Successful Freelancer Spotlight: Michelle Rafter

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Mon, Nov 24 - 11:57 am EDT | 5 years ago by
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Happy Monday readers!

Today, I am putting the spotlight on Michelle Rafter, a freelance writer and blogger from Portland, Oregon, who has freelanced off and on since the 1980s. Last December, Michelle started WordCount to blog about freelancing in the age of digital media.

Michelle specializes in writing about technology, workplace issues, business, and the media. During her long freelance career, she has written for a wide variety of publications, including Workforce Management, Oregon Business, and IncTechnology.com, Inc. magazine’s technology Web site for small business.

She also wrote a weekly Internet column for Reuters that appeared in papers and Web sites around the world. And she also has contributed articles to the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, The Industry Standard, Internet World, and other publications.

Michelle Rafter

How long have you been freelancing full time?

I’ve been a full-time freelancer three times. The first time was in the 1980s when I wanted to switch from working as a trade magazine writer and editor to working for a daily newspaper. I didn’t have the type of experience newspapers wanted, so I freelanced as a way of picking up expertise and clips.

I freelanced for about a year—mainly for my former magazine, for some start-up publications, and eventually for the LA Times—before getting hired to work at a business weekly, where I had five beats including tech, retail, and aerospace. I was there about 18 months before I got my wish and was hired at a daily newspaper as their technology reporter. While I was there, I covered the tech business, consumer electronics, and this new thing called the Internet.

My second go at freelancing happened in 1995 when I quit the paper to cover the Internet boom for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and wire services. I worked full time through the dot-com bust when I had my third child. After that I worked part time, or not at all, for seven years.

I started freelancing again full time in 2007. I still write about tech, but also workplace issues, business, and the media.

Since you started in this business, how has the marketplace changed? How have you seen the media and publishing industries change since you’ve been in business?

The Internet has changed everything. Everything—newspapers and magazines—is online. And if you keep up with industry news, you know that a handful of publications such as PC Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, and US News & World Report have announced plans to go online only. I think we’ll see more of that in the next year. Writers need to be Internet savvy—not only to do research, but also to be able to write for online publication.

Rates haven’t changed much since I got into the business—which is pretty sad considering how long ago that was. FNASR (First North American Serial Rights) is falling by the wayside as more publishers offer all-rights contracts so they can repurpose material online.

Writers and readers have a much more interactive relationship than they used to—thanks to blogs, social networks, and Web sites based on user-generated content like YouTube. Different styles and forms of writing have grown out of those too—blog posts, podcasts, video blogs—nobody was teaching us how to do those in J school.

Given all the recent buyouts, layoffs, and closures in the media and publishing industries, where do you think the future of freelancing is headed? Do you think there will be more work? Less work?

There’s still going to be work, but with the economy where it is right now and the changes happening in the publishing industry, there isn’t as much opportunity in the traditional markets as there used to be.

That’s not all bad news. If you look at the ads on mediabistro.com or JournalismJobs you’ll see that there are jobs out there, they’re just different jobs for different employers. That goes for full-time jobs as well as freelance work.

Right now, mediabistro.com lists 276 online/new media jobs and 30 in newspapers. If you have experience working with content management systems, Web design or other multimedia tools, and you’re willing to work for a Web site or trade magazine or newsletter publisher, the positions are there.

And why wouldn’t you want to? In a crummy economy, it’s a way into the business. Freelancers also have to think outside the box when it comes to clients—newspapers and magazines might not be assigning as much right now, but my freelance acquaintances who do corporate work have as much as they can handle. Other freelancers I know write textbooks and tests, teach online, or at the university level.

There is work, you just have to be aggressive to find it.

Going forward, do you think that freelancers will face an increasing amount of competition from all the qualified reporters and editors who have been laid off or downsized from newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets?

Not necessarily. If you read Romenesko, Gawker, the New York Post‘s media column, or any of the other blogs that cover the media business, you read about former reporters and editors pursuing lots of different careers—public relations, academia, consulting work, and non-profits.

I know one former trade magazine editor who’s working for a private investigator. Sarah Chayes, the former NPR reporter, is working for a cooperative business in Afghanistan. Dan Abrams—the NBC News legal correspondent who recently lost his cable show—is starting a consulting firm.

If you’re used to a paycheck and you’ve got a mortgage payment and a retirement account to fund, you might not want to take on something as risky as working for yourself. Some people have the entrepreneurial gene and some don’t.

On the other hand, some former staff writers and editors are using this opportunity to do something completely different, so I imagine there will some who try their hand at contract work of some kind.

Have you experienced any increased competition as a result of these developments in your business? How is your freelance business doing right now? Any tips for the newbies and novices out there who are struggling to make a living in this current environment?

I’ve noticed a little bit of an uptick in competition just in the last couple weeks. On the writer’s message boards I hang out on I’ve noticed people asking about certain areas I write about that until now haven’t been as popular with the freelance set.

And a trade magazine editor I write for on a regular basis was complaining last week of a freelancer who was barraging her with queries. I actually wrote a blog post about it called “You may be desperate for work, just don’t act like it.”

The economy has had an effect on my freelance business, but I’m still doing OK.

I lost a regional business magazine client in the spring when they scrapped their freelance budget for 2008.  I lost a magazine Web site client last month when the parent company scaled back the Web site’s operations. I also fired another client this fall that was proving to be too much trouble for the little money they paid.

But I write for several other clients on a monthly basis and they’re still going strong. And the editor of that regional business publication just let me know she’ll have a freelance budget in 2009 after all and she want to see pitches as soon as possible. So I’m up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning so I can get those off to her before the Thanksgiving break.

My goals for 2009 are to break into some additional new markets, add more multimedia elements to my pitches, start a monthly newsletter to market my writing business, and explore doing corporate work and packaging some of the material I’ve written for my blog into podcasts and e-books.

Do you have any thoughts on how freelancers can reposition and reinvent themselves to develop more of a competitive edge?

I’ve always been a big believer in specializing—probably because of my background as a beat writer. If you know a subject intimately, it makes it easier to pitch stories.

I’m also a big believer in writing about one topic for multiple non-competing markets. For example, if you cover tech, you can write about it for the trades, for general-interest business publications, and for consumer publications.

In the last couple years, lots of freelancers have started writing about sustainability and the whole green movement—that’s a great sign of keeping up with the times. Even more recently, people are making frugal living a specialty. It’s just smart business to shift focus to keep up with what the world is interested in reading.

Are there must-have skills that freelancers need to develop to continue competing effectively in this marketplace?

There are definitely a couple things any writer needs to know these days: how to build links into stories, and how to blog. I think knowing how to podcast will be next on the list.

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