How to become a freelance tech journalist

Over my twenty-year-plus career as a journalist, I’ve helped dozens of other writers get started — as an editor, and, prior to that, as an active member of the National Writers Union and the Society of Professional Journalists and other professional organizations. For example, at the SPJ, I headed up their International Journalism Committee.

The benefits of being a freelancer is that you can work anywhere in the world, set your own hours, write what you want to write instead of what editors assign you, meet and talk to the people you admire, and get recognition as an expert in your field.

The downside is that there’s no guarantee of work, pay is erratic, competition is stiff, and you have to be your own boss. Now, being your own boss may sound great, but how good of a boss are you, really? Can you make yourself work when you don’t feel like it? Can you manage a budget and track invoices and expenses, and make sure all work is done on time?

(Image courtesy kmlz via Flickr.)

How much can you reasonably make

If you are serious about your work, learn to write to editor specifications, make deadlines, and pitch regularly, you can expect to make between US $40,000 and $80,000 a year working as a freelance technology or business journalist. If you start from scratch, expect it to take about five years to get there, and expect to spend a decent fraction of your time learning about and writing about enterprise technology for trade publications.

Start with clips

In my experience, editors don’t care that much about resumes, college degrees, or recommendations. They care that you can get the quotes you need, write a decent story, and file it on time. If you can demonstrate that you can do this, that’s all they want.

You demonstrate it with clips, clips full of quotes from relevant sources, clips written to Associated Press style. The more clips, the better. Multiple clips from the same publication are a good sign that the editors were happy with you and kept assigning you stories.

You can take classes in how to do this pretty much anywhere, including online. Poynter, for example, offers great online courses, many for free. Check them out.

Or you can find a good editor and learn on the job. At my previous company, Trombly Ltd., we trained dozens of new journalists, usually with no writing or reporting backgrounds, because we needed people with very specialized skills. Here at Hypergrid Business, we’re in the process of training more journalists, and you might have seen their bylines. And they even get paid — the money we get from advertising all goes to pay them for their stories.

Pick a good niche

If you’re just starting out, you either want to pick an area that you know a lot about, or an area that nobody knows anything about.

So, for example, if you want to write about parenting, you better have some great credentials or a very wide variety of experience because there are a lot of folks writing about parenting out there. In fact, many of your potential competitors are writing for free, just to see their names in print. You have to compete against bored housewives and househusbands — some with excellent writing skills — against academics who just need to get published, and against experts and consultants who use their writing as part of a marketing strategy.

Enterprise technology is a great field to start out with because it’s always changing. If you pick a totally new technology, you can quickly become as much of an expert in it as anybody else, and you’ll have little competition. Virtual worlds is one such area — it’s pretty new, there are only a handful of experts out there, and if you read Hypergrid Business then you probably already know a lot about it.

Other emerging areas are cloud computing, mobile, and gamification. Check out the Gartner Hype Cycle to see what other topics are getting attention.

If you have background in specialized areas of business — logistics, accounting, or law — and stay on top of new trends in those areas, those are also good niches to pick. Very few people want to write for free about new accounting regulations.

Get clips by starting a blog and writing stories, by contributing stories to other blogs, and then by moving up the food chain to bigger and higher-paying publications.

Start selling

Expect to make less than 5 cents a word writing for small blogs such as hours, or for small local newspapers. Regional papers and mid-sized blogs will pay between 5 and 15 cents a word. Medium sized trade publications will pay between 15 and 50 cents a word. National trades, depending on subject, will pay between 50 cents and $1 a word. Some very large technology or business publications might go up to $1.25 a word. During the dot-com boom I saw some publications paying as much as $2.50 a word,  But that was then.

A short news story or brief will typically be between 100 and 300 words, and be a rewrite of a press release or announcement with some quotes from a telephone or email interview.

