Freelance tips: Any money is better than no money

Here’s something. A journalist I ran into, an editor, in fact, told me about flying out of an airport in a developing country after a  fact-finding trip he had been on.

As so often happens, the electricity had shut down, which meant that the conveyor belt carrying luggage through the X-ray machine wasn’t running. Nonetheless, the security staff were taking it upon themselves to crawl through the X-ray machine, pushing suitcases in front of them.

The journalist pointed out to them that the same lack of electricity that had stalled the conveyor belt meant that there weren’t any actual X-rays either. “We know that, sir,” came the response. “But the passengers like to see us taking security seriously.”

Now that was some years ago. I found the story amusing, wrote it up, much as I’ve done here, sent it off to the diary column of a print magazine – the UK Press Gazette, as it happens – and, a few weeks later, banked a small cheque.

Small cheques, that was the thing. As a freelance, my attitude has always been that any money is better than no money and small pieces generating small rewards (but involving minimal effort) could make a contribution to a life-sustaining income.

But something happened. The world changed. Publications closed down or went web-only or stopped paying for contributions like this. That, too, is freelancing. A source of income just disappears on you. You pick yourself up, carry on and look for other ways of earning a crust. Those odd little bits of information that I find interesting are now making their way into Kindle ebooks as I try to find out if this is a feasible way of bringing in some money.

Who knows why people go freelance. Who knows whether it’s more difficult now than it used to be. There’s a sense in which it always was. I once asked Alex Hamilton, then the travel editor of The Guardian, what advice he would give to would-be travel writers. “I’d discourage them,” he said. “There simply aren’t the outlets.” But if you must do it? “Write – and keep on writing.”

And people throw themselves into finding opportunities for freelancing and for turning their journalistic instincts into a financial life-support system.

The NUJ organised a conference on new ways to make freelance journalism pay where 20 speakers told an audience of around 200 about the strategies they were coming up with – from crowd-sourcing funding, to looking for new markets in Brazil and India and the like, to creative uses of internet opportunities.

At an NUJ course I run people bring along their own experiences, which may help others avoid problems. A BBC staffer, perhaps looking redundancy in the face, imparted a piece of advice.

“If you’re a freelance thinking of working for the BBC, don’t whatever you do, discuss your ideas while travelling on the C2 bus.”  The C2 runs between north London’s Highgate and Broadcasting House and is apparently packed with BBC personnel coming and going.

“People like me only need a whisper of an idea to be up and running,” he said. “I once overheard a professor talking about his work. Two words and I had an entire programme.” Any chatty freelance had been warned.

Humphrey Evans runs two courses. Getting Started as a Freelance is next set to run on May 17 and costs people who aren’t NUJ members £110. Pitch & Deal is on May 24, costing £130. Both courses take place at the NUJ head office near King’s Cross, London. Find out more – or book a place – by emailing training@nuj.org.uk.

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