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How to make a living doing what you love?

How to make a living doing what you love?

It is the crucial question – and one of the things I get asked most by fellow freelance journalists.
We’re asking ourselves this question for a good reason. We went into this profession because we love telling stories. We want to inform, uncover, inspire and maybe even contribute to positive change. But as the world of journalism is changing, we need to change with it or we simply won’t be able to keep paying our bills.
We know -some of us firsthand- how staff jobs are disappearing almost as fast as print readers and paid subscribers. Newspapers become less about news and less about paper. Audiences become less about reading, listening and viewing and more about participating and experiencing.
Our field is increasingly competitive. Despite the industry’s transformation, media remains a popular area of study with tens of thousands of talented graduates joining the field each year. Like those affected by the ongoing redundancies in traditional media, most of them will – by choice or out of necessity – join us in the army of freelancers.
But successful freelancers know that we can seize this moment if we want to. Mighty media conglomerates, broadcasters and publishing houses still have power, but they now have to share it with us independents. Technology is creating a level playing field for publishers of all kinds of media: from crazy cat blogs to investigative reporting published in e-book format. For every disappearing advertiser, there is a crowdfunder ready to invest, donate, sponsor or pay a dollar. Or ten. Or a thousand.
And that’s where there the opportunity for us freelancers lies, if we are ready to adapt and become journopreneurs. It’s all new, and yet we can learn from the many who’ve adapted before us. Like Eric Hoffer, American writer and philosopher (1902 – 1983), who famously said: “In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Let’s keep learning together.
– The Journopreneur Workshop for freelancers is back! The last one before the summer is on Friday 19th June in London. Spaces limited to allow for plenty of individual attention – book your ticket here.
From digital detox 2.0 to Perugia

From digital detox 2.0 to Perugia

Despite the fact that things looked quiet on here, I haven’t been sitting still at all. Most of the work has been happening over at the Constructive Journalism Project in the past few months. We’ve been touring the country delivering workshops at journalism schools from Scotland to North Wales and many places in between.
I have also been busy writing on Contributoria, where I successfully crowdfunded 22 articles in 9 months. The platform’s co-founder Sarah Hartley recently interviewed me about the tools and tricks of this new trade within freelance journalism.
I had another digital detox and travelled from Louisiana to Mexico and Brussels to report. Earlier this month I found myself on a remote island in the Stockholm peninsula to interview innovators in education. There was just one house and one wood fired sauna (hence my axe picture on this blog!): a nice change from buzzing London.
Next week, I’ll be speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. If I get any time between the many intriguing talks, workshops and meetings, I’ll post my dispatches here.
Crowdfunding journalism: Someone I met…

Crowdfunding journalism: Someone I met…

Crowdfunding journalism can pay off if you build a fan base.
Half a year ago I embarked on a new writing project. It’s called Someone I met. Each month I write about ordinary or extraordinary encounters with people. It is always someone I met in real life and was inspired by.
Over the last fourteen years as a journalist, many interviews and conversations have opened my eyes to new places, situations, cultures, beliefs and ways to live a life. I started this series because I believe that -more than facts and statistics- it is the people who bring a story to life.
I fund the series through crowdfunding on the Guardian Media Group’s online Contributoria platform. The beauty of it is that the ‘crowd’ (ie. my family, friends, regular readers and others who somehow have found and enjoyed the series to the point that they want to support it) don’t have to fully fund it.
The project has external funders and sponsors to top up the commissioning budget. All my ‘backers’ have to do is to create a free or cheap account (£1.99 per month) and donate their monthly allocation of points to the next episode. If I hit my target, I get my requested fee and I get paid.
I have experimented a lot with crowdfunding journalism over the past two years, and raised amounts from $3.50 to €39.510. I used anything from ready-made tools like Kickstarter to DYI WordPress applications, as well as various independent journalism platforms. So far I have found that the bottom line is simple: whatever the model, make sure you invest time and effort in creating a fan base. They don’t have to be in their thousands and they don’t have to all pay. Most important is that they like what you offer and benefit from it in some way. These individuals will become not just your fans, but your ambassadors too.
A strong, solid following of people who like what you do can help you bring your stories to them, and then onwards to the rest of the world. The future of journalism may well be in the hands of the crowd.

