Five ways to use social media as a journalist

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for last couple of years, you’ll be aware of the next generation of Internet applications. Social media is THE biggest thing on the Internet. Facebook is now used more than Google, Twitter has become the one of the fastest ways to disseminate news and YouTube is now considered to be a legitimate video distribution channel. But how can journalists use social media? Is it just a way for journalists to show off some of their work? Or is it a self-promotional tool?

Here are five ways to use social media

1. Engage with your audience.

Try to get your publishers to include your Twitter ID in your byline. For online publications, this is usually pretty easy to do. When readers can engage with you, you gain a new level of connection with them. With online publications, this usually isn’t too hard to negotiate

One piece of advice – if readers start following your Twitter feed you’ll need to think before you tweet. One thing you can do is have two Twitter accounts –  a personal one and a work one. Also, don’t follow readers automatically as they can then direct message you. This might be somewhat intrusive.

2. Promote your work

If you do publish online, sending links over Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social sites can be a great way to increase traffic to your work. A good strategy is to not only send links to new work but also to older stories that haven’t dated. That will expose your work new readers and help build your audience.

3. Build up a living CV

Creating a blog, even a simple one, can be an easy way to make a living curriculum vitae of your work accessible to potential clients. While that might sound technically difficult for some, many web hosting companies make it very easy to register a domain name and build a web site.

A great example of a blog like this, that shares both work and some personal information is my friend Alex Kidman’s site.

4. Show off using YouTube

If you do the occasional TV spot, getting the clip on to YouTube gives you visibility and exposes you to an even greater audience.

Just make sure you aren’t breaking any copyright rules if you do this.

5. Find sources and information

Last, but certainly not least on this list, is using social media as an information gathering tool. Asking a question on Twitter, as an example, can be a great way to find interview subjects. Also, there’s the newest kid on the social media block, Quora, that lets you not only follow people, but also topics of interest. It’s sort of a cross between Twitter and LinkedIn groups.

How do you use social media? Do you find it valuable or a time waster? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Starting out – how to advertise

When you first start out freelancing, it’s important to work at getting new clients. Without clients, there’s no work to do. If there’s no work, there’s no meny coming in. And without money the whole roof over your head and food thing starts to look like a luxury. But how do you advertise and let people know you’re out there?

During the first months of your new business – and you are a business and need to operate like one – you need to work hard at finding new customers and keeping them. That means delivering above and beyond what they expect.

A couple of weeks ago, guest poster David Hague told the story of a motel he stayed at. In case you missed the main points, here’s a summary:

  • deliver great service
  • deliver something unexpected that’s easy to do
  • keep customer records and note what they really liked for when they return

The unexpected thing is the hard one to do and will vary for every customer. It might be providing some extra images with a story or nice packaging if you’re delivering a product. Whatever it is – make it memorable.

Another post over at the Pocket Mojo blog describes a software developer who says the following:

We do not want to annoy you in any way.

Look at your workflow. Is there something you do that forces your customer to change what they want to do to fit in with you? If there is – you need to change it.

So, what’s all this got to do with advertising?

Happy customers become advocates. Every piece of research I’ve read on the topic says that referrals by happy customers are THE best form of advertising. How many times have you purchased a product or hired a tradesperson on the basis of a friend’s recommendation?

Your clients are the best and cheapest advertisers for your business.

What do you do for your clients that helps you stand out? What can you do to get more referral business? Share you thoughts in the comments.

Write a business plan and track it

How do you know of you’re being successful in business?

Kaplan and Norton, in their seminal business book The Balanced Scorecard [Affiliate Link], said that:

…organisations are operating in complex environments so an accurate understanding of their goals and the methods for attaining those goals is vital.

In other words, in order to be successful you have to measure your current position, set goals and then track your performance against those goals. The trouble is that most journalists simply don’t have experience in writing a plan like this and managing our work to the plan. However, it’s not actually that difficult to write and work to.

Also, if you have a written plan and track your progress, when you need to go to the bank for a funding injection to expand your business, you’ll have documentary proof of your ability to successfully run a business.

Disclaimer: I’m not an accountant or financial planner. The views here are my opinions and you should consult with your own accountant or accredited financial specialist for specific advice.

Financials

As a journalist, it’s important to know what sorts of goals to set. The obvious place to start is money. You probably have a good idea of your annual or monthly income and you should know what your average monthly expenses are. If you don’t know those yet, grab your last few bank statements and make a list of income and expenses.

Once you’ve decided on those goals write them down. I suggest that you put them in two places. Firstly, in document where you detail all the elements of your business plan. There, you can document the detail of what you’re aiming for. Secondly, one the whiteboard or noticeboard you have on your office wall. When it’s in front of you all the time you’ll stay focussed on the goal. If you’re like me, you’ll even feel a little guilty when you don’t hit the target.

