Writing about new subjects, pursuing fellowships help freelancers keep careers fresh

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Pia Christensen/AHCJBara Vaida (speaking) moderated a panel full of advice for freelancers on how to keep their careers rewarding. Lynette Clemetson, director of the Wallace House for Knight-Wallace fellowships, talked about the value of a mid-career fellowship to reposition a journalist’s career.

Journalists desiring to keep their freelance career fresh might consider writing new types of stories for different publications, says Laura Beil.

Beil is a Dallas-based independent journalist who typically doesn’t write about sports but decided to change it up a bit recently by successfully pitching and writing an article about obesity among high school football players.

A journalist who usually covers science and health, Beil has written for Men’s Health, The New York Times, This American Life and Science News, among other publications. In her hometown, the state-champion high school football team had five players who weighed more than 300 pounds each. In November, Texas Monthly published her story, “Big Men on Campus,” which explored whether a growing national trend of extremely large young football players represents “a health crisis waiting to happen.”

Beil offered her advice during a panel discussion at Health Journalism 2017, “Freelance: Strategies for Keeping Your Career Fresh and Rewarding.” Bara Vaida, a freelancer writer from Washington, D.C., moderated the panel, whch included Sara Austin, executive editor of Real Simple; Lynette Clemetson, director of the Wallace House for Knight-Wallace fellowships and the Livingston Awards at the University of Michigan; and Katti Gray, an independent journalist in New York.

When pitching a story, Beil advised to never give up. For a good idea, your goal is to find the right editor at the right publication at the right time. Despite her success as a freelancer, Beil admits, “I have had my share of rejections.”

One key to success is knowing how to write a good pitch letter. Beil in her pitches includes an attention-grabbing headline, then adds details to put a compelling visual in the editor’s mind. “I start with something specific, and then the next section is why we care about this topic,” she said.

Follow that section with detail on the subject to show there’s plenty of depth to your story, said, then close with an argument about why readers will care. “Then I add a bit about how great I am and why I can do the story,” she said. One such pitch, which was just page long, sold this story to Reader’s Digest: “Carotid Artery Surgery: Could It Give You a Stroke?

Another way for freelancers to keep their careers fresh is to pursue a fellowship, said Gray, who has been freelancing full time since 2005 after taking a buyout from Newsday on Long Island. Her primary topic areas are health care, mental health and criminal justice.

Gray frequents the website Profellow.com. In 2014-15, she was a fellow writing about mental health care for the Carter Center. She will share her Carter Center application with anyone, she said. Journalists can write to her at katti@kattigray.com.

“For the Carter Center, you need a very well thought-out idea,” she said. “Carter is not just looking for the problem but for the innovation.” Her topic was how mental health problems plague veterans in prison and jail.

Like Gray, Clemetson, a Wallace fellow in 2009-10, also talked about the value of fellowships. “Fellowships like ours are a mid-career fellowship to reposition your career,” she said. A freelance writer who recently graduated from the program told Clemetson the fellowship helped him to, “renew his vows to journalism,” she said.

“We look for accomplished mid-career journalists,” she added. “That’s an important time to think about what you do.”

While some editors may consider fellowships to be like taking a vacation from your day job, they are not, Clemetson said. “Fellowships are not a break. We pay a $70,000 stipend for eight months to 20 journalists.” Journalists spend that time at the Wallace House, a gift from veteran TV newsman Mike Wallace and his wife, Mary. Fellows focus on one topic and can take any courses the university offers. “We are supporting journalists in a way that others cannot,” she said.

Austin, the only editor on the panel, provided tips on how to pitch an editor. “Read my work,” she said. “Immerse yourself in that publication.” Determine what format the publication prefers, who writes for the magazine, and what topics they cover. “Figure out what topics they’re obsessed with and then find another angle for that topic,” she said.

When pitching a health care idea to Real Simple, she said, “Remember, we are real and we are simple. Our health stories are about organizing your health care life.” A pitch letter will get her attention if it begins with a compliment about a story the magazine did well.

“Editors love it when you notice what they did,” she noted.

If the editor doesn’t respond, try someone else on the masthead. “Keep asking until you find someone who has time to talk to you,” Austin said. Never assume an editor will recognize that you know how to write. It’s best to demonstrate your ability with links to articles you’ve done and perhaps referrals from other journalists who can vouch for your skill.

Austin presented three slides: “What My Favorite Writers Did to Get a First Assignment,” “What My Favorite Writers Did to Nail Their First Assignment,” and “What My Favorite Writers Did to Become My Favorites.” Those slides will be available to AHCJ members on the conference website in the next week or so.

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