A J-Source reader asked for advice on jump-starting a career as a freelance journalist. Rebecca Collard, a Canadian freelancer working in the Middle East and North Africa, shares her tips. This series is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.
Question: I've worked as a newspaper reporter and have about five years of experience. Now, I'm striking out as a freelancer. How do I get magazines, which I've never written for before, to give me a chance? Should I take a course in magazine writing?
Rebecca Collard is a Canadian freelance journalist working in the Middle East and North Africa since 2007. She has reported extensively on the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the impact of the Syrian civil war for CBC, BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone Middle East, among other international organizations. She is currently based in Beirut.
Being a freelance journalist is great in a lot of ways—getting to choose your own stories and really shaping them the way you want—but the business part can be tough. You need to think about new markets and venues for your work because in the end, you need to make a living as well as make a name for yourself.
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Breaking into a new field is always difficult, so my first suggestion would be to pitch niche magazines specializing in food, culture architecture—or trade publications. They pay and it will help you get long-form experience under your belt while keeping you working.
It really depends on what you want to write about, but I would look beyond just Canadian publications for more opportunities. American magazines often have bigger budgets and there are just way more of them. For example, I recently did a piece for an American brewing magazine, and it paid three times as much as the only Canadian magazine I ever wrote for.
Perhaps the most important thing is pitching. If you came from a staff job, the pitching process might be new, or at least very different from what you are used to. Courses can be useful, but there are also resources online about how to pitch effectively. Reach out to editors you know and pick their brains about what gets their attention. Really, that’s what the pitch is about: getting the editor’s attention, perhaps with a colourful lead, then outlining your idea and the reporting you plan to do. Don’t make them guess what the story will look like; editors are busy and want to know exactly what they are commissioning.
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