Freelance Booster Session

If you want to get started with crowdfunding your own freelance journalism, you can now book an online one-to-one support session with me. Together, we analyse your strengths and identify opportunities. I will share tips, ideas and advice tailored to your specific needs, to help you maximise your freelance income and work on the stories you care about. A Freelance Booster Session is 30 minutes and takes place via Skype.


New constructive journalism workshops for freelancers

New constructive journalism workshops for freelancers

Following a great start of the Constructive Journalism Project in 2014, we’re gearing up for the new year!
For all of you who have inquired about new London workshop dates, we have just announced the next one:
Friday 20 March 2015, 9.30am – 5pm
We’re keeping numbers down to allow for plenty of one-to-one interaction, so early booking is advised to secure your place. You can head over here to book directly.
New dates for the regular Journopreneur Workshops will be announced in early January.
For now, I’d like to thank you all for being part of the Journopreneur journey in 2014. It has been truly great to work with so many of you and I am humbled by the support, encouragement and enthusiasm I have received. Have a wonderful and relaxing Christmas and an adventurous, productive and inspiring New Year!
New workshop launched: Introduction to Constructive Journalism

New workshop launched: Introduction to Constructive Journalism

Many of us went into journalism with a desire to help change the world. And yet, working in traditional media often leaves us feeling frustrated. The emerging field of constructive journalism offers hope – and a different picture.
The lack of editorial interest in genuine solutions to the problems facing society makes it hard for journalists to break the negative news cycle. We often know that there is another side to a story we report on: examples of positive change, of resilience and transformation, and of exciting possibilities. And we know that our audiences love to hear about it. But how do we go about telling these stories effectively and using our journalism as a force for good?
Increasingly, media globally are starting to realise that they can report in a more inspiring way, while not just upholding but in fact strengthening all the standards of quality reporting. Some call it ‘solutions journalism’, others ‘positive reporting’, but it is about more than just focusing on what works. It is a way of presenting a fuller picture within conventional reporting, which is more empowering and engaging for audiences and more beneficial to society. Ultimately, it is about constructive journalism.
Together with Seán Dagan Wood, editor of Positive News, the world’s first positive newspaper, and co-founder of the Transformational Media Initiative, I have spent the past couple of months developing a brand new course. The one-day workshop is especially designed for freelancers wanting to dive deeper into the up-and-coming field of constructive journalism, and learn how to use this innovative and pioneering new approach within their freelance career.
The subject matter is close to my heart, as I have been covering social problems as well as solutions for many years. Over time my focus shifted to constructive journalism. As an independent journalist, I had to learn how to get editors on board, find outlets for my work and – let’s be realistic here – somehow make sure that what I believed in also generated a stable income. I found ways through trial and error and I continue to adapt to the changing media landscape. Now, I want to share what I learned with you.
I am happy to announce that the course officially launched today! The modules we will cover are a mixture of solid academic research into constructive journalism and practical applications for freelancers. You can check out all the details on The first of its kind in the UK, this exclusive course will take place on Thursday 27 November in London and spaces are limited.
This is a stand-alone course and previous participation in a Journopreneur workshop is not required. This workshop will cover 100% different materials, focused on constructive journalism within freelancing. If you have got any questions or would like to have a chat about whether the course is right for you, do feel free to contact me, as always.
Meanwhile, you can watch my fellow course leader Seán Dagan Wood explain the concept of constructive journalism -and why we need it- at TEDx:
You are your brand

