Part Seven: The freelance journalist toolkit - what equipment do you actually need?
Guest written by Moya Lothian-Mclean
Welcome to The Freelance Fraud, the newsletter where Diyora Shadijanova writes about her personal and professional struggles as a freelancer with actual, practical advice. This week, she’s kindly handed the reins over to me (Moya Lothian-Mclean @mlothianmclean). Subscribe if you haven’t already!
For freelance journalists, there’s a whole bevvy of advice out there on various skills and techniques to acquire in order to be successful: how to pitch, building a profile on social media, tracking your income and so on. But when I made the transition from staff writer to freelance journalist, I wasn’t sure exactly what physical tools I’d need for the journey.
How much of the kit that I’d previously been able to access – fancy cameras, microphones, dictaphones, social media tools etc – would I actually require to successfully carve out a space in such a crowded field? Or, at an even more basic level, manage my time and create an environment at home that I was able to work in at all?
Now two years on from taking the leap, I’ve got a much better idea of exactly what a basic freelance journalist’s toolkit looks like – what things are are ‘essential’, which are useful if you have some extra cash and what are either luxury items or specialist bits of kit that most freelancers will have little cause to own.
Below is a broad list of pieces of kit that have come in useful, or I haven’t picked up once, during my time as a freelance journalist. Of course, this is subjective and depending on your beat and focus, the toolkit of any freelancer will differ slightly. But hopefully this will prove a useful place to start.
Laptop – this might seem like a no-brainer, but a laptop is key if you’re going to be pursuing a freelance journalism career in 2021. However, you don’t need to splash out on the likes of a MacBook unless you require regular high-end video processing capabilities. If all you need is something that can handle basic functions like writing, uploading audio files and emails, a budget option is more than good enough.
Bluetooth keyboard and mouse – if you’re working from home, two pieces of low-cost kit with high returns are a mouse and a bluetooth keyboard. A laptop stand is useful too but you can substitute a stack of books for that. The keyboard and the mouse however will allow your laptop screen to perch at eye level, saving your poor back from utter ruin. Invest in this before anything else. I’m serious.
Phone – yes, you will need a phone. A smartphone will make life 10x easier in terms of recording audio, snapping images and working on the go, but if you really can’t afford this, anything with a basic call and SMS function will do.
Notepad – enduring. Every journalist needs one, no matter how digitised the industry is.
Portfolio page – as soon as you begin racking up a few bylines, start collecting them together on a landing page. There’s plenty of free options out there to use for this: Linktree, Contently, Clippings.me, Wordpress – the list goes on. But make sure your range of work is stored in one easily accessible place that you can link to when pitching or introducing yourself to editors, or put in a social media bio. Speaking of, you’re also going to need…
...A social media presence – by all means, you don’t have to be Caroline Calloway or a full-blown influenza. But having a basic social media profile is one of the first things both editors and potential sources will look at to prove you’re a real life person. Sad but true. It also acts as a landing page if you haven’t got a website – from there you can direct people to your latest work, your portfolio and make contacts.
Dictaphone & earbud – old school. While your phone can do a decent recording job, I prefer an external recorder, especially when conducting phone interviews. An earbud (otherwise known as a ‘telephone microphone’) is a tiny mic that you stick in your ear (geddit?) and plug into the dictaphone – it then will record the voice of the caller on the other end as clearly as a bell. Extremely useful.
Transcription service – if you can afford it a monthly subscription, a transcription service like Otter.ai is worth every penny. While it won’t translate every word as accurately as you can, having the gist of a conversation that would normally take half a day to transcribe ready to look back over in 10 minutes frees up so much time and energy. Transcription services allow you to go over the text to pick out the passages you need and replay that audio without having to wade through hours of interview. How did we survive before?
A website – you can survive without a website, but if you’ve got the £30 monthly to splash on a domain name and a premium subscription to the likes of Squarespace, go for it. It will bring in work from people who might not have approached you otherwise; websites are bizarrely legitimising in a world obsessed with the aesthetics of professionalism.
A basic graphic design app – yes, I’m talking about Canva. I love Canva. Other options are available though. Software like Canva is free but ‘Pro’ features usually cost (in Canva’s case £10.99 a month) and are a great boon if you want to produce graphics to use on social media or basic header images for self-published articles. Learning how to create simple visuals is a great skill for a freelancer and graphic design software makes that bit easier. Also utilise totally free image databases like Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons to professionalise work you might be producing independently. It pays off.