On the expenses side of the ledger, you should aim to minimise your spending – particularly when you first get started. It might be exciting to see some money rolling in when you start out but you need to make sure you keep money aside for operating expenses and taxes. In Australia, a rule of thumb is to put aside a third of all income for taxes.

Now, work out how much  money you’d like to earn. I suggest that you work on monthly goals set three target levels.

  • Level 1: What you need to get by with a little bit of headroom.
  • Level 2: What you need plus a generous margin of around 30% so that you can build reserves for the quieter months.
  • Level 3: The BHAG – big, hairy, audacious goal. Something like double the income level you need.

Clients

In order to make some money you need clients. Every freelancer knows that you’re only a phone call or email away from losing a client. When I started out, I managed to land a semi-regular gig writing for a major daily newspaper. However, after about three months the editor who was commissioning my work went freelance. All that work I’d been getting suddenly dried up. Fortunately, I had enough other work to keep me afloat.

Set a goal to increase the number of clients you have so that if any one client drops you it won’t mean financial ruin. In other words – don’t put all your earning eggs in one basket.

Look at how many active clients you have at the moment. Set a goal to add new clients regularly and try to diversify the sorts of clients you have so that if one sector of clients quietens down, another may increase to cover. For example, during the recent global financial crisis, many magazines and newspapers around the world, that paid flat rates for stories, closed their doors. However, that opened the door with online publications that paid writers based on the site traffic they generated.

Also, for good writers, there’s always some corporate writing around. These are great clients as they tend to pay for the value you add rather than the number of words you write. And they rarely shy away from rates publishers would never pay. Whenever I work for a corporate client I end up wishing I charged a little more as they’ve never flinched at rates like $120AUD per hour.

Time

How much time do you put into developing your business and marketing yourself? How are you going to get those clients unless you dedicate time and energy. Set a goal to spend a specific part of every week to develop new skills and to market your business.

Writing the plan

A quick Google search for “how to write a business plan” will bring up thousands of different templates. All have a set of common elements.

  • Executive Summary: This is the highlight package of the plan. If a reader hasn’t the time to review the detail of your plan, the Executive Summary will provide them with enough information to get a good overview of your business. Although this the first item in the document, it’s probably the last part you’ll write.
  • Summary of your Business: This is simply a list of the products and services you’ll be selling. It should also document what it is that makes your business different to all the other ones like it. As a freelancer – what will you bring to your clients that your competition can;t or doesn’t?
  • Start-up Financials: If you’re just starting out, making a list of your starting expenses is important. This might include the cost of setting up an office (furniture, computer, phones, etc), business establishment expenses (registration of your business name, professional services for getting you organised with the tax department) and whatever else you need.
  • Projected cash flow: What is projected income? This should be mapped out month-by-month for a year and take into account seasonal slowdowns (it’s doubtful that your January income will be as great as December or February for example), clients that work quarterly rather than monthly publications and so forth.
  • Projected expenses: What will you have to spend money on each month. This will allow you, with the projected cash flow to estimate your profit and loss (P and L in accountant-speak).
  • Goals: Write down your business’s goals and set milestones to achieving those goals. For example, if you plan to gain six new clients for the year and increase your monthly profit by 25% by the end of the year, it’s unlikely that you’ll achieve all that in a week. Set some achievable milestones along the way like “Spend two hours per week contacting potential new clients” or “Reduce monthly expenses by using the train instead of driving”.

So, that’s a start. Once you’ve written down what you expect to achieve and set some milestones along the way you’ll be well on the way to knowing if you’re succeeding as a freelancer. And if you’re not – having a plan that you’re measuring yourself against will help you work out what you need to do to nail the BHAG!

Have you created a plan for your business? Is there something you think should be added to this plan? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Getting paid – the freelancer’s challenge

Once the excitement of making the decision to freelance passes and you get your first paying work, you need to channel some energy into making sure you’re paid promptly. Now, you’d think that the world is a nice place where submitting a nicely presented invoice, with all the details correctly completed was enough. Sadly, it’s not. While you may have lots of good clients that pay promptly, every freelance writer has horror stories of clients who don’t like parting with their cash.

Here are a few guidelines on getting paid. All of these are things I learned by experience and through listening to those who walked before me.

Although you might be grateful that all your door-knocking, cold calling and emailing has resulted in someone offering you some work, you need to understand the terms of the business engagement. Make sure you

  • Know the pay-rate
  • Understand the payment cycle
  • Invoice accurately and track payments
  • Know who to call if there’s a problem
  • Communication
  • Escalation

The Pay Rate

It might sound silly, but I’ve taken jobs where I’ve known the editor but not the publication. If the publication is new, it’s possible that the editor isn;t really sure but makes comments like “I’ll look after you”. My advice is that you need to get the rate in writing before you start.