You are your brand

What is the first thing you do when you get an email from someone you don’t know? You Google them. Just assume that many editors will do the same when you pitch to them for the first time. What is the impression they will get of you?
Find out by Googling your own name in brackets and see what comes up. Ideally, there are at least some clippings of your work among the results. Beyond getting stories commissioned and making sure they end up online, there is not much you can control there.
But what you can –and certainly should- control is your own personal portfolio website. Whether you build a custom-made page from scratch or prefer an existing tool, the most important thing is that your brand is out there, consistently.
Some simple tips :
  • Make sure that your profile image is the same across all platforms (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and your own website for example).
  • Try and keep the same profile name and URLs for everything as much as you can. Using your full name generally makes the most sense as that is what will show as your credit on your work externally: you are after all your own brand.
  • Readymade portfolio tools for journalists often offer a free basic version with paid premium options for those who want more storage or design possibilities. They require no coding experience and can be used by simply creating a login and custom URL and upload your PDFs and web links to your work.
Examples of journalist portfolio tools include Contently,, Muckrack and Pressfolios. There is a handy tool to compare the different platforms on style, lay-out, backup and sharing options.
If you prefer to create your own portfolio from scratch, it is worth doing some research into the content management systems out there. Many ‘theme’ builders offer pre-designed portfolio templates for free or a small one-off cost (usually between 10-50 USD, depending on the design).
Check out the portfolios  of other freelancers and make a shortlist of the styles and features you like. If you decide to use WordPress, Googling “portfolio themes WordPress” will give you plenty of examples and inspiration for your own page.
We’ll talk in more detail about how your personal brand can work for you in your freelance business during the Journopreneur Workshop on 5 September. Info & booking here.
Follow up

Follow up

Sometimes, the people we meet as journalists make us feel humbled to do our jobs. Their stories stick in our minds, and we wonder what happened next…
When I first met Mati two years ago, he told me his extraordinary life story. He grew up in an Afghan mountain village without electricity or other luxuries. He had never travelled or spent a night away from his family. Then, one day, a group of men came and took his dad, who had opposed the political regime. Not long after, they came back for his 18-year-old brother. The family never saw them again.
Mati’s mother took him and his younger brother and sister to his uncle’s house in another village. As the oldest son now remaining in the family, it was not safe for him there either. Word went around that he would be next. “That is when my mum said to me: ‘you have to go’. I was really afraid, but I had no choice”, he said at the time.
Almost three months of travelling in barbaric conditions followed, crossing six or seven countries on foot and in the back of trucks. Mati had not been told where he was going or whether he would ever be reunited with his family. All he knew was to listen to the agent who was smuggling him and a group of strangers, who were all much older. They walked through snow and heat and slept in the open air.
Every time the group reached a border, the agent told them to lie down flat and not move if anyone shot at them. Fleeing was useless as no one had papers or passports. They had to leave behind group members who could not walk fast enough. The memory still haunts him.
When Mati finally got dropped on the streets of London, he thought no one would ever understand what he had been through. He now knows that – just like him – other young refugees arrive in the city every day. His rescuer at the time was an Afghan man who walked past speaking his native language on his cell phone. When Mati stopped the man to explain his situation, he wrote the words “home office” on Mati’s hand and pointed him in the right direction. The young boy eventually reached the big building where his future would be determined.
As an underage refugee, Mati was placed in a foster family. He started school not speaking a word of English and even at home he had to ring an interpreter every time a conversation with his host family got stuck. Via the Refugee Council he was brought to a training session of the charity Cricket 4 Change. Within months, he had not only got a grip on the rules and techniques, but was also supporting fellow Afghan refugee children who had arrived in the capital alone. When he explained what the sport meant to him back in 2012, I noticed the determination in his soft-spoken voice: “When I played, I wasn’t thinking too much”, he told me. “My mind was a bit at peace.”
While many traditional news outlets would consider this the end of the story, I felt the narrative should continue. I have never understood the argument that readers won’t care about a story a couple of years on. It assumes that A. everyone read it the first time around (wishful thinking) and B. that people who did read it won’t care about what happened next (if the first story was good, I believe the opposite is through: they will care even more because it struck a chord with them).
One of the reasons I love working as an independent journalist is that I have much more freedom to pursue longer term stories like Mati’s. And so, two summers on, I tracked him down to see how his life had developed. Sometimes, a second piece can add a whole new layer to the original. Freelancers are uniquely placed to follow-up on stories worth (re-)telling.

