Lessons in journalism

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, Clippings.me, 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!

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.
Pitch perfect

Pitch perfect

On December 5th the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas: an old tradition that usually involves buying presents for family or friends and writing a poem to go along with it. After years of dreaded rhyming efforts, someone invented an online poem robot. You simply enter the name of the person you bought a present for, their hobbies, home town and some characteristics. With one click on the button you’ve got yourself a poem. If only it worked like that for story pitches…
The Oxford Dictionary says a pitch is “A form of words used when trying to persuade someone to buy or accept something”. When it comes to a journalism pitch, I would add to that: “by convincing the editor that his readers/viewers/listeners will find the story interesting.” (Yes, I used ‘his’ by default here as news editors in particular still are more often male than female, with too many sadly suffering from the ‘grey man in grey suit’ syndrome).
Considering how vitally important a pitch is in the life of a freelancer, and how many journalists these days -by choice or force- become independent, it keeps surprising me how little pitching is taught in journalism degrees. When I meet new freelancers, students or graduates at workshops or mentoring sessions, they almost always ask about how to pitch. In my experience as both a journalist and an editor, I have found that three things that are crucial:
  1. Know the media outlet you pitch to. Read, watch or listen to their output and work out where your story fits. Try to find a certain page, category, programme slot, series or column that suits your story particularly well and mention it in your pitch. It shows that you have done your homework and helps the editor envision the piece in his publication, channel or online. This also is a good way to test whether your story actually fits the outlet you are aiming to pitch to. If you cannot find a good slot for it or struggle to picture it, that medium might just not be the best match.
  2. Research what has been done before. This sounds like a no-brainer but you would be surprised at how often it does not happen. As an editor I once was presented with a pitch almost identical to a story which featured right on our homepage at the time. While it is impossible to check every story in every outlet’s archive before you pitch (particularly in big news media), there is no excuse for not doing at least a couple of quick online archive searches and browsing their latest work and social media posts. If a story has already been covered in some way, you can often find another angle to still pitch it. Do try, but always mention the previous story. It shows you know what you are doing and highlights your creative abilities to engage an audience regardless.
  3. And finally, just have a good story idea. I have written hundreds of pitches to get my own work sold, read many books, blogs, tips and tricks about pitching for my workshops, received and commissioned story ideas as an editor and have imputed into pitches from freelance colleagues and friends over the years. Turns out there is no secret sauce. What ultimately makes a good pitch stand out from a bad one simply is a good idea.
Cre1There are countless different ways to pitch, but if you have the skills to tell the story and follow the steps above, the only other thing you can do is make sure you present it in a clear, concise and appealing way. A short email with a headline, intro and a couple of bullet points listing sources, stats and sample quotes is what I like myself, but the format does not even matter that much.
You just need to be curious and keep your eyes and ears open all the time to spot the gems. Story ideas are everywhere. But that is a story for another blog post.
We’ll be covering pitching, story idea sourcing and many more independent journalism skills at the next Journopreneur Workshop on Sat 31 May in London. There’s a few spaces left: BOOK HERE
[Photo by Spencer Wharton/ Creative Commons license]
Freelancers share their tips on handling rejection

Freelancers share their tips on handling rejection

At a talk I gave in London last night, someone came up to me and asked how to manage life as a freelancer ‘being all by yourself’. My answer was that, thankfully, I’m not. Or at least not all the time.
While it is true that the nature of my work calls for a lot of independent working, I do regularly consult a network of ‘allies’, They are more than colleagues, in a way, although we don’t share a boss or canteen. They are mostly fellow freelancers, in all parts of the world, with whom I’ve worked, studied or lived, or in some cases only know through social media. They are there to call when I’m thinking about the next project to launch, need some quick advice about a practical issue, a contact, a source, or just a laugh.
How effective and valuable such a network is got proven when gathering input for this piece. Following my recent blog on the fear of rejections, I wanted experienced freelancers to share their top tips. Within hours, I got a pile of great replies. Here’s a selection (somehow, the women were more outspoken on this one, but I am tracking down some men for another blog).
I asked one of my close allies and super talented freelance colleagues Fiona in Australia for advice and, as usual, she had plenty. She told me that when she faces rejection, she allows herself to sulk for a day but never longer: “Having a support network of other writers, editors and journalists to vent to can help. But then leave it there.”
She also believes it is worth carefully listening to any reply you might get: “If an editor gives feedback on why you were unsuccessful (which is rare, but does occasionally happen), take it on board. It might mean you have to come back to it in a few days when you’re not feeling so emotional, but there’s invariably some useful pointers in there. Always be polite. Even if you want to send a snooty email back, don’t. And pitch lots and to lots of different places—it means you’re never relying on just one thing to come off so it doesn’t hurt quite as much if it doesn’t.”
And I loved the resilience she showed next, when she noted: “Editors’ rejections spur me on to try harder and prove them wrong. Remember that guards change, so a no now might just be from that one person or it might just be for that one story. And of course, never underestimate the ability to do it yourself. Can it be published with another publication or via your own blog or can you start your own publication to do publish it? These days I tend to think that perseverance is more important than anything.”

