Why freelance feature writers shouldn't miss the news
For the incoming freelancer, features are easier to place than news, writes journalism tutor Cedric Pulford, the founder of Pulford Media, a provider of freelance writing courses.
National newspapers have the entire United Kingdom covered with a network of freelance correspondents. So does the Press Association – PA – the famous national news agency, which was a co-operative owned by the nation’s press and which has since been privatised.
The correspondents file news stories from their areas, or may be called upon to cover a story the paper has heard about. These correspondents, or stringers, may be journalists on local newspapers, who supplement their meagre wages by recycling their stories for the national press, or they may work in locally based news agencies. (These sometime poach stories from the staff journalists who wrote them!).
The same pattern of stringers is repeated with regional dailies, many of which, like the Yorkshire Post or the Western Morning News (Plymouth) cover huge areas.
All of this makes news an extremely unpromising area for the incoming freelance, unless he or she tries to hook up with a news agency, which may or may not have a vacancy at that time. Certainly we can place news stories with small newspapers or with trade and technical magazines. However, pay rates are so small as to make the exercise hardly worthwhile.
Features versus News
With features, the position is entirely different. Features are founded on ideas (news is founded on events), and no-one has a monopoly on ideas. Therefore publications will look at proposals for features from wherever they come.
Features in newspapers have the advantage of being a growing market. Papers have expanded, and grown sections. Much of the extra editorial space is filled by features.
Of course, the interpreter is more valuable than the opinioniser. Personal opinion pieces are the least promising form of freelancing. Editors have their arrangements in place. When a vacancy arises for a columnist, it’s invariably filled by a staff journalist or a regular contributor – or a household name (whose article is probably ghosted).
Why should an editor offer this spot to an unknown contributor? Opinion writers, in fact, are 10 a penny; those who can produce a well sourced and interesting feature article on a topical issue are much more valuable.
Take the long-standing issue of Caesarean sections versus natural births. The World Health Organisation has deplored the rising trend of Caesareans in Western Countries, much of it driven by social factors rather than medical need – the “too posh to push” brigade, doctors practising defensive medicine, and so on.
A news feature pegged to some new development around the issue – perhaps the latest statistics, or a senior figure criticising the WHO’s stance, or a claim that obstetricians are performing Caesareans too willingly – will be more marketable than your opinion on the subject, or mine.
Such a feature, if it’s to succeed, should be more than an assemblage of who said what and what happened. That is the province of the news story. The feature also needs to suggest what it means – in other words, to interpret the material. It does this, for example, by the use of background information, which puts the present situation into context, and by well chosen interpretive adjectives.
The difference between interpretation and opinion can be slippery, but it’s highlighted by the comparison of “a growing preference for Caesarean sections” (interpretation, drawn from the facts) and “a deplorable preference for Caesarean sections” (our opinion – others will disagree).
Interpretation is a valuable skill for freelancers while opinion is best left to the blogs.
Three freelance essentials
But the three freelance essentials are stamina, unflappability and availability. And the greatest of these is availability. One of the attractions of freelancing is that we aren’t tied to a nine-to-five working day. Nor need we work Monday to Friday unless we want to. Most of the time we’ll be able to work our commissions around the times and the days we choose to work.
Most commissions aren’t “wanted yesterday”. But some are. The freelance needs to be ready to accommodate that work even though it breaks into our “me” time, or children’s bath time, or quiz night at the pub. Sources, too, have a way of being available only outside our chosen hours. They aren’t all sitting in their offices waiting for us to ring them. Perhaps we can only reach that vital source at 10pm at night or on Sunday morning.
Generally speaking, far more time is spent researching a feature articles than writing it. That’s where stamina and unflappability come in. It takes stamina to track down the people or organisations we want to speak to. When we‘ve done that, it may take many calls or emails – even though the other party is willing – to agree a time for a telephone interview. Then we must repeat the process for others we wish to talk to.
Ideas are the freelancer’s stock in trade. To find ideas, we need to keep on top of our monitoring of selected newspapers, journals and websites. The flow of new information is relentless. It takes stamina.
Let’s imagine a situation where we were commissioned with a deadline a fortnight ahead. With just one day to go, for one reason and another, we still haven’t managed to land interviews with two of the four sources we plan to use. Yet we turn in the article in time (having substituted one of the sources with someone more readily available). That’s unflappability.