I’ve written some notes on how you might like to consider pay rates in this recent post.

The Payment Cycle

Every publication I work for is a little different to the others. If you work for an online publication, they might run a weekly, fortnightly or monthly pay cycle. Find out!

Others will only pay either once the magazine has hit the news-stands or some period after. One of the most annoying clients I had paid 30 days after the magazine went off the shelf. While I was working regularly, it meant that I was getting a monthly payment. However, it took three months for the first invoice to be paid.

Invoice accurately and track payments

A decent invoicing system will make it easy to send the correct information to your client so that there aren’t any excuses for not paying. If your budget is modest when you start out, you can create a nice invoice template using either spreadsheet or word processing software. You can also create a register of invoices and payments so that you can track outstanding debtors.

Who you gonna call?

It’s inevitable when you’re a freelancer that a payment is going to be missed or late. Rather than just sitting there, stewing on it, contact your editor and ask what’s going on. In many cases, the person commissioning the work is not the person paying the invoices. In fact, once they pass the invoice off to the accounts people they may not know any other art of the process.

Once, I worked for a large daily newspaper and they took six months to pay an invoice. It wasn’t for a huge amount but I deserved to be paid. It turns out that I needed to fill in some form for the accounts department so they could set me up in their system. Once I found that detail out I was paid promptly. The trick was to find out who is actually in charge of the payments. In large publishing companies it’s rarely the editor.

Communication

Incredibly, even though, as writers we’re in the communication business we seem to not like talking about money. Although I’m reiterating something I’ve said earlier, if you’re not being paid, make sure you call your commissioning editor and get on to the accounts department.

Escalation

If all else fails, it’s time to call in some help. Most countries with a free press have a trade union. I suggest that you strongly consider joining. It’s not cheap (in Australia, it costs several hundred dollars per year) but one service my union offers is debt collection from tardy payers. And, unlike commercial debt collection agencies, the union doesn’t charge extra for the service – it’s covered in my monthly dues.

Setting a pay-rate

I know a lot of journalists who work very hard but don’t seem to reap the financial rewards for their effort. The write thousands of words per week but barely manage a subsistence salary, struggling to make rent or mortgage payments. My observation from discussions with journalists is that there are a number of contributing factors to this.

Many writers are under the mistaken apprehension that their work is not of a high enough value to charge a higher rate. As a consequence, they take whatever work comes their way at whatever rate the client deems to pay. The problem is that clients always want to pay the minimum possible.

Contributing to this, many writers don’t really understand how to calculate the pay rate they need in order to get by. Here’s one way to calculate that.

In Australia, the average annual, pre-tax salary is around $60,000 per year. That equates to about $1154 per week, Just to make the maths easier I’ll round that up to $1200 per week, assuming you work for all 52 weeks of the year. However, I suspect that you’d like a few days off. Under Australian law, employees are entitled to four weeks of annual leave. Oh, and there’s the 10 days of public holidays and weekends. If you take all of that and calculate it into a pay rate per day you end up with just 221 working days in the year. Realistically, you’ll lose about 20% of those days on administration (doing taxes, travelling, pitching stories and so forth). That leaves you with about 177 days to make your $60,000.

Once you break that down, you get to an hourly rate of about $42.

The question is – how many words can you write in an hour? You need to know this because editors and publishers work to a totally different set of rules. For the print media, editors and publishers know exactly what it costs to produce a page. Their’s is an old business so there are accurate models that cover the cost of paper, ink, layout, distribution and all the other things that are needed to get a magazine onto the shelves.

That means that when choosing the work you’re going to take on – for freelancers like me this is one of the great attractions of the job – you need to be able to work out whether a job is worth taking or whether you’re better off putting the time into pitching a different story to an editor or increasing the size of your business in some other way.

There’s a long running debate as to what word-rates journalists should be paid. I take jobs that pay anywhere from $0.20 to $0.80 per word. If a 1000 word story paying $0.20 per word job is going to take an hour as it’s on a subject I know well or I get to re-use research from a previous story, then I’ll take it. The effective payrate for me is actually $200/hour. That means I can afford to have a slower day. If the same 1000 words was going to take two days I’d probably pass on the job unless it was going to satisfy a couple of other criteria.

The Optional Criteria

  1. This cheap job was going to give me a chance to fund some research that I could re-use for future stories.
  2. This job was an entry into a new client that could become lucrative in future

This is a topic that I suspect will continue to grow as I think more about it. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know.