“Perseverance is more important than anything.”

I also posted a call for tips in various freelance support groups on social media. Anna in Scotland emailed me right away (in itself a great example of how supportive fellow freelancers can be!). She says she uses positive reminders to keep her spirits up: “I have a folder called ‘nice things’ and every time I get a sweet note from an editor telling me how great I am, or from someone I’ve interviewed telling me how much they loved the piece, or even a note from a colleague raving about my chocolate brownies, I save it there. Then, if I’m feeling rubbish and it’s all going wrong, I have lots of lovely, supportive, positive messages to read. If people Tweet me praise I also save them as favourites, so they are right there on my phone.”
And another tip from Anna, to stay positive in quiet times: “If things are quiet, once I’ve done all my emails, calls, pitching, chasing etc., I step away from the computer and do something different. I go to an exhibition or out charity shopping or take my neighbour’s dogs for a walk and come back to my desk feeling so much better than if I had just lurked around on Facebook wasting time. I also try to use quiet times to make sure all other dreary admin is up to date, receipts filed, all that kind of stuff. That means I feel as if I have been working even if I have not been writing.”
Louise believes in the power of the one ‘yes’: “I tend to take rejections personally. But when I start heading for despair, I always have a stern word with myself and think: ‘Tomorrow is another day!’ And all it takes is one yes to cancel out all the rejections and then you’re on top of the world again (for a little while, anyway).”
Flic keeps a healthy distance: “It’s not personal. That’s the only thing you have to remember.”
Roxanne says trying is the most important thing: “A technique I’ve learnt along the way is to celebrate rejection and failure. Rejection means that you stepped in to the arena. You tried. You put yourself out there. You valued ‘courage’ over ‘acceptance’.  Living a courageous life is living with the possibility of rejection along the way. So if you have the crushing disappointment of something not working out, of rejection, then remind yourself of the values you were honouring in the first place and celebrate that.”
And if all that doesn’t do the trick, you could always try Jai’s recipe for handling rejections: “ Antidepressants and a good quality whisky.” And a dose of humour, clearly.
We’ll be talking all things freelance -including handling rejection, turning ‘no’s’ into ‘yesses’ and how best to be your own boss- at the next Journopreneur Workshop on Sat 31 May in London. There’s a few spaces left: BOOK HERE


Photo by Quinn Dombrowski/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License
Ups and downs