Fancy video and audio equipment – you won’t need an expensive microphone set up or video camera unless you are creating podcasts or lots of video content. And if you are, learn how to do it on a shoestring before diving in at great cost – software like Audacity is totally free and recording audio under a duvet then running through an app like Cleanfeed is a basic tip for cutting out background. Run before you can walk and all that.
Cheap smartphone tripod – useful if you’re having to do front facing video work but propping your phone on a windowsill or some books does the same job.
News subscriptions – while a digital subscription to the likes of the New York Times does pay dividends, they’re a luxury if you’re cash-strapped. Incognito and proxy servers will let you access the content you need, while breaking news always hits Twitter first.
NCTJ qualification or journalism degree – with prices ranging from £800 to £9,250 a year, journalism courses now count as the ultimate luxury. And honestly? You don’t need to do them unless you want to work as an on-the-ground reporter for the likes of local newspapers, where you’ll need a specific set of skills (like shorthand) so you can cover the courts.
“How did you get into journalism?”
This is a new series within the newsletter, where Diyora speaks to people she admires about how they got into the industry. But this week, it’s me!
I’m a freelance journalist and editor, specialising in features and opinion writing on politics, technology, pop culture, fitness, gender and race. I’ve worked across print, digital, audio and video for some of the UK’s biggest media outlets and most exciting start-ups, including the BBC, Huck Magazine, The Independent, Audio Always, Broccoli Content, The Guardian, VICE and i-D. I have a focus on amplifying under-reported stories and marginalised voices. Currently I’m the full-time Politics Editor at gal-dem.
How did you get into journalism?
In short: I was lucky. Like many impressionable teenagers from rural backwaters, I thought VICE was the coolest thing in the world when I was 15 and when I went to a London uni to study History in 2013, I decided I’d spend some spare time blogging in their tone of voice.
I set up a music blog called Orpheus Speaks (an impossibly pretentious name) and mimicked the tone of my favourite writers from VICE’s (now-defunct) music vertical, Noisey. Somehow, the head of music editorial spotted my blog and got Noisey’s editor to reach out to me for pitches; when I was 19 I began sporadically writing for the site and later did freelance cover for them.
I was massively lucky; from there I only did one bonafide internship, with my favourite music magazine The Fader, who’d just started up a UK office. The role was unpaid but I skipped my Tuesday seminars for three months to go to it and had a part-time job at Urban Outfitters, so I could scrape by with that on top of my uni loan. When I graduated I almost left journalism behind forever, thinking it was just a pipe dream because the industry was in such dire straits.
On a whim I applied for the job of editorial assistant at Stylist. After two interviews I genuinely didn’t think I was going to get it and was about to sign a contract to be become a media planner with a big advertising firm (to this day I still don’t know exactly what a ‘media planner’ does) when the editor asked to meet me; I got the job and that was my entry into the adult world of journalism, straight out of uni. As I said: lucky.
The stars don’t always align like that and I would urge wannabe journalists not to beat themselves up if they don’t. For the rest of the story, listen to the She’s Creative podcast where I go through my career up until now and explain how I made freelancing sustainable.
What’s your number one tip for people starting out?
If you’re a freelancer? Get a steady part-time job you can depend on, whether that’s in journalism or not. The rent needs paying and freelancing – especially at the beginning – can be very unstable. You essentially have to fund it yourself. Plus, having a different job three days a week is a good way to experience the world outside journalism, which can be very insular and navel-gazing – it’s an industry that ironically doesn’t encourage the cultivation of the skills necessary to really shine in it i.e. listening to people external to the journo-bubble. But make sure you have regular money coming in before you go hell for leather as a freelancer. Pragmatism is the key to longevity.
Things I really loved this week:
‘Popworld wouldn’t work today’: Miquita Oliver on the chaotic music show’s 20th birthday – Part interview, part retrospective, this ode to irreverent gem Popworld by Kemi Alemoru is stuffed with the kind of behind-the-scenes trivia people scour Reddit for. A joy.
It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health – If you’ve been wondering why this latest lockdown has left you feeling utterly blue, Sarah Manavis’ exploration of the issue may provide some answers.
Why do so many professional, middle-class Brits insist they’re working class? – An LSE researcher lays out the results of an investigation into a curious phenomenon: why so many middle-class Brits are in such denial about their social position. Fascinating.
Stuff I’ve written recently:
A note from Diyora
Thank you so much for getting to the end of this week’s newsletter! I am so grateful for the support and I hope this was another useful read for you. It’s a massive privilege to have Moya share her wisdom and experiences as a freelance journalist.
As ever, send me an email if you want me to write about something specific in the upcoming editions or if you have any questions!
Stay safe out there and look after yourself,