frustrating experiences with appointments being cancelled at the last minute gave rise to my standard cancellation clause, which solved the problem almost immediately.

7. Think of yourself as a business, not an employee with many bosses.

You struck out on your own because you wanted greater control over your career and your working life. Don’t turn around and give it away by allowing your clients to dictate critical elements of your business.

You set your rates, not your clients. You are an equal partner with your clients in contract negotiations. You control your schedule and your hours of availability. Be upfront about those things — with yourself and with your clients.

You do have to strike a balance between your needs and those of your clients, but you cannot and should not try to be all things to all people. You may end up turning down work because of the boundaries you’ve set, but in my view, that’s not only ok — it’s what puts the “independence” in being an independent.

More advice?

I’ve noticed requests for this kind of advice ticking up, as more journalists take the leap into self-employment. These seven tips and truths represent the tip of the iceberg, of course, but hopefully they’ve stimulated your thinking. 

I’ve also decided to add coaching for independents to my list of service offerings, for people who want more customized, detailed, or ongoing support on their independent journeys. If this sounds like you, feel free to reach out.

See what I just did there? Marketing!

7 Tips and Truths for the Independent Journalist

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