Ups and downs

When I ask colleagues, friends in staff jobs or students on my workshops what they would fear most about being a freelancer, many mention the same thing: uncertainty. Fluctuating income, not knowing where the next pay cheque might come from, or the one after that, and never quite being sure what you’ll be doing next month.
They’re right. The unknown can be a scary prospect. Particularly if your life depends on it. It might not literally be a life or death question, but getting that next job could be the difference between paying the rent on time or maxing out the credit card at the last minute.
On top of that, not really being able to plan your life around regular work hours is inconvenient at the best of times. Friends and family of freelancers will be able to tell you all about it. Unless they’re freelancers themselves: in that case they will probably be missing a lot of dinner parties, dates, birthdays and holidays too.
When I’ve struggled to make ends meet at the end of the month, while still working 80 hours a week and missing numerous social events, I got that damning question a lot: why do you do it? Why do you put up with all that, just to be your own boss? Is it really worth it?
ups and downsThe answer, of course, is hugely personal. What’s worth it in everyone’s life is measured by different criteria. For me, it depends on whether the ups are greater than the downs. Uncertainty, after all, can go two ways: it can lead to things better or worse than what you had before.
Every year at New Year, I take a step back and check the balance: if there has been more progress than stagnation, more new opportunity than the same old stuff, more growth in some areas than decline in others, more profit than loss, but mostly more passion and inspiration than boredom and frustration, it ultimately has been worth it.
With these criteria in mind, I make my strategic decisions throughout the year. Jobs, commissions, projects, trips, events, risks, gambles, innovations and experiments that will help me reach that positive balance by year-end will get a ‘yes’, or at least a strong ‘maybe’. Everything else is a no.
There’s still downs, of course, and times when you really don’t know when things will be on the up again. But the one certainty amid all the uncertainty is that there always will be another up. And once you reach it, it will boost you enough to get you through the next down, and on the road up once again.
The ups and downs of life as a freelance journalist are tackled hands on during the Journopreneur Workshop on 31 May 2014. For more info and booking, have a look here.

[Photo: Scott Ableman/Flickr/Creative Commons]

Don’t fear rejection: you only need one yes

Don’t fear rejection: you only need one yes

“A clear rejection is always better than a fake promise”, I recently read on a colourful card in a gift shop. My first thought was: who would have bought this card? And secondly: who would have received it?
Clarity might be more helpful than vagueness, but when it’s not the answer you were hoping for, it can hurt. Horrible relationship break-ups aside, I have come to realise that rejection does get easier to deal with the more you experience it. Or rather, that what you experience following a no, or -even worse- silence, is actually not the same as being rejected at all. In freelance journalism, I learned that lesson the hard way.
The first no probably wasn’t as hard, because I wasn’t expecting much. I started out my freelance career aged 17 by simply posting letters and sending emails (still a novelty then!) to all the editors and publishers in my local area. As I lived in a small town, there were only five of them. Three didn’t reply, one said ‘no, thanks’ and one asked me to come and have a chat, which inevitably kick-started my journalistic journey.
The ‘no, thanks’ reply was interesting, as it came after the ‘I’ll give you a chance’ one. Had it come first, I would have just assumed I’d get four more rejections. But because there had been one probable yes letter already, I actually started doubting myself for a minute. What if the yes man was crazy and the no man was right? Then, I imagined a reply which I’d never send: “Dear Editor, Thanks for your rejection. I’m glad about it, because I already got one yes, and your answer saves me from having to wonder ‘what if’.”
Thirteen years and many no’s and some yesses later, one thing has become clear: both replies often seem as random as one another. Once you’ve got your pitch right and your audience right, the rest basically depends on the available publication space, airtime, maternity leave of a staffer, leftover commissioning budget, ghosts, the position of the earth and the moon, or the level of horror on the commute of the editor that morning. Whether one or all of these things are in sync, you will probably never know. All you have is a yes, a no, or silence.
To think that a traffic jam outside Ikea or a bunch of wet leaves on the train track actually might have influenced the outcome of your pitch sounds random, but it does help to deal with whatever response you get.
Fearing rejection can rapidly result in a lack of energy, creativity and confidence, which will make that next freelance commission even less likely. The most helpful remedy I have found is to limit the amount of no’s by making sure you get your pitch right and your audience right. Both of these things can be learned. Beyond that, the power of a good story and a little bit of luck will get you there. You only need one yes to get started.
Keen to give your freelance career a boost? The next Journopreneur Workshop is on Sat 31 May in London. CHECK IT OUT

