Though it’s been a minute since I last posted, I’ve still been updating my reading list and linking to my recent work. There’s been a reason for my radio silence: I moved to Berlin this spring! After nearly a decade in Cincinnati, I sold all my stuff, packed up my cat and crossed the Atlantic to build a new life in Germany.
My whole life had been leading up to this point, really. I lived in Germany before, as an exchange student in high school and again for a year of university; I loved the language and the people and the bread. But then I didn’t go back again for 13 years — side effects of being a broke student and then a broke journalist. When I went freelance, I started thinking about living abroad again, and I spent the last two summers in Germany, staying with my former host mom and testing the limits of the Schengen Agreement. When I returned to the US last August, I realized I needed to go back to Germany, but for real this time. I set a goal of being in Berlin for my 35th birthday in March, and reader, I did it.
Despite the stress that comes with moving abroad in a completely DIY manner, it was totally fine. I don’t know why I ever thought I couldn’t do it! A friend of mine who’s lived in Berlin for many years told me that the city will tell you if it wants you, and I think Berlin thinks I’m a keeper. Within the first months of the summer, I got a little apartment surprisingly much more quickly than anticipated, got a freelance work visa for two years, and got a freelance gig with Handelsblatt Global, the English edition of Germany’s leading financial newspaper.
Moving internationally is not for the weak of heart or for the easily frustrated, but it was exactly what I needed. Going home to Ohio for two weeks at Thanksgiving was great, but upon my return to Berlin I felt like I was home again. This city is weird and vibrant and frustrating and absolutely lovely, and I’m glad that it has me.
Back when I was a baby freelancer, pitching felt like a mystery. I knew in theory how to write an article pitch, sure, but they were usually half-baked. I usually didn’t know what the what was yet and wanted an editor to tell me what to do.
In the last nearly two years as a full-time freelancer I’ve come to appreciate how much research and tailoring needs to go into a pitch if you want to place an article in a major magazine. Not only do you need to know why you’re pitching the story to a particular editor at a particular magazine, but you need to have a convincing case as to why they should care. This takes a ton of time to prepare, but when all those elements align, you’ll have a much better success rate.
When you’re just starting out as a journalist, it’s also hard to find good examples of successful pitches. So I thought I’d share this recent successful magazine article pitch of mine:
Hi, [editor’s name],
I’m a freelancer here in Cincinnati, and [mutual acquaintance] suggested I get in touch with you about this story I’m working on.
A man trained as a kosher butcher emigrated from Lithuania in 1886 to serve an orthodox Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. Behr Manischewitz eventually became the patriarch of a mechanized matzo empire that led the world in matzo production — and ruffled rabbinical feathers. The family’s history illustrates the story of Jewish life in Cincinnati: Like many Jews, they settled in the West End in the late 1880s and moved to Avondale as they became more affluent in the 20th century. Eventually, the Manischewitz headquarters moved to New Jersey in 1930, and Cincinnati’s matzo fame waned. But Behr and his wife remain buried in Covedale.
I’ve done extensive research on the family in local archives and would love to tell the Manischewitz story for Cincinnati Magazine. There’s a wealth of interesting historical imagery and maps to go with the story, and I have a few ideas for interview subjects.
My writing credits include Wired, HOW, Family Tree Magazine and other national publications. This story could be great for April 2014 to coincide with Passover. What do you think?
- I had already done about three months of research by the time I wrote my pitch.
- This was a cold pitch — I had never worked with Cincinnati Magazine before.
- I sent this pitch in June 2013, proposing it for the April 2014 issue. That might seem excessively early, but I got a call back within a week and sold the story. It was due in January 2014, which gave me even more time to research.
You can read my piece about the Manischewitz family in Cincinnati Magazine’s April 2014 issue.
Back in August, amid moving and other craziness, I got a last-minute invite to talk at Weapons of Mass Creation in Cleveland. It was one of those moments where against better judgment I said YES, and it worked out great. They just posted the video of my talk, so I’m posting it here! (I sound a little like I’m hyperventilating because I was SUPER caffeinated.) It’s kind of based off of my earlier blog post about networking, but with way more Top Model screenshots.
PS: Me and Ann Friedman totally met up and got hot dogs the next day.
PPS: The shine theory should be co-attributed to Aminatou Sow.
Q. Do you have any tips for networking? I’ve debated asking a fellow freelancer about getting work, but I’m afraid of stepping on her toes.
