As the news industry lurches from one existential crisis to another, one bright spot has emerged for those of us crazy enough to consider it: freelancing. With fewer staff reporters on the ground, freelance journalists have increasingly become the best and sometimes only resources for news outlets to gather the facts, details, and color they need to tell the world’s stories. And for those yearning to report overseas, going freelance has increasingly become the best—or at least the quickest—way to do that.
When I attended Columbia Journalism School in 2010, there were no classes or lessons on freelancing. The goal was to graduate and get a job at a respected news organization. Yet after five years in New York, where I worked my way up from production assistant at ABC News, to researcher at NBC News, and finally to producer at MSNBC, I still wasn’t satisfied sitting behind a desk in New York. I was learning from some of the most talented people in the business, yet my dream was to write and report from abroad. After meeting with nearly a dozen producers and correspondents who told me that there simply weren’t enough jobs to go around at foreign bureaus, I realized the only way I was going to make this happen was if I did it myself.
In 2013, I quit my job at NBC News, tried not to listen to everyone who told me I was insane, moved to Tel Aviv, and became a freelance journalist. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Sometimes, I still don’t. Yet four years later, I’m now writing for publications like Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, U.S. News, and Rolling Stone, filing features not only from Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but from Germany, Morocco, Nepal, and anywhere else I decide to write about.
Over the years, I’ve learned some important lessons about freelancing. Here are some of them:
Freelancing is a choice. Decide whether it’s right for you.
Freelancing requires a certain kind of mentality—or some might say, insanity. Yes, there is the rush of adventure and independence that allows you to choose your stories, create your own schedule, write the way you want to write, report where you want to report, and take vacation whenever you damn well please. Yet you also need to be able to handle the responsibility and hustle that comes with that lifestyle: constantly pitching stories, juggling deadlines, and chasing paychecks from stories already published. For some, this can be overwhelmingly stressful. If you prefer a routine, enjoy going to work in the same place every day with the same people, and find it comforting knowing that stories and assignments will come to you whether or not you search for them, then freelancing is probably not for you.
Save before you take the leap.
Whether you decide to report from home or abroad, you will need to have some money in the bank before you jump off a company’s payroll. The first few months will revolve around making contacts with sources and editors, getting the lay of the land of freelancing, and possibly a new country. You should have enough money to live off of while you get settled into this new life, so that you don’t quit before you’ve even given yourself the chance to succeed. Everyone has different costs of living, as do cities, so there is no one rule of thumb. I’m personally not great at living frugally, yet was able to live comfortably off of $10,000 in savings for my first six months while I focused on learning the local language, making contacts, and getting to know my territory. And Tel Aviv, the city where I settled, is not cheap. Once you do start making a living from freelancing, you may not be able to save up at first, but if you work diligently, you could start saving again after one or two years of steady reporting—even sooner if you’re better at budgeting than I am.
Know, or learn, the local language.
I chose Tel Aviv as my reporting destination for several reasons: I had already lived here for six months while studying abroad in college, earned my first degree in US foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East, and was familiar with Hebrew. Yet I still devoted my first six months to an intensive Hebrew course, because I knew that to really understand this place and its people, I needed to speak its language. There are plenty of foreign correspondents who are based here and don’t speak fluent Hebrew, but they are usually working for news organizations that send them out with translators and fixers. When you’re a freelance journalist based overseas, you are your own fixer. Of course you will need help at first, and you should reach out to other journalists based there, to guide you and to serve as your community. That community likely will become your circle of friends, but also try to make friends with locals. Some of my best stories emerged from conversations over drinks with natives.
Find stories everywhere.
Your livelihood as a freelance journalist depends on proactively telling and selling stories, in high quality and quantity, so you will need to learn to find stories everywhere. Whether you find them over beers with friends, sitting on the bus and overhearing a conversation, or attending a rally that serves as the news peg for a wider look at a divisive issue, stories are everywhere. If you’re doing your story-sniffing job well, you should accumulate a long list of story ideas, and work through them according to time urgency, importance of the story, and your passion for the subject. Keep an organized spreadsheet of your story ideas that you can constantly update with publication targets, deadlines, and status notes. It’s also smart to keep track of the stories that have already been published, including how much you expect to get paid for each story and when. This will help you stay sane and ensure that your best ideas don’t get lost in the bottom of your purse or in the pocket of your jeans.
Be a multitasking machine.
Freelancing requires two seemingly opposing qualities: the capacity to thrive without structure and stability, and the ability to organize and follow through on multiple tasks at once with the skills of a professional juggler. At any given moment, I am pitching two to three stories, researching and gathering string on two other ideas, writing two pieces, and finalizing two others. I am the only person responsible for making sure all of this work gets done, and on time. You need to be proactive to keep up this pace and keep track of all the stories you will be working on. Sure, once you start writing for an editor, he or she might assign you stories, but that won’t represent the majority of your work. The day-to-day of freelancing revolves around researching story ideas and pitching them, sometimes to multiple editors before you find a taker, all while managing all the other stories you’re working on.
Work your network, but do not fear the cold call.
Ideally, by the time you go freelance, you’ve already been published. This gives you a stable of editors you can pitch to, along with clips to send to editors you’ve never worked with before. If you’ve never been published, the best way to start is small. If you’re based overseas, start by introducing yourself to the local English-language news outlets. For example, when I moved to Tel Aviv, though I’d been published on the NBC News and MSNBC websites, and did some reporting for The New York Times in the US, I hadn’t reported from Israel. So I first wrote for Haaretz and Jerusalem Post, simply by reaching out to editors there. Once I felt more comfortable, I started pitching stories to NBC. I then branched out to publications I’d never written for, such as Foreign Policy and Newsweek. If I could find a way in through a connection, I did. In cases where I didn’t know someone who could give me that information, I found it myself online. You’d be surprised how many people respond to the modern version of a cold call.
Be persistent, and don’t let rejection stop you.
Multiply the persistence required to be a journalist by at least 10, and that is how tenacious you need to be as a freelancer, particularly overseas. You may have to follow up twice or three times before an editor responds to an introduction or a pitch, and the same goes for getting paid. Don’t be afraid of pestering, but do make sure you’re kind and diplomatic in your correspondence. And know this: Your pitches will be rejected. That is a fact of life as a freelancer, and particularly for international freelancers in the age of Donald Trump. But you cannot let those rejections stop you from pitching a story—you can and should pitch it to other publications—and it shouldn’t stop you from pitching that editor again, either. The first time I wrote for Time, I had already pitched the same editor at least three stories he wasn’t interested in. The same for Rolling Stone. I kept trying, and eventually I found the right story for them. Once you’ve climbed that hill, it’s much easier to stay there.
If you don’t pitch a story well, it won’t get sold, and it won’t get told.
Understand the importance of the pitch.
I cannot overstate how crucial a good pitch is to the work of a freelance international journalist—particularly at a time when so many news organizations are consumed by Trump-centric storylines. If you don’t pitch a story well, it won’t get sold, and it won’t get told. And as a freelancer, you cannot simply pitch an idea. You must demonstrate to an editor that this idea from a foreign country is in fact relevant to readers, and filled with compelling details and subjects.To do that, you need to conduct quite a bit of research and reporting first. Then you need to sum it all up in a compelling yet succinct way. Contrary to what some might say, your pitch does not need to be a few sentences, nor are you limited to one paragraph. If you’re pitching a complex story, the pitch might be three or four paragraphs.
Be ready to do business.
As an employee, I rarely if ever asked for a raise, and never asked for more than I was offered for a job. But as an international freelancer, I learned to know my worth as someone who is based overseas, on the ground, at a time when more journalists do their reporting remotely. Now, as soon as I start writing for a publication I’ve never written for, I ask for a contract, and I always discuss my rate before agreeing to an assignment. If I’m offered a rate that is less than I deserve, I will ask for more. If a publication isn’t willing to pay me what I believe my work is worth, I may not write for them. That being said, if a story is really important to me, and the only publication interested in it pays less than I’d prefer, I will agree to that rate—but, only after offering that story to publications that pay more generously. And to be sure, when I first started freelancing, I was definitely not asking for $1 a word. That came later, after I’d proven my skills and accumulated clips at distinguished publications. So while it’s important to know your worth, it’s also important to properly evaluate what you’re worth to an editor when you’re less experienced.
There’s always more than one way to tell an international story.
Approach your stories creatively to find different angles that you can pitch to different publications. When you spend two months reporting on a subject and can publish two different stories out of it, that will help you maximize your income from that reporting, and ensure that less of your precious work ends up as scraps on the editing floor. This is particularly relevant for international reporting, where one story could have, say, a policy angle, a travel angle, and a cultural angle.
Consider the risks before you take the plunge toward independence.
Being an independent journalist is fulfilling and exhilarating. Nothing beats the freedom to pursue stories you’re passionate about wherever they may be, tell them in your own voice, write for a range of publications, and of course, take vacation whenever you want, without asking anyone for permission. But independence comes with risks. As an international freelancer, you are often on your own when it comes to the risks you may take, you can rarely determine how much money you will make in any given month, and chasing paychecks is part of the job. But if you live to tell stories, discover and illuminate foreign cultures and people, constantly find yourself coming up with new ideas, and see your work as a challenging adventure, there is nothing more liberating.
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