The Editor-Freelancer Relationship: 5 Tips for Making It Work

Press Club of Cleveland - Editor-Freelancer Panel

From left to right: Jane Levesque, Jason Pettigrew, Steve Gleydura, and Doug Trattner discuss the editor-freelancer relationship at a Press Club of Cleveland event

Just because a newsroom is forced to cut staff due to tightened budgets doesn’t mean story production gets to slide.

Enter the freelancer.

“Fresh Water Cleveland is 100 percent freelance,” said managing editor Doug Trattner, during last week’s Press Club of Cleveland panel. “Including me.”

The weekly e-magazine and website is managed by Trattner, as well as freelance contributors who have proven themselves over time and now oversee specific beats for Fresh Water.  Other freelancers contribute features, profiles, Q&As, and news about the city of Cleveland and its neighborhoods.

The Press Club panel The Editor-Freelancer Relationship: Making it Work featured Trattner, Alternative Press Editor-in-Chief Jason Pettigrew, Cleveland Magazine and Inside Business Editor Steve Gleydura, and MedCity Media Director of Content Marketing Jane Levesque. Adam Burroughs, assistant managing editor and digital managing editor of Smart Business Network, moderated.

Although the other media outlets represented on the panel have some full-time staff members, the panelists echoed the importance of freelancers in their day-to-day work. Most of the publications are 80 percent to nearly 100 percent freelance writers, with the exception of the Cleveland Magazine which is 50 percent to 60 percent.

During the panel, the group discussed how they find freelancers and shared valuable advice on working with editors.

Editors don’t want new freelancers every week, explained Trattner.

Between the paperwork and melding the writer’s style with that of the media outlet, it takes time to bring a new freelancer on board. Once you have a good writer, you want to work with them repeatedly.

Because of this, Levesque tends to tap health care writer associations to find freelancers experienced in writing the informational web content and newsletters that MedCity prepares for its clients.

Pettigrew takes recommendations from other freelancers. His readers trust that Alternative Press‘s writers are fully entrenched in the music scene they’re writing about. Freelancers can’t just be familiar with the music; they must also understand the culture.

The Cleveland Magazine, on the other hand, develops some of its writers through their internship program.

“Not a lot of people still do magazine journalism the way we do,” explained Gleydura. The magazine’s staff can teach a student intern how they should cover topics and then give them assignments. Outside of the internship program, Gleydura finds freelancers by reading other magazines, blogs, and Twitter.

That’s not saying that the panelists don’t accept pitches from freelancers. The challenge for freelancers is being able to stand out.

The panel’s advice boiled down to these essentials:

Editor-Freelancer Relationship Tips Title

1) Don’t “fake it ’til you make it.” A freelancer must know the topic and the publication. 

Pettigrew is “in the business of creating artifacts” at Alternative Press, not in the business of Band X Launches New Album. When a publication is asking consumers to drop $6 per month, it needs to demonstrate value.

A freelancer who pitches Pettigrew needs to be an expert that has the access or ability to dig beyond a band’s publicity bio. If a freelancer tries to fake it and doesn’t truly understand the topic, readers can tell and will call the outlet out.

Gleydura stressed the importance of reading his magazine. “So many times I get a pitch for a 700-word feature, when we haven’t done one in a long time.” Instead, if this is your first pitch, propose a Q&A or short 400-word piece. Gleydura is more likely to take a risk and try you out on something short.

“Don’t pitch me something we already did,” Trattner added. Freelancers who read Fresh Water would understand that it’s an urban outlet – don’t pitch a story about the suburbs.

And know whom you’re talking to.

For instance, Trattner half-joked from experience, don’t send him a pitch saying you want to be the Cleveland Scene dining editor (that job already is filled, by him).

2) When submitting a writing sample, remember your blog.

As a B2B content marketing company, MedCity’s clients want to know that a freelancer understands complex medical topics and is able to talk with doctors.  Levesque needs writing samples to demonstrate this experience and knowledge.

Although Gleydura said he uses clips, he doesn’t trust them completely because it’s writing that’s polished and gone through the editing process. “I like blogs,” he said. “They’re unfiltered.”

However, the one problem he often sees when hiring bloggers for freelance projects is that some change their voice to be more like a journalist. The bloggers’ submissions lose the style Gleydura liked when he first hired them.

3) Develop your digital footprint.

Pettigrew commented that many magazines are looking for writers with large digital footprints – an audience on social media, a well-read blog, experience with online engagement and promotion.

If you can show you have blog traffic and followers on social media that helps, echoed Trattner. Especially with consumer publications, it’s not just about engaging writing, but also demonstrating how you would reach readers through your social media channels.

Blogs and social media also show what you’re passionate about.

4) Editors know you’re not exclusive; just be upfront about it.

An audience member asked the panel whether it’s OK to send the same pitch to multiple media outlets. The panelists asked: What would you do if they all said yes?

It’s fine to work with other media outlets, but don’t pitch them simultaneously.

Be honest and clear in your pitch. Depending on the idea, telling Trattner you’re pitching him first may help it stand out.

And, if you haven’t heard back and want to pitch the idea to another publication, it’s OK to let the editor know. If your idea is time-sensitive, Trattner encouraged checking back in a week with a quick “Did you get this?” (though don’t repeatedly hassle someone with multiple check-ins).

5) Keep your foot in the door by being flexible and professional.

Once an editor expresses interest in your pitch, how does a freelancer keep them happy?

“Deal with my BS,” Gleydura said, point-blank. Know your first draft may sit in his inbox for a couple of weeks, but that he’ll probably want revisions and extra reporting back in two days.

Even though you’re a freelancer, you still are representing the publication when you’re interviewing someone or speaking with sources. Act professionally, advised Trattner.

If there’s a problem, fix it. Although a good freelancer knows how to interview celebrities and work with PR, said Pettigrew, if there is an issue getting someone for a story, an outstanding freelancer will come up with an alternative.

When you make editors look good, Levesque put it, they’ll want you to work for them again.

Are you a freelancer? Register for PR Newswire for Journalists to customize multiple newsfeeds around the different topics you cover, or use our ProfNet service to quickly connect with sources for research and interviews. It’s free and takes only a few moments to sign up.

Amanda Hicken is a media relations manager at PR NewswireFollow her at @ADHicken for tweets about the media, comic books, and her love of Cleveland.

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