A. When I started freelancing, I thought that meeting other freelancers was the best way to get gigs. They get gigs, and I want gigs, so they can give me some of their gigs, right? But I quickly realized that other freelancers aren’t the people I should be hitting up for work. (Those are the people who control the budgets — editors, project managers, publishers.)
Networking with other freelancers is a great idea, but you should just approach them human to human. We all have people who we would like to be when we grow up — and the dream networking situation with them would involve porting all their knowledge and connections straight into our brainmeats. But play it cool. If you’re desperate for work and approach everybody as a conduit to finding work, yes, it can be awkward. (Grilling strangers for work leads is never a good look.) Networking, when you’re doing it right, feels like making a new friend — or at least pleasantly interacting with a coworker you like. And when you’ve shown them that you’re cool (even if you’re freaking on the inside), they’ll be much more likely down the road to potentially share leads or introduce you to other people.
The best way to avoid feeling like you’re encroaching on someone’s territory is to realize that we’re all in this together. You’re a freelancer, I’m a freelancer: Let’s get together and dish. An email to a fellow freelancer might look something like this:
Hey, [awesomely successful person]!
I’m a freelancer also living in [your city], working on [whatever you do]. I really loved that project you did about [an awesome thing]. Could I buy you a coffee some time? It’d be great to meet up and share war stories!
Recently I set myself a goal of meeting one new person a week, whether it’s by going to a networking event or reaching out to a specific person. My trick is that I don’t only aim to meet people who I might get work from. Sure, I love to meet editors and publishers, but I’ve also met other writers, marketing people, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit folks. I love going to networking events where editorial freelancers are in the minority, because meeting people from other fields is really interesting. And as a bonus, I’m likely also a curious specimen to them.
[Tangent: Don’t be that guy who gives his business card to literally every single person at a networking event, even people he didn’t talk to. One deep connection is worth more than 100 shallow ones.]
An acquaintance here in Cincinnati seems to know everybody and frequently offers to help me like it’s no big deal. At first I was like, what’s your game, friend? Who offers to help without expecting something in return? But then I read “Never Eat Alone” and totally got it. Networking is about focusing on what you can give other people. She’s a connector of the highest order. She helps people by meeting everybody and learning what they’re working on, and then she connects the dots by introducing the right people to each other at the right times. As one of the recipients of her professional matchmaking, I can tell you that I have frequently introduced other people to her. The song never ends. (Related: Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory)
By saying that networking is all about giving, I don’t mean to imply that good networking involves divulging all your proprietary info and personal contacts to anyone who asks for them. (I protect my best editorial contacts with all the power of Xenu.) When you connect successfully with a fellow freelancer, what you walk away with might not be a job but a rec of a must-read blog or a referral to another person you should meet or just a new lunch buddy. And when you meet a freelancer in need, you share alike. You’ve been there.
This Neil Gaiman commencement speech was mentioned recently on NPR and is now available as a book, “Make Good Art,” designed by Chip Kidd. The thing that really stood out to me in the interview was his two-of-three rule (this “secret knowledge” for freelancers starts around minute 14):
You get work however you get work. People keep working in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
This is so true. I’ve made decisions based on these three attributes, subconsciously, as a magazine editor assigning articles. And I often doubt my abilities as a writer (Gaiman also talks about impostor syndrome in his speech), so I make it my business to always be on time and as pleasant as possible to work with so I at least get that two out of three.
And if nothing else, I can make rad GIFs (jifs):
After hearing Neil Gaiman on the radio, I came up with this hypothetical rule of threes specifically for pitching magazine articles. Everybody knows that to sell a story to a magazine, you need a solid topic with a fresh angle. But you also need at least two of the following attributes:
- Access: Do you have physical proximity to the subject matter, or a personal connection that gets you access where other reporters cannot?
- Expertise: Have you written about the subject before or have an advanced understanding of it?
- Reputation: Are you known by the publication’s audience as a trusted voice or by its editors as a reliable writer?
If you have all three, your pitch is way strong, and you might be a wizard. But if you have two out of the three, you still have a really good chance that your pitch is going to get picked up.
If you’re held in good esteem by magazine editors and have access to people or places, you might get by with being a novice in the subject matter. (Example: Susan Orlean goes to a local cream cheese factory to write about collusion with the bagel industry.) If the magazine’s never heard of you before, you need to have written about the topic before and have access to the right interview subjects. (Example: You’ve been reporting on a local university for years and have all the background info on a recent scandal to pitch an in-depth piece to a national outlet.) Or if you’re a known entity to editors and are an expert in the subject matter, the magazine might help you get access to the people or places of note — or be more likely to straight-up assign stuff to you. (Example: You’ve written about health policy for a magazine many times before, so you’re their first pick to profile the new surgeon general.)
