Based in Chicago, Illinois, The Freelance Beat is a blog exploring the triumphs and challenges that freelance journalists encounter in their early and mid-careers.

Takeaways from my first big conference

Takeaways from my first big conference

As I previously mentioned, I’ve spent most of the past week at the NABJ Convention in Detroit, my complicated and beloved hometown. I went into it not knowing what to expect, and came away with more information and connections than I’ve ever obtained in one setting. In all, I suspect it will be beneficial for my career.

The steep conference registration fee was enough to make me apprehensive, but I took a leap of faith, reasoning that shaking hands with and learning from some cool journalists and editors. So, I boarded a Megabus to Michigan before the conference to spend quality time with family and attended my first NABJ Convention.

Today, about a week and multiple business cards later, I can safely say it was worth the trip. Here are some of my key takeaways:

Business cards help you stand out

Before coming to one of these things, get a fresh stack of business cards. I use Moo for mine, and people repeated complimented the quality and design of my cards. (Shout out to my BF for designing them!)  You could also go with Vistaprint or a local printing company. Yes, you can add people on LinkedIn, which I did, but people were pleased to get my business cards. They’re a great way to make a confident introduction.

Do small-scale investigative reporting

It’s often free for members of the media to obtain documents via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Journalists from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, The New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere gave advice on how to conduct short-term investigations. Request emails, government credit card spending records, agency complaints, etc. Get creative and assume the information you want is public.

Stay up-to-date on marginalized communities

I attended sessions related to gender and sexuality. No matter how “woke” you think you are, you should always seek out information on communities you are or aren’t apart of. I was glad to have a refresher on how to interact with and report on sexual violence victims and the LGBTQ community.

Speed up your reporting with tech tools

A really helpful tip I received for requesting documents is to make sure to ask for the documents in their original format (i.e. Word, Excel, etc.). But if you’ve already worked on a project where you’re working with PDFs, there’s hope. Journalists from IRE, the Detroit Free Press and other publications recommended tools like Overview and Cometdocs for combing through and converting documents, respectively. There are tools out there to help with everything from keeping track of FOIAs to monitoring changes on key websites.

Put yourself out there

You never know who’ll be a resource for you or for whom you’ll be a resource. When you’re at an event like this, go to as many functions as you can. Give out cards to people with whom you genuinely want to keep up. Ask for help or guidance on a tough project. For me, an introvert who’s working diligently to become an ambivert at least, putting myself out there was a challenge. But I felt a beehive-like energy at the NABJ Convention, a constant humming of black storytellers sharing, connecting and showing live to one another. That made opening up so much easier.

Are you going to any conferences this fall? What have you learned at previous conferences and conventions? Tell me in the comments or email me at

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