Utilizing New Media to Find Article Ideas

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The very first thing you learned as a freelance writer and journalist is advice on how to come up with article ideas. Look within, they say. Sounds almost yen like, but what it really means is to look at your experience, your interests and your hobbies. We learn the old tricks, come up with our own and yet at times, we end up with the same thought, I can’t think of a darn thing. If recently you’re running through your list of previous tried methods, but still coming up short, then try these methods, which can help you truly utilize the new media available today.

1. Social media Even if you’re new to social media, don’t sweat it. Even as a beginner you can make the most out of it. Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin all have community pages, groups and forums of various sorts that you can like, join and follow. Constantly review these groups’ pages and check for regular updates on local community events or potential story ideas. Likewise, you can also join community forums on these social media sites that are listed under your specific subject area. For example, you specialize in health and business articles; follow groups or forums of such subjects. Post on them regularly to introduce yourself and inquire about story ideas.

2. More Social media Follow or friend enough informed people and you end up with a world of resources. Facebook and Twitter members love posting articles, videos and websites all the time. Routinely check these pages and see what you can find, one, two or three articles might come out of it.

3. Subscribe to various newsletters. You can follow a plethora of them online these days on multiple topics, such as health, business, entertainment, political, food or gardening. You can subscribe to blogs, magazines and organizations. Business newsletter topics can lead to various ideas, such as financing a business or bankruptcy mistakes.

4. Convert national stories to local articles. Read national magazines and newspapers as well as watch network and cable news for how a national story has relevance locally. Likewise you can convert local stories into national trends. Doing a series of health article on women’s health for a local newspaper? Find out how that issue can affect women, nationally or globally. Review websites such as http://Orato.com, which bills itself as a “citizen journalism” site and The Women’s International Perspective. These sites can help you rethink aspects of a story idea.

5. Plan and focus on holiday topics or national awareness months. Keep track of the List of National Awareness Months, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and November is Diabetes and Family Caregiver Awareness Month. You can prepare and pitch articles for both local and national publications well in advance.

6. Review your email folders. If your emails are organized in a fashion where you keep certain messages saved in folders, this can help lead to ideas. Say, you keep all local business email contacts in one specified folder? You can review those emails and see if you missed something from a few months or a maybe a year ago. An article idea that might just work today. A helpful hint: create an email address just for email newsletters. Saves space on your main email address, which should only be used for those favorite editors you can’t live without.

How to Pitch Podcasts, Slideshows and Multimedia Packages

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One way to generate more income as a freelance writer is to pitch a package to potential clients. Instead of only pitching an article, throw in a podcast, slideshow, and/or video. But don’t give it away, and charge more if it is edited.

If you’re writing a feature story on an event but you also have great photography skills, ask if you can take photos. But go one step further: propose putting together a slide show. If you also have the equipment and can shoot video, recommend that too. Keep the video clips short though — it’s a good rule to keep videos around two minutes. If you’re covering a local government meeting, tell your client you’ll record the audio of the entire meeting, and they can publish it as a public service on their website. Even better, if you have a laptop and a quality video camera, ask the client if you can “livestream” the meeting so their websites readers can watch it live from their website.

Afi Odelia-Scruggs, who has been freelancing full time since 2004, got her start as a reporter in the 1980s. She now mainly works as a freelance photographer for Cleveland Heights and Beachwood Patch sites in Ohio.

“I got into video reluctantly and through that, went into audio,” she said.

Odeli-Scruggs contributes a weekly slide show. Recently, she covered a fifth-grade graduation.

In 2008, she wrote a commentary for TheRoot.com titled “Remixing Grandma’s Voice: How to preserve her stories in the age of the iPod.” In the article, Odeli-Scruggs talks about a Mother’s Day present to her family — a digital version of an interview she taped with her grandmother in 1990. Check it out at http://www.prx.org/pieces/63534.

Odeli-Scruggs prefers using audio to tell a story because it’s “simply easier to capture, and easier [for me] to edit. I can turn a piece around fairly quickly. The equipment is lighter to carry, and the start-up costs are more manageable than video.”

She also created an audio slide show on her trip to the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scrqDitq_yo. In addition, last year at a teachers workshop, she created a video to explain news literacy.

Seven Things Freelancers Should Never Do To Gain Or Maintain a Client

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“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” In a tough economy, some entrepreneurs may be inclined to use this expression to justify getting a little more “creative” in their business practices and principles.

This in an effort to stay afloat and stay in the game. And, of course, a little “resourcefulness” can be a good thing depending upon how it’s applied and approached.

For example, finding ways to cut corners without compromising the quality of your services, or networking with other professionals to increase your client base and your bottom line.

But even amidst slow periods, lean times, and sheer fear, there are a few things you should never resort to in pursuit of fame, fortune, or food on the table.