Carve out a niche as a freelancer
A specialism is more profitable than ‘across the waterfront’ freelancing. Experienced freelancers are able to cover any subject required of them from nuclear physics to celebrity fashions. They can do this by asking the right questions and knowing where to find information. However, the reality is that successful freelancers have one or two specialisms and stick to those. The science specialist doesn’t also handle environment, cookery and sport.
General feature writing is better left to staff journalists who are employed in that role. An “across the waterfront” approach is unpromising for the freelance. There are several reasons for this.
Generalists, editors and columnists
Editors get confused if people offer themselves over too many subjects. We want editors to come to us with commissions, and for that they need a clear idea of what we offer.
A specialist has a greater depth of knowledge than a generalist, giving a crucial edge in the competitive world of freelancing. The specialist becomes known to key sources in the subject, who will tell more than they will to an unknown generalist.
Networking, with contacts and with fellow journalists, is an important activity for freelancers. Business cards are a must. We can network effectively in our chosen field, but we can’t do so across half a dozen fields.
Columnists are an exception to the rule of specialising (unless they write for special sections like sport and business). They are paid to have an opinion on everything under the sun. Upon examination, we find that they are rarely jobbing journalists. They are senior staff members or celebrities. And often their opinions are quite superficial to anyone who knows about the subject. This doesn’t matter. The columnist’s brief is to be stimulating, not necessarily profound.
Before you submit that feature…
Ask yourself whether the article has a topical peg. Lord Northcliffe, an important figure in the history of journalism, said this about features: “There are two main divisions of news: one, actualities, two talking points. The first is news in its narrowest and best sense – reports of happenings, political resignations, strikes, crimes, deaths of famous people, wrecks and railway smashes, weather storms, sporting results , and so on, The second is getting the topics people are discussing and developing them, or stimulating a topic oneself…
“News of the second sort, the ‘talking points’, the ‘features’, is news that does not fall into your basket like the other sort. It requires thought, initiative, looking ahead. It means…a daily search for subjects in the public mind, or subjects that ought to be in the public mind. There are some who say it is this second sort of news, these ‘features’, and ‘talking points’, that sells the newspapers. I do not agree. It is hard news that catches readers. Features hold them.” [Quoted by Tom Clarke in My Northcliffe Diary]
This distinction between news and features remains readily recognisable today, a century later – nowhere more than in the newspaper he founded, the Daily Mail. Features usually look different from news articles; perhaps they are presented in a separate section. But Northcliffe reminds us that the best features grow out of news.
Features can’t ignore the news
A strong topical peg may make the difference between acceptance and rejection of our idea. The best time to write about Caesarean sections is when the latest annual figures provide a peg to hang the article on. Controversial subjects from fox hunting to road pricing are bubbling away below the surface all the time. Some news raison d’être is needed to make a marketable article.
There are published features that fail this test. They are the worse for it. Hopefully, we don’t write them. We should ask ourselves this about our idea: could the article have run three months ago, or could it run next year, in the same form? If the answer is yes, we should look for a topical peg to make the article right for here and now.
Freelancers can’t (afford to) ignore features
To reiterate, factual information is more marketable than opinions. Facts are the gold standard of journalism. This applies to features as much as to news. Features are interpretative or opinion-based, but they are based on facts. If the feature is to work, there will be new facts, informative facts or unusual facts.
Like truffles, facts are valuable because of the difficulty and time involved in rooting them out. It’s easy to fill space in a newspaper or magazine with opinion pieces, where the writer can waffle to whatever length is needed. The market in such pieces is correspondingly weak unless we are a “name” or an expert.
the best prospects for the working freelance are factually based news features,
either on topical issues or personal experiences (reinforced with factual
backgrounding). As journalism has become more personal and celebrity-based, we
do well to quarry our own lives for experiences that might interest the wider
world. Health and survival (or both) have a constant appeal.
This article has been compiled from advice and guidance excerpted from (and only available in) Byliners – 101 ways to be a freelance journalist by Cedric Pulford Copyright © 2009, whose permission was given for this edited reproduction on FreelanceUK.
25th May 2011