A standard news story is typically between 300 and 800 words, and will include quotes from at least a couple of different sources. For business and technology stories, you’ll want to talk to at least one expert, one customer using the product or service, and one vendor offering the product or service.

A feature story is typically between 1,000 and 2,500 words and will include several experts, several vendors, and several customers. A good rule of thumb is to have three sources — one of each — for every 500 words of story.

Set a pitching schedule

One trap that freelancers get into is that they pitch a bunch of stories, get some assignments, and get busy working on these assignments. While working on the assignments, they’re too busy to pitch. Then after the assignments are filed, they realize that they have no work, and panic. So they pitch a whole lot of stories, and take the first assignments that come in.

This boom-and-bust cycle means that cash flow is extremely erratic, but it also means that the freelancers will have a hard time moving up the food chain, since it’s the worst publications that will assign you stories first. Those editors have the hardest time finding writers, either because they pay little, or because they’re hard to work with, and are always looking for new material.

If you schedule regular pitching times and force yourself to keep on pitching, even while you’re working on stories, you are less desperate and can afford to go after the best publications first. When nobody else wants a pitch, then you can send it to the worst editors on your list.

How to get story ideas

First of all, there are no original stories. If you think someone is going to steal your ideas, get over it. It’s all been done. In fact, by the time you pitch something, ten other writers will probably have pitched it already. If the editor assigns your idea to someone else, it isn’t because they stole it — it’s because you were late.

You get ideas by going online. Take a story from a smaller publication and scale it up for a bigger publication. Take a story from a bigger publication and narrow it down for a smaller publication. Take a story from one industry vertical and rework it to apply to another vertical.

Let’s say… you see something online about two-headed puppies born somewhere. You can make it a bigger story: “Two-headed puppies: A national trend?” Or you can localize it: “Are there two-headed puppies in our area?” Or you can change the vertical, and see what’s happening with two-headed cats.

Or let’s do a more realistic, and marketable example, gamification. There are lot of local stories you can do, for local publications, about local companies using gamification techniques. Or you can make them bigger stories, and write about national trends in gamification. Or you can take a story from one industry vertical — gamification used to train employees in the health care industry — and adapt it, say, by offering to investigate how gamification is used to train employees in the insurance industry.

Subscribe to publications covering your chosen niche. Set up Google and Google News alerts for relevant key words. Learn to use RSS readers to stay on top of relevant blogs and online publications.

When you pitch a story to an editor, you will have to explain why it will be useful to the readers of their magazine, and what kinds of people you plan to talk to. You should also include links to some of your previous story on the topic, or on related topics.

How to find people to talk to

There are three great ways to find source for any story.

First, your best friend is Google. Use Google and Google News to search for relevant websites and news stories. Look at who the other journalists are quoting — those people have already shown an interest and willingness in speaking to the media. Google them to find their contact information, or simply contact the media or press or publication relations or marketing departments at the companies where they work and ask for an interview.

Then, there are two great services that are free for journalists. You submit a story topic and public relations guys get right back to you begging you to interview their experts and vendors. They are PR Newswire’s Profnet and HelpAReporter.com. Use them. They’re great.

After you’ve been covering your niche for a while, you’ll also get people contacting you out of the blue with story ideas and sources.

Finally, as a last resort, you can ask your editor for suggestions about people to call. You should have exhausted the other options already, though. Editors will get really annoyed if they do a simple Google search and a million great sources pop right up. They will be especially annoyed if their publication has already run similar articles on the topic, and there are sources quoted in those articles.

Vendors and experts will want to talk to you. For them, a quote in your article is like a free advertisement. Even better, because readers are more likely to believe a story than an ad. Customers are a bit harder to find, but vendors will often set you up with their satisfied customers, and online discussion boards might help you find some dissatisfied ones.

Writing for Hypergrid Business

We run all kinds of contributed articles here. Opinion and advice columns. Press releases. News stories. Feature stories. How-to stories. Profiles. Interviews.

We only pay for stories where the writer has gone out and interviewed sources, either by phone, by Skype, in-world, instant message, or email. If there are long distance phone calls involved, we will cover the calling expenses — we have a business Skype account that can be used to make calls to landlines anywhere in the world.

We do not pay for opinion articles. These are typically contributed by experts, who make their living by selling products or services, and these columns are basically free advertising for them.

We only require limited publication rights to opinion columns. You keep the original copyright and can reprint the story on your own blog. If it is an unpaid column, you can also contribute it to other publications.

If it is a paid article, we do need exclusive publication rights, but you can use it as a clip on your own website — post the first couple of paragraphs, then provide a link back to Hypergrid Business so that editors can read the original story.

We do not run articles under avatar pseudonyms. If you would like to submit a review or other content anonymously or pseudonymously, you can do so as a comment on an existing article or on the vendor page in our directory.

If you quote outside sources in an article, we will need their contact information for fact-checking. In addition, you may be asked to rewrite your article to better fit our style or our audience. We do offer more leeway when it comes to style and voice than the bigger trade and business publications, however.

You can’t embed a paid text link inside an article, or pay us to run an article we otherwise wouldn’t run. However, you can put links to anything you want in your author bio. And if you want to donate money — sure, we’ll take it. We’ll still treat your article the same way we treat all others. But we’re desperate for content, like many online publications with tiny budgets. So if your story is at all relevant to our audience, we’ll run it.

So far, only one company, some gambling site, wanted to pay us to run an article about them. They settled for buying an ad, instead.

PR Writing

Public relations writers make, on average, three times what a straight journalist would make for the same story.

So, good deal, right?

It can be, if you don’t mind dealing with editing by committee, where everybody at the company has a different idea of how the story should go, and everyone contributes suggestions that make it worse. And you have to smile, agree with them, and rewrite the piece until everyone is happy –and the final result is almost completely unreadable.

In fact, most of your job as PR person involves educating your client about how to interact with the media and the public. It may pay more, but you’ll be working for your money.

Here at Hypergrid Business, we love working with PR people. We’ll happily run relevant press releases, interview your satisfied customers and experts, and run your opinion and advise columns.

And if you want to break into technology PR writing, feel free to contact us and we’ll put you in touch with some vendors who could use your help, and would love to have you work for free or at low cost in return for a satisfied customer testimonial.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • I got the idea for this post from this Kickstarter project, a book about how to become a video game journalist:

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nmeunier/a-how-to-guide-for-freelance-video-game-journalist

    Video game journalism is a tough field to break into — everyone wants to play video games and get paid for it. And there are plenty of folks out there who will review video games for free, which drives down rates.

    Plan for an alternate source of income while you get going, and work to develop brand name recognition for yourself, and a unique writing style.

    We don’t do game reviews here on Hypergrid Business, but we will happily publish columns about what grid owners and corporate and education users can learn from successful games.

  • 5 cents a word!?! *stomps off to subQ’s house*

    i get paid in burritos, so i guess i am doing okay =)

    nice article and the five year guideline is highly appropriate in writing and many endeavors! =)

  • Eros Deus

    Awesome article! I doubt if anyone would pay me peanuts let alone money for some writing. I’m rather too quirky and erratic in style :/

    • A quirky style could actually help in setting you apart from other writers. Erratic is a bigger problem — publications come out on a set schedule, and they need to be able to count on you to deliver what you promised, when you promised it.

      Given a choice between a great writer who’s late, and an okay writer who’s on time, with the correct length who is able to hit all the story requirements, I’ll take the ordinary guy. The great-but-erratic guy would have to write on spec — have the full story ready for editors when he pitches it.

      Normally, I don’t recommend writers do the story first. They should just write a pitch with the first paragraph and an outline of a couple of sentences in length — so that the editor can plan ahead and know what they’re getting.

      Writing “on spec” is a huge risk. You might spend days on a story and not be able to get it published. Plus, if you interview people for it, and the story never hits print, they’ll be annoyed that you wasted their time and be hesitant to speak with you again later.

      • Eros Deus

        There are great blog writers out there that take you through a story, I on another hand take you through a glut of emotions. It’s why I blog and love it although erratically *sorry* 😀

        • Keep in mind that technology journalism isn’t “writing” the way most people think of it. Typically, stories are written to a formula and your job is to get the information, fill in the blanks, and there’s a guy on the copydesk who fixes your grammar and spelling.

          A story that’s written to a formula is a great benefit to readers — they know what information they’re going to get, in what order, and they can focus on the knowledge they’re getting instead of focusing on the writing.

          A lot of people are disappointed when they become journalists that they don’t typically get a chance to “write” write. In fact, if they write something particularly evocative, chances are, the editors are just going to chop it out, anyway.

          There is a place for more personal, emotional, more deeply meaningful writing, but it is extremely difficult to do well, extremely competitive, takes a great deal of time, and pays very poorly.

          The folks I’ve known who do this, for example, people who do narrative journalism, typically do it on the side, during their free time, on top of their regular job, or they have someone to support them while they write, or they’re academics, and can spend a year crafting the perfect piece.

          Currently, the best way to break into this kind of writing is to have a blog. Experiment with different writing styles, see what resonates best with your readers, find your voice. And find an intersection of your interests, and your audience interests, so that you can enjoy writing and still build an audience. Andrew Horowitz did this with his daily humor column and now he writes for the New Yorker.

          And if you have an idea for a regular column that’s related to the hypergrid, we’d love to see some samples either here at HB or, if more socially-oriented, over on Hyperica.com.

  • Stephanie Y.

    This is a great article, Maria! I appreciate the tips.

    Do you have any specific advice for those of us who are full time journalists but want to work up a steady freelance business on the side. Because I’m freelancing on my off time, I don’t want to waste time writing for peanuts, but on the other hand I would like to work my way up to contributing to larger publications. Do you have any suggestions?

  • Stephanie Lyn Gross

    I don’t agree that there are “no original stories”. What ever happened to investigative journalism, research through data, journals, diaries, letters, what about reviews covering local events, people, innovations? What about scientists who are creating new experiments and thesis all the time? How about actual interviews with people? There may be common ways of telling stories but to say there are no original stories assumes there is no new life, no new experiences and everything has been done already on the planet so there is nothing new to discover to write about. By the very nature of what we know (and don’t know) about creation, this cannot be so.

    • As you yourself point out, those “original” stories come from “research through data, journals, diaries, letters … local events, people, innovations…” Odds are, if the story is interesting and publishable, you’re not the first one who stumbled onto it.

      If you do happen to be the only journalist covering an event, or interviewing someone, odds are high that the event isn’t particularly interesting, outside of a very niche audience.

      If you believe you have a super interesting story, and are worried about pitching it because the editor will steal it — DON’T PITCH THAT STORY TO ME. I don’t have time to deal with your drama.

      I myself, in over 20 years, have never come across a story that could make or break my career, I have pitched stories to editors that they wound up assigning to other writers — maybe because the story was more in their beat than mine, or they pitched it before I did, or the editor didn’t even notice my pitch. If that happens, be gracious, and forward any helpful info you’ve got to the other writer. I have worked on some big stories, but, in retrospect, there was always another big story coming along later. There’s no such thing as “your one shot.”

      If you do come up with a truly original story — you’ve dug up some big scandal, say — but you don’t trust editors with the idea because you worry that they’ll assign it to their pet journalists, or someone more experienced, then I don’t know what to tell you. I know that in my experience as an editor or journalist, the more juicy something seems on the surface, the more likely it is to fizzle out once you really start looking into it. But also, if editors are worried that you’ll mess it up if they assign a big story to you, maybe they’re right, and you need more experience. Work on other stories first, or work for smaller publications, or work on just a piece of the bigger story, and prove yourself.

      • lmpierce

        “If you do happen to be the only journalist covering an event, or interviewing someone, odds are high that the event isn’t particularly interesting, outside of a very niche audience.”

        It’s pretty obvious that a story about a new project at Google isn’t likely to be an exclusive for anyone. It’s probably not even a surprise at Google when something comes about since they are so laden with embedded processes and building on internals and committee review and filtering.

        But to Stephanie’s post, her rebuttal really speaks to the fact that we don’t know it all, we haven’t experienced it all, and that an interesting and unique story is not necessarily a rehash of someone else’s story.

        As for dismissing the niche audience or deciding that if the story hasn’t been picked up (yet), it’s probably not interesting, that leaves me the most incredulous. As you have alluded to yourself, many of our current mass-market technologies were originally of interest only to niche audiences. I would agree it might be hard to make a living off such stories. A writer would be best positioned to cover the tiny startup while earning a living writing grist for the mill, but to the point of original stories (versus making a living), there are new stories starting every day, and some of tomorrow’s mass-market everyone knows about wonders are probably being ignored by all but a handful of people today. I notice you have alluded to this principle yourself:

        So, why do you continue to blog?
        Because I’m betting on the future. The metaverse will, at some point, and in some form, go mainstream.

        – Maria’s Worlds, May 2, 2013

        I don’t think it’s meaningful or accurate to simplify the definition of interesting stories of humanity to, ironically, an endless stream of ‘been there, done that’ rehash. It’s often the case that humanity is slow to recognize what will matter in the long run, so what we need to do to remain in vogue and make a living is often a false measure of what has enduring value for the legacy of our species and our planet. People have often fallen back on the expression that there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s their problem!

        • Lawrence — I’m really talking about the process of pitching to editors here. If I get a pitch from a writer who says it’s copyrighted, or that they can’t go into detail because of whatever paranoid reason, I just throw it out. I don’t need the hassle. Most other editors I know do the same thing. For some reason, it seems that the less experience a writer has, the more paranoid they are about protecting their ideas. (Entrepreneurs are much the same with the NDAs.)

          It’s not the idea, people, it’s the execution that matters.

          I’m not saying that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Obviously, there’s new stuff everywhere we look. And, also obviously, if you’re a freelance journalist you’re better off pitching a story on a new topic, than pitching some old news. I’m just saying don’t get too obsessed with your story idea. Other people have probably thought of it, too. And being first might look like it matters — you see reporters fighting for scoops on TV — but in practice, not so much. Often, the second-day story is more complete and useful to readers than the first-day’s breaking news. Finally, the publications that take freelance features are often those who specifically focus on the longer, second-day stories, and leave it to the wires to do the fast-breaking news.

          • lmpierce

            Yes, I get what you’re emphasizing about what happens a good percentage of the time. I go through this myself, as we all do, trying to be original.

            What I was getting at, and which you have clarified, is the distinction between what’s actually happening in Life (with a capital ‘L’), which is what Stephanie was focused on, and what tends to play out in the world of journalism. Your answer to her seemed to generalize on both topics, and I felt there was some teasing out to be done between the world of work and the existence we all live in. I’m of the school of thought that business is a subset of life, not vice versa. You also make good points about how it often happens that the more mature and not necessarily the breaking story, is also more useful story. I tend to agree. Except that during 9/11 the newscasts during the first day or two were stunning in their authenticity… by the time CNN had composed a musical soundtrack to accompany the disaster, I felt that the best reporting was over.

            I would still challenge the statement that “It’s not the idea, people, it’s the execution that matters.” I think ideas have been undeservedly demoted to a level lower than dust. My view is that while ideas alone are often not enough, execution without a meaningful idea is just a formula. There’s plenty of that to be found in music, print and television, and it’s excruciatingly boring. But as a principle, I see the idea as the valuable seed, based upon which we need to grow an entire plant.