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Tips for freelancers from AAJA and beyond

Tips for freelancers from AAJA and beyond

Picture of Angilee Shah

The annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) early in August was filled from top to bottom with practical and career-oriented sessions. For me, one of the most useful was off the official books. By Twitter and email, AAJA Texas chapter president Iris Kuo organized a lunchtime get-together for freelancers in the hotel lobby.

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If freelancers work in their pajamas -- or in my case, at the beach when possible -- they also struggle to build a career and some stability. Some work contractually by choice, others by circumstance. Magazine writer Richard Morgan wrote an essay in The Awl about his seven-year-old freelance career. It is both depressing and heartening -- he traces his great successes, both as a professional and a hot-blooded writer, but also explains the downside. Here's a happy-and-sad nugget from Morgan's narrative:

In 2004, I had an interview for a gig at Fortune. I had $10.13 to my name. When I showed up for the interview, the editor paused and said "This is how you show up to an interview? You need a haircut. And your tie is dirty." I explained that I only had enough money for either a Salvation Army tie or a haircut, and I had wagered on the value of a tie (even though I had selected a dirty brown polyester one).

Then he looked at my clips and said "Don't you hate this part, when I'm pretending to read your work that I clearly haven't read already?" I said, yes, actually, this part really sucks. Then he asked me, without looking at me, if I read Fortune. "No," I said. "I'm young and poor. Why would I read Fortune?" The silence went on long enough that I got distracted by the thought that his office was bigger than my studio in Harlem. Then he laughed and said he liked honesty, and hired me. I went home to my empty studio-nothing but a suitcase, a towel, a laptop and a bundled-up jacket I used as a pillow when I slept on the floor-and laughed that I freelanced for Fortune. I was ballsy and I was defying the odds.

At AAJA, the conversation took on a happy-sad tone too, which can be quite liberating for people who often feel isolated. We shared our most practical tips for developing a freelance career. Among the greatest developments in my freelance life was the realization that I needed to network -- not just to pitch stories and get paid, but commiserate with and help other hard-pressed freelancers.

To be more concrete, here is part of what this small AAJA network offered me: their top tips for freelancing as a career.

1. Land an anchor job. For me, it's my gig as online community manager and blogger at ReportingonHealth. It gives me a routine and helps me build my skills and meet great people. It means I'm not scared every month when it's time to pay rent. Marie-France Han, who has freelanced for business publications, is an advocate of "longer-than-usual assignments," such as two-week or two-month editing spots. "I think it's important, for our sanity and our financial health, to have a couple of anchor jobs on the side," she wrote in an email.

2. Bring snacks. Seriously. One multimedia freelancer in the group explained: when you aren't on staff, your hours can be unpredictable and very long. So make sure you have something to munch on to get you through these gigs.

3. Be gutsy. Don't be afraid to work for very little money when you see that a project can get you better gigs. But also don't be afraid to ask for more money when you have built up a relationship of mutual respect with an editor. One AAJA freelancer wowed the rest of us with a true tale of getting a substantial raise after working with a publication for some time and making her value clear.

4. Use an alias as needed. One freelancer said that she uses her maiden name in her job, and married name to freelance. "I don't mean for it to sound shady but part of me feels as long as I'm doing it on outside time and not for competing publications, there's nothing ethically wrong," she explains. "But I like being able to separating my writing identities online in today's world of search engines."

5. Use social media to get work. Hannah Sung, a freelancer in New York by way of Toronto (of MuchMusic fame -- she's so legit, she has a Wikipedia entry), says that Twitter and Facebook can be great ways to develop relationships with editors. "I find networking in real life to be totally random and exhausting, but on Twitter, I can develop real friendships with like-minded people who share interests with me," she explains. "As every freelancer knows, relationships with editors and other journalists are what make a freelance career possible. Also, if you are behind on getting your personal site together, as I perpetually am, Twitter -- or Facebook, although I prefer Twitter -- is a ready-made way to share your interests and expertise with readers, editors and friends." She offers one word of caution, though: "Mixing professional and personal information online is tricky, new territory. Always think before you Tweet." Here are some basic tips for job hunting with Twitter from Ask Aaron Lee.

6. Write good pitches. Several AAJA freelancers -- even the most experienced among them -- still had questions about making a good pitch. This is a topic for another post, but one good resource mentioned is the presentation that journalism professor and Wired contributing editor Jennifer Kahn gave at the Future of Freelancing conference at Stanford University in June. Her remarks are summarized at the conference website.

Agree or disagree with these ideas? What are your top tips for making it as a freelancer? Share in comments.

As always, here are some opportunities for more work in health media.

Jobs, Fellowships, Awards

Editor-in-Chief, Yoga International (free registration required at mediabistro.com)
Location: Honesdale, Pennsylvania
Status: Full Time
Medium: Magazine

Features Writer (including health section), State Journal-Register (via JournalismJobs.com)
Location: Springfield, Illinois
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Health Care Writer/ Reporter, Washington G2 (via JournalismJobs.com)
Location: Washington, D.C./ telecommute
Status: Full Time
Medium: Business Newsletter

Health Communications Assistant, Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment, Advocacy and Leadership (via AAJA)
Location: Oakland, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications, Social Media

Medical Writers, MediTech Media (search in relevant cities)
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia / Singapore / Sydney, Australia
Status: Full Time
Medium: Marketing

Senior Web Editor, Regence
Location: Portland, Oregon
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online, Nonprofit Health Insurance

Special Sections/ Focus Editor (including health care), Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal (scroll down in jobs listing box)
Location: San Jose, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Journal

Howard L. Lewis Achievement Award, American Heart Association
Eligibility: U.S. health, medical and science journalists
Award: $2,000 honorarium and airfare, lodging to American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions
Deadline: Sept. 3, 2010
From the Website: "In 2000, the American Heart Association established the Howard L. Lewis Achievement Award to recognize and honor the career achievements of science, health and medical journalists who have documented the considerable progress made in the fight against heart disease and stroke."

REMINDER: Excellence in Journalism Competition, Society of Professional Journalists Northern California
Eligibility: For stories published between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010 by news outlets or individuals based in Northern California, with $25-$35 entry fee
Award: Multiple categories, including special prizes in environmental and health care reporting
Deadline: Sept. 7, 2010
From the Website: "These awards honor the journalists whose work best reflects the SPJ ideals of initiative, integrity, talent and compassion."

REMINDER: Fund for Investigative Journalism
Eligibility: U.S. Journalists in local, regional and/or ethnic media
Duration: None
Benefits: $500 to $10,000 grants for investigative projects and mentorship
Deadline: Sept. 8, 2010
From the Website: "For more than forty years, the Fund for Investigative Journalism has supported work by reporters who do not have the resources to do their investigations, with grants ranging from $500 to $10,000. The Fund's distinguished board not only decides which applicants to help, but also provides guidance in pursuing stories and placing them with media outlets. In a new partnership with Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Fund also matches grant recipients with veteran journalists who serve as mentors, at a recipient's request."

REMINDER: Abe Fellowship for Journalists
Eligibility: Open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States or Japan with at least five years of professional journalism experience, with priority given to U.S. or Japanese journalists with no prior experience in the other country.
Award: Up to $23,500 for field work abroad and a fellows retreat to produce analysis or feature story about public policy topic.
Deadline: Sept. 15, 2010
From the Website: "The Program defines policy-relevant research as the study of existing public policies for the purpose of: a) deepening understanding of those policies and their consequences; and b) formulating more effective policies. Policy-relevance also pertains to the public dialogue on contemporary social issues."

REMINDER: Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund, J-Lab
Eligibility: Proposed projects must be about Philadelphia or the surrounding areas and must come with a distribution plan.
Award: $5,000 awards to 10 projects
Deadline: September 16, 2010
From the Website: "The Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund is a pilot project designed to develop opportunities for amplifying public affairs journalism in the region. The purpose of this fund is to help in-depth reporting projects get off the ground and to explore collaboration opportunities among news providers in the city and surrounding counties."

REMINDER: U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
Deadline: Oct. 18, 2010
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."

REMINDER: Association of Health Care Journalists - Centers for Disease Control Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Professional journalists working in the United States
Award: Week of study of public health topics at CDC campuses, membership, travel, lodging and meals
Deadline: Oct. 22
From the Website: "The AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows will: Attend sessions on epidemiology, global disease prevention efforts, pandemic flu preparedness, climate change, vaccine safety, obesity, autism and more; tour the CDC director's National Emergency Operations Center; meet new sources on policy and research; learn how to tap the agency's abundant resources to produce better stories."

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