The Freelancer Starter Pack
The past couple of weeks have been brutal for journalism. There have been round after round of media layoffs. Into, HuffPost, Buzzfeed, Vice and others…. all entities that were once presumed to be successful beacons of digital journalism. The bloodbath comes after years of consolidations and closings of local news organizations across the country.
As CJR’s Kyle Pope asked in its The Kicker podcast this week, should we move away from trying to find a sustainable media “business model?” Whatever the answer to that question is, there are hundreds (okay, likely at least a couple thousand) of journalists who’ve found themselves without a full-time gig.
It’s hard to switch from the full-time work to full-time freelancing, but it’s not impossible. You’re not alone either. Fellow freelancers have been sharing useful tips on where to start, so I’ll share mine.
Polish your portfolio.
Decide on your niches and tap into your network.
What do you love covering? Fashion? Cannabis? Business? Let people know what beats you’re looking to write about for freelance clients. If anyone has hit you up for freelance work in the past, now is the time to get in touch.
Join new groups
Don’t go it alone. Now that you don’t have co-workers, you need to tap into online or local communities for freelancers. They can offer tips on specific questions you have.
Get your mailing and paperwork in order.
Decide on your company structure (sole proprietor, LLC or S-Corp). Sole proprietorships don’t require any additional paperwork, but other structures do. Talk to an accountant about that first. Get an EIN so you don’t have to share your SSN. Some media companies require freelancers to get a Doing Business As name, so you’ll need to figure that out in your state. Also, if you don’t want your home address publicly available if you become an LLC or set up a DBA, get a PO Box. If you’re pursuing longform journalism or investigative journalism, it might also make sense to obtain medial liability insurance, too; here’s a helpful Columbia Journalism Review article on where to find it.
Create a client list.
Make a spreadsheet (or handwritten list, your choice) of ideal consumer and trade publications you’d like to add as clients. If you’re stuck, check resources like Who Pays Writers, Writers’ Market and the Contently Rates database for insights on which publications pay the best freelance rates. (Hint: trade publications and print consumer publications are usually the way to go.)
Decide on your income goal and determine your rates.
This is especially helpful if you plan on taking branded content work. Let’s say you want to earn at least $60,000 per year to cover your business and personal expenses. Use this rate calculator to get a ballpark figure on how much you need to charge. Then, as you’re pitching and working to land anchor clients, you’ll know how much you need to negotiate for each piece.
Pick an accounting software and a business bank account.
You and your accountant will thank me later. Once you earn your first paycheck, set up a fee free business bank account, checking and savings. The savings can your quarterly tax savings. (Yes, you have to pay your own taxes). I use Wave, but there are other platforms like AndCo and Bonsai that track expenses, generate reports, sends invoices, creates proposal and more. They can connect to your business bank account and track your expenses automatically, which will be a lifesaver come tax time.
Take care of yourself emotionally and financially.
Do the immediate and long term self care. Practice yoga. Go for walks. Talk to your friends and family. But also get your health insurance in order. Open a retirement savings account to save for the future. Use of your severance wisely, if you’ve received any. Again, I highly recommend meeting up with other freelancers who can understand your plight.
I personally know how upsetting it is to walk into work thinking that it’s going to be a normal day, only to discover that your world is about to be turned upside down. And that’s part of what led me to freelance in the first place. Having some control over what I do, for whom I do it and how much I earn, has given me some solace in this tense time in media. It will take some getting used to at first, but you got this.
What questions do you have about getting started as a freelancer? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.