"Yes, really, I make a full-time living out of this."

This is exactly what I answer to anyone who asks me how I manage to be an independent journalist in this rapidly changing media landscape. Believe me: change is great for our industry, and -if you embrace it and are willing to keep on learning- it can be great for your business, too. We'll work through exactly how during the next Journopreneur Workshop on 5 September. If you are wondering how it can work for you, please don't hesitate to drop me a line.

That sounds like an opportunity I need!

Selling overseas

Selling overseas

In this sunny holiday season, thoughts of travelling and exploring life abroad are the perfect distraction for freelancers. But when it comes to branching out your business, many don’t dare to step into the unknown. And yet, it could be a great way to create additional income from your journalism.
While it does help to have a contact in a foreign media outlet before pitching, there is still opportunity in just trying it on the chance. If the publication or media outlet you are pitching to is in English, it can be good idea to send them a complete package, containing the full story, images, audio or whatever it may be. Accompany the package by a friendly, brief email pitching the story.
If you are venturing out abroad after you have already placed the story in media at home, do make this clear when pitching. Many foreign outlets do not mind this, as long as the story has not appeared in their distribution area.  Although there can be some debate about online versions, which are technically available from everywhere, I find that this often is not an obstacle when it comes to selling stories abroad. Their fee might be lower for second publication rights, but not necessarily, so always start high and see what room there is for negotiation.
If the medium you are pitching to is non-English, you have to judge how well the editor will be able to understand the story in English. If not very well, it might pay off to translate the story in their language (or a summary, and then offer to translate in full if they wish- and add on a cost for this). If you think they will be able to comprehend the story in English, you can also send them the original version and let them take care of the translation in-house.
The best way to find foreign newspapers, magazines, TV stations and websites is to search on the internet, ask fellow freelancers (social media forums can be quite good for this) and start collecting a list of any potential outlets you come across. There are many web portals listing different kinds of media and languages. for example shows most English language news publications in countries around the world.
Just like for local media, it helps to do some basic research on each outlet and adjust your pitch accordingly, rather than taking the scattergun approach. But don’t worry too much if you don’t know all the ins and outs of the place you are pitching to: a good story is a good story everywhere.
[The image above was taken during my digital detox earlier this summer. Let’s just say I will be making this an annual thing…]
We’ll discuss many ways to increase your freelance income during the one-day workshop on Friday 5 September. Info here.
A story worth telling

A story worth telling

Thirteen years ago this summer I produced my first real, paid and published story. The other day I tried to work out how many articles I must have written since then. After adding up wild estimates like “1.5 year in this newsroom, 5 days per week, average 1 story per day” and “3 years contributing to that magazine, 2 stories per month, plus Christmas special”, I gave up. It is thousands – that much I worked out.
The first couple of years my mum used to cut out each and every one of my articles and glued them into albums. Books full of clippings I have of those early days, with the newspaper pages turning more yellow each year. When I was last home, I took some albums off the shelf and flicked through them. I had forgotten a lot of the stories but many came back to mind, especially the people in interviews that I had done.
As I worked my way through the pile of newspaper and magazine pages, I realised just how diverse the topics that I had covered were. In newsrooms I obviously had to follow the news agenda, with council meetings, launches of all sorts and prominent visits of anyone remotely famous. But mostly I wrote about people, and I still do.
Real people, from Dutch greenhouse growers to Namibian scientists. From Danish students to exiled Zimbabwean broadcasters. From Australian expats to Greek street paper sellers. From South Sudanese leprosy sufferers to Indian CEOs. From Afghan child refugees to South African musicians. From London ex-prisoners to Kenyan social workers. From Scottish entrepreneurs to Brazilian homeless footballers.
My business cards have a quote on them that I used to like a lot when I first started writing and travelling: “Make life a story worth telling.” Since I have had the privilege to meet so many people from all walks of life, I know it is more than that. They might not always know where to start, but when you give people your time, trust and a place to express themselves, it is obvious. Everyone has a story to tell.
Digital detox