Photo: Abhi/Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

Freelance freedom, and how to make the most of it

Freelance freedom, and how to make the most of it

“You must love the freedom of being a freelancer”, friends often tell me when we’re talking about work. “No boss, no fixed hours and no one telling you what to do.” All of those things are true. And yet, these best parts of independent journalism life can sometimes also be the hardest. No boss means no one giving you guidance, no fixed hours means no routine and no automatic discipline to work at certain times, and no one telling you what to do means you have to come up with every single aspect of your job yourself.
Over the past 13 years in freelance journalism, I have often found that the best new ideas and insights came to me when I allowed myself to spend some time away from the day-to-day job. In the era of smartphones, personal and work messages often blur. Work can come through via the most unexpected routes: I’ve landed new jobs and clients via LinkedIn comments, Facebook chats and direct messages on Twitter, just to name a few. There are always emails to reply to, pitches to send and stories to read.
If you don’t actively plan some time away from the desk, it can be hard to spot new opportunities and develop story ideas and new products in this changing media landscape. Despite the beauty of technology, social media and the internet, I think reflecting, discovering and brainstorming are often the most effective when done on a weekend day, preferably in a different environment, with different but like-minded people.
I’m looking forward to getting inspired and helping others passionate about independent journalism to inspire themselves. There are a final few places left on the Journopreneur Workshop on Saturday 22 March in London for those keen to get started.
With the spring sun appearing, let’s give our journalism careers a skills and energy boost to grow.
Find your audience, and give them what they want

Find your audience, and give them what they want

“We haven’t really got any young readers.” The publisher of the weekly and free local newspaper in my home town in The Netherlands seemed rather surprised that I’d asked him in the first place. “Well, that’s because there’s nothing in your paper that interests them”, I said, rather bluntly. I guess I felt like I had nothing to lose: I was 17, had just graduated from high school and knew nothing about journalists other than the fact that I wanted to be one.
Thankfully, the publisher liked a challenge as much as a calculated risk and he offered me a deal: “You go out and find stories that youth want to read. I will get the local mobile phone shop, skateboard shop and pub to place an ad. If they ring me the next week to say they’ve done more business, you can stay on. Because that means you got me a new readership.”
Off I went, on my bicycle, notebook and newly bought digital camera in the rucksack. Within a month, I had three series up and running. The first was ‘Super Gran’, where kids could nominate a grandparent to be hero of the week.
20140227_150130Then there was ‘Cool Cook’, where I wrote children’s recipes with simple instructions (the paper’s apprentice designer, who was my age, somehow got me to agree on getting photographed with a face full of flour and a spatula in my mouth. I will post a picture here to prove that the world of freelance journalism isn’t all glamorous bylines).
And finally, I launched a series that soon got the whole town talking: the ‘Hok of the Year’ Competition.
The Westland area where I grew up is famous for its greenhouses. Almost everyone is directly or indirectly involved in the horticulture trade and, despite the light pollution, Westlanders will proudly tell you that their little region is the easiest thing to spot from space.
On the ground, meanwhile, underage youngsters were building hangout places: you could call them drinking dens, though they are as much about socialising and building a group identity. They called such a place a ‘hok’ and each group of friends has their own, usually in the greenhouse warehouse of one of the group’s families.
Most media in the area had been ignoring the rapidly growing ‘hok’ phenomenon, or covered it in a negative light. Pub owners had started a campaign against them because they were missing business, and some politicians argued that the hok culture encouraged underage drinking, even though in those days (in fact, until this year) the legal drinking age for beer and wine was 16 in Holland.
I had been a member of a ‘hok’ myself and saw the other side: that it provided a safe space for youth to hang out, with a parent nearby to keep an eye, and where hugely valuable friendships and social skills were developed. A lot of ‘hok’ groups helped out the greenhouse owner in busy times, and organised family days for parents to meet their friends. I decided to write about it from the perspective of those most interested in the coverage: the youngsters themselves.
Jonge Westland pageBefore long the ‘Hok of the Year’ competition was launched. I spent an evening in a different hok each month and rated them according to fixed criteria, including beer temperature (Heineken prescribes 4-7 degrees Celsius so I put a thermometer in the fridge), originality of the space (anything from sea containers to caravans and industrial water silos had been converted into hok spaces) and creativity of the merchandise (many hok members had created names and logos, which they printed on hoodies, hats, beermats, stickers and even boxer shorts).
Soon after the first instalment appeared, the inbox was overloaded with youngsters writing in to nominate their hok, and when the distributor called to say that 15-year-olds were now ringing to complain that the paper had not been delivered, the publisher knew that we were on to something.
Within half a year, we’d expanded the series into a full monthly youth page, and at the end of the year we announced the winner at a big celebration event in the local nightclub. The publisher got more ads and more readers, and I got more work.
I had learnt my first valuable lesson in journalism: find out who your audience is, and give them what they want.


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