How Freelance Writers Are Tackling Big Stories

From a story on by Britany Robinson headlined “How freelancers are tackling big stories, solo”:

In November 2019, I stood in the crowded rotunda of the Oregon Capitol building and held hands with strangers. We were there for a peaceful protest of the Jordan Cove Energy Project, a 229-mile liquefied natural gas pipeline and export terminal that would become the largest carbon emitter in the state, if approved. I was also there because I thought I might write about it.

In the year that followed, I got to know many of those strangers. I first pitched a story about the movement to stop Jordan Cove in January and racked up a dozen rejections before securing an assignment in June. Then, with the help of a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists, I moved to the Oregon coast to report on the story from September through November 2020. The final piece, clocking in at 5,682 words, was published in January 2021.

It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written — the most work I’ve ever devoted to a story — and I’m proud of the final outcome. But that year was a challenging puzzle: piecing together shorter article assignments and obituary writing work; navigating a pandemic; and the actual work of interviewing, researching and writing my first long-form, reported feature.

Long-form journalism — from lengthy narratives to investigative reporting — requires significant time, creative energy and the discipline to stick with one story as it shape-shifts in the light of research and feedback. As a freelancer, securing the necessary resources for this kind of work (time, energy and money) is not easy.

And as I turn the corner into my third year of independent journalism, I find myself struggling with the sustainability of building a career on the big stories I want to write….

Melinda Wenner Moyer had been pitching The New York Times Magazine for years without landing an assignment when an editor approached her with a big one. They wanted a feature on sexual abuse in the military, a story that would require significant pre-reporting to find the right sources who would be willing to share their experiences.

She knew the nature of the assignment was an enormous commitment. But she also knew it was an important topic to cover, for a publication she’d longed to write for. After some back and forth on negotiating a rate she felt justified the scope, she dove in.

Moyer was prepared for a long haul of reporting, writing and revising. But she did not anticipate two and a half years to pass between the assignment and the publication date. Or the times at which she thought for sure the piece would be killed, because a significant source fell through or she simply hadn’t received feedback for months.

But the slow unfolding of the job meant Moyer didn’t have to significantly alter her schedule of other work, which includes teaching at NYU, shorter journalism assignments, textbook writing and working on her book, which launched in July.

The story was so spread out, there were times when she forgot about it completely. Other times, she would suddenly have a lot to do on top of a full schedule.

At one point, Moyer’s editor sent her revisions and she couldn’t bring herself to face them. So she turned to her therapist, who suggested setting an alarm and only working on it for 15 minutes at a time. It would make the revisions feel less daunting.

Samuel Ashworth — a fiction writer, freelance journalist and ghostwriter — has worked on two long-form pieces in his career, both over 6,000 words. One of them took two years from assignment to completion and the other took three.

“The problem with an evergreen story is there’s no immediacy,” he said. In writing about autopsies for Elemental, “The people involved in my story were not getting any more dead.”

Long-form stories are typically evergreen, meaning there’s no news hook to influence the timeline on which they’re produced. But a lot can happen while people aren’t “getting any more dead.” For my Jordan Cove piece, permits for the pipeline were filed during the final phase of editing, which required regular monitoring and last-minute adjustments.

Whether an article takes two months or two years, freelancers must prepare for an unpredictable timeline. There is no rush with long-form stories — until there is. And big pieces have a tendency to be shuffled around to accommodate newsier items.

Beyond the length of time it takes to complete a single long-form assignment, time in the game seems important, too. For Moyer, 15 years of freelance writing have helped her secure higher rates that make it possible to tackle bigger, more cumbersome projects.

Wudan Yan, an independent journalist based in Seattle, often uses grants to supplement the rates and cover travel expenses for big stories. Grant applications are a gamble — you’re spending time on writing and collecting the required materials with no guarantee on return. But since Yan has made a habit of applying for grants, the process has become easier. When she applied for one to report on uranium widows in Navajo Country, she used essentially the same pitch for the grant application and pitching the editor at Sierra. She said the application only took two to three hours.

“Keep in mind this isn’t my first rodeo,” Yan said. “I have a good sense of what grantors want to see.”

It didn’t take Moyer long to learn that she couldn’t write big features exclusively — as much as she loved writing them.

“You get one check every six months or so — it’s just so much harder to control,” she said. “I need to balance that with shorter pieces.”

Moyer’s years of freelancing contribute to her solid mix of writing work with above average rates. But she said she feels for her graduate students who are just entering the job market — many of them starting out as freelancers.

“A lot of places are either paying less than they used to, or they’re just not running as much freelance content as they used to. If you haven’t had those years of negotiating higher rates, it’s really, really hard.”

Ashworth makes time for long-form journalism by focusing on topics he’s already researching in his fiction writing.

The necessary ingredients to make a career with long-form journalism looks different for everyone. But the mix seems crucial. For a balance of regular paychecks and a variety of work and topics, writers must find a mix that works for them.

Moyer looks at three aspects of an assignment to determine whether or not it’s worth the time commitment. The money she’ll make comes first. Then she considers how excited she is about the topic. “If it’s something that feels really important to me, then I’m a little more flexible on rate.” She also considers how the clip could help her career. Is it a respected publication she’s always wanted to write for? Is it the kind of work that will open more doors? These are important considerations with long-form assignments.

Most of the writers I spoke to agreed that the hourly rate on long-form assignments often works out to be lower than that of shorter, simpler pieces. But there are benefits to spending significant time with a single subject matter, like developing new expertise and having a clip that can help you land future work.

When I quit my full-time editing job, just weeks before I went to that protest, I knew I wanted to focus on writing about climate change, energy resources and the shift towards a more sustainable way of life. By interviewing all kinds of energy and climate experts for the Jordan Cove story, I expanded my knowledge on the topic. And now I have a clip that showcases that expertise. My research also revealed new story ideas and allowed me to build relationships with sources.

Ashworth admitted that it’s sometimes hard to know if the commitment to a long-form story will be worth your time. But for him, “It was always because it was something I was already invested in and cared deeply about. I was already up to my neck in it.” For the Elemental article on autopsies, he felt like the story had the power to impact someone’s relationship with death — and that made it worth his time.

I was sitting on the back patio of a couple who has been fighting Jordan Cove for over a decade — looking out over the ocean that would be dredged to make room for massive tankers if they didn’t succeed — when I felt confident the time I was devoting to this story would be worth it. Their property is on the edge of the blast zone; if an explosion were to occur on an oil tanker, everything in the blast zone would be incinerated.

We watched a bald eagle land in a tree, overlooking the peaceful water. At that moment, it didn’t really matter how much money I was making. (It would matter at other times.) I knew this story was the kind of work I wanted to do, and I was making it work.

Now I just have to keep finding ways to continue doing that.

“You have to know why anyone should care,” Ashworth said. “And don’t lose sight of that.”

Britany Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, covering environmental issues, climate change, and also happier things.


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