Journalism - Routes into the industry

Like most people who start out in business, you may well begin by taking on freelance assignments or covering newsworthy events in the hope of selling it to newspapers or magazines. If you already have experience and knowledge then the chances are you will already have a good collection of past stories and articles.

Another popular route is a postgraduate course in journalism followed by a permanent job on a local newspaper or radio station. Successful freelancers need to have confidence in their abilities and this can only come with experience. It is sometimes hard to find a permanent job, leaving working for yourself as your only route into journalism. You will need discipline, determination and focus - whether you are researching a story, pitching it as an idea, negotiating a fee, writing it up or chasing payment for an overdue invoice. And that's before you even start thinking about paying tax.

The first rule for a freelance journalist is the same as all freelance sectors - never put all your eggs in one basket. While regular work with a particular newspaper or magazine may lull you into a sense of security but beware, if circulation figures drop the first saving to be made will be on the freelance budget. Always spread your articles around a few different publications or websites, getting the right balance won't be easy but hard work can build quite a portfolio of regular contributions - helping to spread the risk of unemployment.

If you get a commission from a newspaper or magazine, you need to be quite clear about what the job entails, how much you will be paid for it, whether you can claim expenses, the deadline for the work and the form in which it should be sent. Also, check when you should invoice and when you will be paid.

The National Union of Journalists' Freelance Fees Guide will help you negotiate a reasonable amount for your work - £180 for a 1,000-word article is the minimum the guide suggests you accept. Many commissioning editors will tell you their fees are lower but think carefully before agreeing to work for them. As a freelancer, you have to pay your own phone bills, heating and administrative costs, tax and insurance - and you won't get paid for holidays or sick leave. If an invoice is overdue, don't be afraid to pursue it. You've done the work, you have the right to be paid.

It's worth considering joining the National Union of Journalists. They operate a system of reduced contributions for low paid journalists and have a wealth of information for freelancers. As a member, you can get a press card, cheaper training courses and legal advice.

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