I like to call them the seven deadly sins. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Discounting fees to your own detriment—Faced with mounting bills and the pressure to succeed, it’s not unusual for a freelancer to under price their services to drum up business, or to help a budget-conscious client meet their goals. Don’t be one of them. It’s rarely appreciated, and many times, it unfortunately lessens your “perceived value” to others.It’s okay to give a price break to loyal clients, or for projects that are quick and easy, if the situation dictates. But make sure that you’re compensated fairly in the process.

2. Embellishing your credentials and/or your experience— “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive.” Newsflash: with search engines, social media, and investigative software available to the general public, you’d be amazed at how much info is available to “inquiring minds.” Never present yourself as someone you‘re not. Remember that integrity is just as important as skill sets.

3. Working without a contract— I’m a big fan of Judge Mathis and courtroom T.V. and I can’t count the times that someone was out of money due to this oversight. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out fancy-smancy document. Even an Email exchange outlining the terms of your working relationship is better than nothing.
4. Badmouthing the competition—Green is rarely a good color on anyone! Maintaining an open relationship with all website copywriting services will put you under the radar, in good positions to advance.

5. Compromising your values—-If a client asks you to do something that doesn’t align with your moral code, or simply makes you feel uncomfortable, (i.e. fixing you up with their next door neighbor, lying, etc.), decline. You’re for hire, not for sale.

6. Being on call 24/7—Unless they’re compensating you the equivalent of a doctor’s salary. Besides, being well rested and recharged means that you’ll ultimately be better equipped to provide them with your best work.

7.  Accepting poor treatment—Frankly it defeats the whole purpose of working for yourself.
Keep these seven sins in mind  to ensure a heavenly freelance experience.

How To Deal With Late Payments on Freelance Gigs

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If you’re a freelance writer, you’re also a small business owner. And that means you’ll deal with cash-flow issues. You not only have to be a journalist, but also director of receivables.Almost every article writer has horror stories about being paid months after he handed in his story or project. In the most extreme cases, the poor scribe never got paid at all, caught up in a bankruptcy or scam.You are thus warned. But there are some smart steps that can be taken before any payment problems crop up. It’s the same concept as prevention when disease is considered.And some skillful politics via e-mail or phone can move along a tardy check if you get surprised despite all your due diligence.

Scout out your employer
If you’re the good reporter you claim you are, you’ll not only scout out your employer’s trends in assigning projects, but also its payment policies. Ask others who have worked for the employer – that’s often how you get their work anyway, through references or connections.A good rule of thumb is an employer paying 30 days after they receive your invoice or an internal request for payment is made. Be wary of any employer who pays more than 60 days after receipt of the project. That’s an indication of their own cash-flow issues or inability to pay promptly. You should be paid in real time.  I recently left an employer that paid very modestly – and only quarterly. That’s not real-time pay. They’re holding onto their money at your expense.

Arrange for direct deposit into your checking account or PayPal
We’ve all heard “the check is in the mail” explanation of a tardy payment. Well, snail-mail does not work that inefficiently. Ninety-eight percent of the time, if a check hasn’t arrived within four days after an employer said it has been sent, it hasn’t been mailed. If possible, request that your check be direct-deposited into your account. Most legit employers prefer that system to save on labor, paper and postage. That means funds will be available quicker and the slow mail cannot be used as an excuse. If the employer uses PayPal or another intermediate system for payment, that’s just as good.

Re-confirm when you hand in project when payment is expected
Any good employer will not take offense if you ask when payment can be expected when you hand in your work. At the same time, you double-check if the employer makes the payment request or whether you need to send an invoice, and to whom.If the editor himself is not handling payment requests, find out what individual in the company processes payments. Obtain their contact information, including their availability to respond to phone calls or e-mails.
If payment is late, don’t delay your inquiries
Should you arrange direct deposit or a PayPal-type system, monitor the account on the day the payment is supposed to be made. If no pay shows up that day or two days beyond, contact the payment person to report the lack of deposit. Give four days for a check in the mail, but no more. Be diplomatic. Sugar works far better than vinegar. In some cases, there was an oversight. An individual may not have been working the day the day the deposit should have been made or the check was cut. Sometimes there’s a processing foul-up. It’s happened to me. If it’s a legitimate, financially-healthy company, they won’t take offense with business-like requests for payment and will take corrective action.

Take firm action in serious delinquencies
If repeated requests don’t yield action and payment becomes weeks or months late, do not hand in additional work if you’ve got a regular, ongoing relationship with the employer. You’re only putting yourself more at risk. If they’re depending on you, withholding your work can prompt action. And if that strategy still doesn’t work, you won’t want to continue to work for this employer.Still try to practice diplomacy until the last possible second. Attempt to reach a higher-up executive. If you are owed a lot of money and it is seriously delinquent, contact an attorney to determine your options. Don’t let the issue fester. I’ve continued handing in work for one employer for months without being paid, with promises of checks continually being made. The company eventually went bankrupt, and I never collected some $2,000 owed. The employer then re-incorporated under another name, and was never liable for the debts he incurred. Such are the loopholes and unfairness in bankruptcy laws. You don’t want to be on that kind of hook.