That’s my theory of how to get a pitch picked up. Fellow freelancers, what do you think?
Join me for a casual Google+ Hangout about getting started in freelancing for magazines! All are welcome — both newbies and experienced journalists.
I had this idea from some fellow Kent State alums asking me questions about how I went freelance. And I previously wrote about how to pitch magazine articles and a treatise on how to get paid, so you know this is something I can talk about forever.
It’ll be like a live FAQ, from 6 to 7 p.m. Sunday, March 24. The link is below, and if I get the Google+ Hangout to work correctly, it’ll be available to watch afterward, too!
I’ve been thinking a lot about getting paid lately. Not only because I’ve been a self-employed editor and writer for the last six months, but because the internet blew up this week over an incident in which The Atlantic asked a writer to adapt a hella long story for zero dollars. Freelance writers went into conniption fits; magazine editors went into damage-control mode. (As far as I can tell, the people who actually control the budgets stayed out of the fracas.) Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic shrugged with his response piece saying “the biz ain’t what it used to be.” But I disagree with one of his main points: The digital journalism world isn’t what sucks — the entire journalism business model sucks.
The outrage moved from Twitter onto this epically long Branch started by Choire Sicha called “How Much Should A Writer Be Paid, If Anything?” But that’s not the right question. A better question is: How do people who create things for a living convince the public to pay for content that is valuable to them? How do providers of editorial services convince publishers that our work is worth paying for?
Editorial content is the whole point of a publisher’s business, and, yet, the outfits that can afford to pay at least $1 per word (which seems like the tipping point of profitability for freelance writers) are by far in the minority. The biggest magazines and blogs have staff writers or reporters, but such a luxury is a dream for most publishers. Full-time staffers are awfully expensive, and many publishers have already doubled or tripled the workloads of their editors. So we get more churnalism, more aggregation, more noise and less meaning. The quest for ever-growing traffic drives publishers to (generally) go for quantity over quality in online articles. But when advertising sales or monthly unique impressions decline, the whole business model collapses. Editorial budgets shrink, web presences decline, print publications shutter. Ad infinitum.
The Atlantic’s sorry-not-sorry response keeps coming back to the idea that people should be able to work for free if they want to. That’s so not the point. Coming up with acceptable excuses for not paying people does nothing to fix the faulty journalism business model that relies on a bottomless pool of people who aspire to be writers and are willing to work for peanuts.
On the Branch thread, some people make a distinction between the work that goes into “reported” writing. Being a freelancer is sexy. Being a reporter is just hard work. My main freelance gig right now is as a copy editor for a Capitol Hill newspaper that publishes a print paper as well as constantly pushes news items out on the web. What its reporters excel at is finding information no one else has; we’re talking about wearing out shoe leather like an old-school reporter in the movies. Though you can’t own facts, that kind of reportage seems inherently more valuable than a post explaining when the Oscars are being televised. But how do you calculate the ROI on editorial quality? Publishers like hard numbers, and that’s most likely going to be circulation or unique visitor stats.
Opening up the can of worms about who pays what feels like a good first step to fixing the business of journalism. (Who Pays What is a Tumblr you need to follow.) Transparency helps freelancers know the marketplace bettere, and sharing strategies will help all editors and publishers see what business models work (I hope). It’s interesting that some of the publishers on the Branch thread are saying they allocate a certain standard percentage of their overall budget for freelance editorial expenses. (I really wish we could look at the business models for all of these startups trying to make the focus of their publishing business the actual editorial content:
So what’s the solution? I think it’s the idea of patronage. I subscribe to the New York Times Sunday edition so I get the big issue on the weekend and unrestricted access to the website, but also because I believe in the newspaper’s work and I don’t ever want to see it go away. I donate to my local NPR station for the same reason. Being a subscriber to a magazine, newspaper or website is a transaction. Being a patron is a partnership. When we convince the public that editorial content is valuable, publishers will follow suit.
tl;dr: Subscribe to a damn magazine or newspaper or website. Someone’s got to pay.
I started making this list of the bess kiss-off responses to people asking you to work for free a long time ago, and it seems like a great time to put it up: