Freelance Journalism Explained
Freelance journalism is one of the more hectic forms of freelance writing. If you want
to become a successful freelance journalist, you'll need to be comfortable with spending
much time hunting down stories, traveling from place to place, and writing under short
deadlines. If you enjoy all of that, and if you're interested in some of the best
opportunities for personal creativity, then freelance journalism may be for you.
When we talk about freelance journalism, we need to distinguish between two types:
newspaper journalism and magazine journalism. As a rule, newspaper journalism involves a
much narrower range of subject matter than magazine journalism, significantly shorter
articles, and a greater focus on form. Typical newspaper articles follow a hierarchical
format: the most pertinent information first, the least pertinent last. For example, an
article about a local parade would start with "The X Parade will travel down Main Street
at 10:00 Saturday in support of Y," while it might end with "Onlookers are advised to
Additionally, writing as a newspaper journalist means that you need the ability to find
out about the news. Often, a journalist's day looks like this: the editor assigns the
journalist an article topic at 6 AM. By 8 AM, the journalist is making phone calls to
various parties related to the topic. For a story on rising gas prices, this may include
CEOs of oil companies, local gas station owners, car owners (interviewed on the street or
at gas stations), car manufacturers, and local policymakers. Journalists usually interview
anyone with a meaningful connection to the topic, and who can provide some good, succinct
quotes and information.
Information-gathering goes on for most of the day, usually ending around evening. The
journalist then works on the article, fact-checking where appropriate, before submitting
it for publication sometime that night, with the deadline depending on the individual
paper. Then the journalist is able to go to sleep - until 6 AM rolls around again, and the
next article topic comes in.
More leeway is available with the larger "feature" articles. These appear in film
sections, lifestyle sections, health sections or other less breaking-news-focused parts of
the daily paper. Often newspapers publish these sections weekly, rather than daily, to
save on printing costs.
For example, the film section may only appear on Fridays, the food section on Tuesdays,
etc. The upshot of this is the freelance journalist has more time to research and to work
on an excellent, well-rounded article. Using the same research methods (calling everyone
connected to the topic, scheduling interviews, synthesizing succinct points from a large
information pool), a feature writer constructs a more in-depth look at a given topic than
a news writer can achieve in a short column of text.
Additionally, there's occasionally more freedom in the choice of subject matter.
Perhaps you know about an excellent local band in need of a profile? Maybe you volunteer
in a community organization that does interesting work and deserves a write-up? How about
writing an article on the health benefits of soybeans? A newspaper's "features" section
can be an excellent venue and a personal one, which can be rare in freelance writing.
Additionally, feature articles don't depend heavily on the hierarchical "news" format,
making your job much easier (or harder, if you find it difficult to structure an article
without set guidelines.)
Magazine journalism is similar to the "feature" style of newspaper journalism, albeit
with much more generous word limits (and often more generous pay rates.) The downside is
that a magazine may not have as many opportunities for publishing your work. The broader
subject matter of a magazine may also result in topics that require more legwork and
potential travel expenses (hopefully paid for by the magazine) than just a profile of a
local policymaker. To be an effective magazine writer, you'll need to look much harder for
article ideas, but the payoff can be well worth it.