Don’t Overdo the Freelancing

By: Randy Dotinga

Your boss in the newsroom says freelancing is OK, or maybe you just crossed your fingers and decided not to tell her. You have a list of magazines or Web sites you’d like to work for and a handful of ideas to pitch. Now what?

Here are some tips from reporters, photographers, and an editor about how to freelance without tears or fears. (For more about your rights to freelance, see last week’s column, archived at The Price of Freelancing Freedom

* Keep your initial expectations low: For one thing, as the saying goes, you’ll never be disappointed. For another, you’ll be more prepared to handle the biggest disappointment of freelancing — it might pay you next to nothing, especially at the beginning.

Some wet-behind-the-ears rookies do get jobs at top newspapers just out of college, and some first-time freelancers do get their 5,000-word opus on retirement communities into Modern Maturity. But odds are that won’t happen to you. (And it’s a good thing too, because your colleagues are less likely to curse you behind your back after giving tight-lipped congratulations.)

* Watch your timing: A good newsroom employee doesn’t start freelancing within days of getting hired. “It’s good to look like you’re not freelancing for at least six to seven months, until you get off probation,” said Fred Greaves, a freelance photographer in San Diego who has held full-time jobs at newspapers. “It looks bad when you’re supposed to be working there and you’re out lining up big corporate jobs.”

* Prepare for stress: Producing a freelance piece can take much longer than an equivalent newspaper story when you factor in story pitching, research, writing, invoicing, and tracking of expenses.

“It can be tiring to come home and sit in front of the computer and doing writing after doing it all day,” said Richard A. Marini, a health and fitness reporter at the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News and a freelance writer. “When I come home and don’t have to do freelance work, it’s nice because I can veg in front of the television like normal people.”

* Buy your own equipment: A freelancer needs his or her own cell phone, computer and pager (if necessary). And photographers should use their own cameras.

“I don’t want to be a mooch,” said Bradley J. Fikes, a business reporter at the North County Times in Escondido, Calif. While he occasionally will take freelance calls at his work phone, he balances things out by using his own equipment on the job at times.

* Work at your desk at your own risk: Freelancers do it all the time, but they may be asking for trouble. The grapevine is full of stories about reporters who found themselves on the unemployment line because they moonlighted during the day, in full view of annoyed bosses and coworkers.

If you’re on the West Coast, call people in the East before you go to work. Do as much work as you can by e-mail, and answer your messages at home. If you absolutely have to call a source during the work day, head out to your car during lunch hour and do the interview there.

You could also take a break and head to an empty conference room, but everybody within eyesight will assume the usual — that you’re looking for a new place to work.

Even if your job isn’t threatened by your moonlighting, your reputation may be. Freelance clips may impress a future boss, but only to a point.

“There is a delicate balancing act involved,” said Walter Middlebrook, associate editor for recruitment at Newsday in Melville, N.Y. When a staff writer or copy editor has a “boatload” of freelance clips, he said, “then we have to be concerned about that person’s commitment to their primary job and his commitment to the job that I have to fill.”

You may also pay the price for annoying co-workers by moonlighting. “Believe it or not,” Middlebrook said, “some workmates will ‘volunteer’ information on potential job candidates when they hear a person is being considered for another opening.”

COMING NEXT WEEK: An editor gives sexual favors in the conference room. The columnist sends secret messages to a colleague. Where do newspapers draw the line on sexual harassment? Is it possible to date a co-worker without getting into trouble?

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