How The Market Has Changed for Freelance Writers
Emma Sarran Webster is a freelance writer for Teen Vogue, Shape, Michigan Avenue and several other publications. Emma explains how the marketplace has changed for writers and the way she's able to pursue a writing career without having to live in New York City. She tackles the opportunities and challenges social media brought on journalism, and what it takes to pursue the same career path.
Can you describe changes you've seen in the communications industries since the start of your career?
EW: When I first started a long time ago [interning and getting involved in journalism] digital was more of a compliment to the print industry. Digital is now a standalone entity. A lot of publications only have digital presences. [Digital] has become this huge source of news and facts and entertainment. Which means that there's a lot more options for the readers. Publications have to really work to stand out more. With the advent of fake news, [legitimate publications] have to work to make sure they're sharing accurate information, that they are fact-checking their work and that their readers aren't falling into click-bait and misinformed pieces.
You say publications have to do more, what do you mean by that?
EW: In order to stand out and get readers to stick with them, media outlets and writers need to ask “what angle can we tell that hasn't been told yet? What can we add to the story?” Of course, sometimes with breaking news for example, you're just sharing the facts. However, with a lot of things, you want to add something new to the story. Think about adding someone else's perspective, or share new facts that haven't been divulged yet. Share that information in a voice that readers can relate (to because it shows an understanding of who the audience is), and write for them.
How important is social media for what you do?
EW: Another big change in the past several years has been the growth of social media. News organizations really can't exist without it. They have to partake in Twitter, Facebook, often times even Snapchat and Instagram. [Media outlets] do Facebook live videos, or different multimedia presentations (like podcasts or short informative videos that they share news stories) to communicate with their audiences,. It's important for the outlets as well as the writers.
Is there a specific moment, or story that embodies these changes?
EW: I mean even The New York Times is active on social. Big mainstream publications are doing live videos and using Snapchat, shows how important social media is and how useful it is to reach an audience.
What do you use social media for?
EW: I use it as a branding tool. I think in this day and age, every journalist, writer is his or her own personal brand and you have to market yourself in order to gain a following. Even if you're writing for a large publication, you can gain your own personal following and that will help readers connect to you and trust your work. It can also secure work with other publications which I think it does do for me.
For work, I use Twitter because it has such a huge news and journalist presence. It's easy to see what's trending and what people are talking about in quick bits of information and opinions. It allows me to connect with people who I might not have been able to hear from otherwise because they’re not in my immediate network. Twitter conversations help fill out my stories with not just my perspective, not just experts' perspectives, but the perspectives of people all over the country and all over the world.
I use Instagram more for personal use. I share things like travel or fashion writing. It’s where I can share my perspective and bits and pieces from my stories. I don't link to articles because that's not what Instagram does, but it helps to build my personal brand and give people insight on what I might be writing about. If I'm writing about Cuba, I can share a really cool picture from my Cuba trip and kind of tease it there.
You've lived in New York and returned to Chicago, what was that transition like? Where does opportunity exist, and what are the challenges of working remotely?
EW: The opportunity to write for NYC-based publications does exist here in Chicago, and really anywhere in the world. What we don't have here in Chicago that you have in New York is the headquarters of all of these huge publishing house. It’s beneficial to be in New York to be able to schedule face-to-face meetings with people, or if you want to work on staff, it's certainly easier to do so in New York. But we live in a digital age, and almost anything we do can be done remotely. It's definitely possible to write from Chicago or any other city or town, or country, you just have to make sure to be present in people's emails and perhaps their social media feeds. Connect with editors when you do go to New York. Schedule face-to-face meetings.
Right now, so much is done by freelancers anyway. Not a ton of magazines have huge writing staff. The work I do does not require me to be in an office in New York City or LA. I can just as easily pick up the phone and interview someone from wherever I am in the world.
Will you share some insight on someone who is interested in this career path and what have you done that shows success?
EW: One of the most important things to get used to is networking and putting yourself out there. Especially if you are not in New York City, you work remotely and can't set up face-to-face meetings. It's important to stay in touch.
Don't obviously annoy people, but if you reach out to someone, follow-up. Emails get buried. People are busy. Just because they didn't respond to you the first time doesn't mean they are not interested. It could be they totally missed your email, they meant to reply and they just got bogged down with other things.
It shows initiative and interest when you follow up.
Don’t be afraid to go to events and talk to strangers. Tell people what you're interested in because no one knows unless you vocalize it. Most people are happy to give you advice or even connect you with other people who can give you more insight and help you get started.
Another thing to keep in mind, if you want to freelance and work in digital media, do your research and make sure that you're aligning yourself with publications that are reputable.
What’s a learning lesson you’d like to share?
EW: It’s really important to know your value. It can be uncomfortable at times talking about money every time you get a new assignment or you start working with a new publication. It’'s not like working an office job where you negotiate your salary and then you're pretty much set for the year with that number. You have to have a business mindset throughout the year as a freelancer. You need to know how much money is required for you to get by because it informs the rates you set. In this industry there is pretty much no standard with rates. You have to take into account what you need. Get comfortable knowing your value and the experience you provide to a publication. Be prepared to vocalize that information when you set your rates. Don't just say “I want XX amount for this article.” Pitch your rate as a number set as a result of the value you bring the publication. Something like “I want XX amount for this article because I have twenty clips of articles that are on this topic, I've been writing for five years, I turn in clean copy, I'm able to adapt to style guides, I communicate regularly and I'm comfortable interviewing people,” you’re going to have a much higher success rate because you’re making a case for it. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want but know your worth.
Do you have any predictions in terms of where the industry is going, or where do you hope to see it go?
EW: I think that there is a crackdown on fake news and click-bait. It reached this heightened level around the election and companies like Facebook and Google couldn't ignore it. I think that they're cracking down on that and they're coming up with different ways to help people report it, and be more informed. I hope that that continues. It's sad to see real news and credible publications get buried or counteracted by unfortunately fake news or click-bait type of articles. I hope that the trend of people wanting to be more informed continues. I love being a part of it and I hope that everyone continues to invest in and enjoy real media and real news.
The video portion of this interview published on Entrepreneur.com June 26, 2017: Know What You're Worth: How to Maximize Your Freelance Paycheck