 

How to Become a Travel Guidebook Writer

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Considering that I’m someone who was worked in the journalism and publishing industries for a little over a decade now, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that I’ve held literally dozens of different journalistic roles throughout the course of my career: I’ve been an intern, a staff editor and a magazine publisher, to name just a few. I’ve reported on everything from the commercial real estate industry to the insular punk-rock scene in Pittsburgh, Pa. But I can honestly say that nothing I’ve ever accomplished journalistically has generated quite the amount of genuine curiosity as my career as a travel guidebook writer. It seems to be the dream job of choice for those desk-jockey journalists who have long since burnt out on city council meetings and small-town politics. And while it certainly isn’t easy to land such a gig, there are certain steps writers can take if they’re serious about making the guidebook writing life a reality.

1. Research the industry

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the major guidebook publishers have their own unique methods when it comes to recruiting new talent, and you’d be well advised to do a bit of online digging before reaching out to an editor. Believe it or not, it’s really as simple as poking around on a specific publisher’s website; be on the lookout for writers guidelines, and if all else fails, send an inquiry to the company’s acquisitions editor. Lonely Planet offers information online about joining their team and Rough Guides does too,  so get ball rolling by mailing in a few relevant travel writing samples and a convincing cover letter. Some publishers, like Avalon Travel’s Moon Handbooks imprint, require potential authors to have had extensive experience in the destinations they’re interested in covering. Avalon provides a list of guidebooks that they are currently attempting to match with qualified authors. Other publishers that keep detailed information online about the process of applying for a spot on their team include Footprint, Time Out, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s.

2. Experience the world

When it comes to impressing those editors who have the potential to offer you work, you’ll likely find that most of them are looking for a wide range of essentially the same skills. Guidebook writers needs to be especially well-traveled, of course, and it certainly won’t hurt if you speak a foreign language, or if you’ve lived and worked abroad extensively. Having an advanced degree can be especially useful; if you have a Masters in East Asian studies, for instance, an editor may be willing to give you a chance, even if your travel writing career is still in its nascent stages. If you lack those qualifications, don’t panic; it’s easy enough to build a travel writing portfolio by simply reporting on destinations in your own corner of the country. No matter where in the world you live, there are undoubtedly travel stories to be found and filed right in your own proverbial backyard. Start small, and be patient but persistent when acquiring at least some the skills you’ll need to have before being considered for a guidebook writing gig.

3. Keep reading, and consider a conference

Unfortunately, there isn’t an overabundance of published work that explains the process of becoming a guidebook author, although Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, by Don George, has a useful guidebook writing chapter that’s worth the cost of the book alone. Also worth a read is Thomas Kohnstamm’s now-infamous Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? It’s an unflinchingly honest look at the guidebook writing life from a former Lonely Planet scribe gone bad. Those of you willing to spend a bit more money on career training should seriously consider attending the legendary Travel Writers and Photographers Conference at Book Passage, a Bay Area book store located in Corte Madera, Ca. The conference isn’t cheap, but it has a legendary reputation for graduating would-be travel writers who go onto bigger and better things in the industry with surprising speed; my own guidebook writing career was launched here in 2004. Attending the Transitions Online Foreign Correspondence Course in Prague, Czech Republic–a course I’ve attended and highly recommend–can give you a significant leg up in terms of selling freelance stories with foreign datelines. Those stories can then be shared with guidebook editors, who always prefer to work with writers who’ve had experience reporting from abroad.

4. Understand the realities of the industry

It’s easy enough for the uninitiated to consider guidebook writing an absolute journalistic dream job, but the reality is quite a bit stickier. Burnout among guidebook authors and article writers are surprisingly high, and that’s largely because the pay is rarely adequate for the incredible amount of work a guidebook writer is expected to complete in what is usually an inordinately brief amount of time. Thanks to seemingly impossible deadlines, guidebook authors frequently find themselves working 12- or 14-hour days. That goes for the reporting process in the field, which can be alternately exhilarating and exhausting, as well as for the actual writing, map-making and data entry processes, which can be mind-numbingly dull, especially as you attempt to “say something new in what feels like your 150th Italian restaurant review,” as a Moon Handbooks author recently explained to me. For an eye-opening and extremely accurate account of the lifestyle, read “A Job with Travel but No Vacation” by the New York Times’ Warren St. John. “Writing budget travel guides is most decidedly yeoman’s work,” writes St. John. “Most who do it quickly learn the one hard and fast rule of the trade: travel-guide writing is no vacation.”

Amen to that.

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