Digital detox

As you read this, I have gone into hiding. Really. Try to ring me: you won’t get an answer. Try to email me: you’ll get an out-of-office without a promise that I’ll check for urgent messages once a day. Try to reach me on social media: you won’t get a tweet out of me and there’s nothing to like. Try to app me: those two delivery ticks you’re waiting on won’t appear. Not for two weeks. Not until I’m digitally detoxed.
Sometimes, I think back of the days when I started out as a freelancer. I barely used email and mobile phones were the size of fridges. My newspaper and journalism school both still used the good old hot waxer machine and I physically pasted my own first stories on the pages. If someone needed me for an assignment, they rang my parents’ landline and I checked my paper diary to see if I was free. The phone book was my bible, I spent a small fortune on magazine and newspaper subscriptions and accessed the rest in libraries and archives.
I didn’t have Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Google Calendar, LinkedIn, Instagram, Youtube, WordPress, Hootsuite, Mailchimp, Flipboard, Kindle, Paypal and Skype to run my business. But I did have one thing that has become increasingly scarce with the introduction of new technologies: focus.
Every time I read statistics about digital technology usage, I am torn between thinking it is both efficient and highly distracting. The average person checks their phone ever six and a half minutes. Three quarters of people say they absolutely could not spend a day without their smartphone or computer. In the UK, independent regulator Ofcom says that the average mobile phone subscriber sends 200 text messages per month, but that figure is heavily distorted since the introduction of Whatsapp. And we somehow still find time to watch 241 minutes of TV per day, too.
Creative freelancers in particular have had a lot to thank the digital revolution for when it comes to the running of their business. Without the Internet I certainly wouldn’t have been able to build and sustain my business as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as I have. More so, I would never have been able to do it all largely by myself, without the need for web developers, coders, personal assistants, administrators, PR agents and –to some extent- even publishers. The stuff I’ve been able to teach myself by simply watching YouTube tutorials, attending webinars and browsing user forums is pretty amazing. And at a fraction of the cost of a college degree.
My office is anywhere, as long as there’s wifi or 3G-signal for my laptop or phone. I plan everything on the go. No bus, tube and train journey is left unused to reply to emails, update to-do-lists, research stories, engage on social media, check newsletter reports and website stats, schedule appointments and plan interviews. But it is not just travel that has been transformed since I have a mini computer connected to the internet in my pocket at all times. Breakfast, supermarket queues, a friend who turns up late in the pub, ad breaks on TV and even episodes of writer’s block have all been given a new use.
But people who understand our brains better than we do ourselves say that it isn’t all that helpful. Even before our lives were interrupted by tweets, status updates and app notifications every three seconds, researchers found that doing more than one task at a time takes a toll on productivity. Psychologists studying cognition say that “mind and brain are not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.”
Despite everything we’ve gained, we are losing our ability to concentrate. To focus on one task. To switch off and make room for new thoughts that we can actually think through. We are more switched-on than ever, but we have lost the ‘off’ button.
There is a counter-movement appearing, ironically spreading through the web. There are ‘disconnect to connect’ ads, screenless weeks, digital detox camps and even a National Day of Unplugging on March 6 next year. But I’m not waiting until 2015.
I’m starting today.


During the one-day Journopreneur Workshop on Friday 5 September, I’ll share my digital detox experience so you can hopefully benefit from it, too. Info here.
Photo: Flickr/Rusty Blazenhoff, under Creative Commons License

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