by Pamela Dorsett, SPJ Georgia member and freelance journalist
Living the dream as a freelance journalist and getting paid to do it is a great gig. But sometimes stepping away from one career and reinventing into another career can be life changing. Freelance journalist Ana Santos says it can happen if a journalist really wants to work in the freelance journalism community.
Santos, a freelance writer living in Manila, Philippines, was part of the May 13 SPJ Florida’s Femme Freelance Festival webinar series where she spoke about the financial side of starting a freelance writing career. She shared tips and information based on her own experiences and also her own mistakes starting out.
To start, her freelance writing career didn’t start as a working journalist. Santos said she left a comfortable but unfulfilling life in banking to pursue a career as a freelance writer.
“I had such an easy life already. I’d just go to work and have really nice shoes, had coffee brought to me and my own parking spot. It was a very comfortable life but I just wasn’t fulfilled. It just felt kind of empty,” she said.
Santos said she remembers her mother telling her she’d never make money writing. She said she was afraid her mother was right. So Santos took a job in advertising. She later left the ad world and entered into the banking universe for nine years with her last position as an assistant vice-president in marketing.
Before walking away from a steady job that enabled her to have a housing loan and enough money saved to buy a car, she had another important element to consider and take care of; Santos was the single mother of a young child.
“When I decided to walk away, it was a very calculated move,” she said. “I said this is sink or swim, and if I sink, I have to get another job.” – Ana Santos
Fortunately for Santos, she never had to find another job. She won the Pulitzer Center’s Persephone Miel Fellowship for crisis reporting in 2014. She said there was no turning back from that point onward.
“The Persephone Miel Fellowship was a list of firsts: first international reporting grant and first long-haul international assignment (reporting was maybe 8 weeks across three countries). It trained me (sink or swim style) in managing a grant budget and a team abroad, but it was also the boost I needed to open up so many doors to getting my work extensively published internationally. From building my byline internationally, I got more work to do a range of things like fixing, speaking internationally and of course, writing.”
She said she used her knowledge and experience acquired from working in advertising and banking to help establish herself as a successful freelancer, a career she’s sustained for seven years.
Santos said the first step in the freelancing process is to think about oneself as a creative entrepreneur, as a person who’s creative in craft and finances. She offered tips on how to set up, manage finances and establish sustainable careers as creative entrepreneurs.
Like most new business ventures, it might require startup capital, and this applies to the business of writing, too. Having a computer, Internet service and a printer may not be enough. Santos said to keep in mind the following as a freelancer becomes an entrepreneur:
- Compute monthly expenses, which include the costs of doing business, the basics like rent and food, and a “happiness budget” for rewards for hard work. Startup capital is the amount of money needed to cover expenses for at least six months.
- Santos emphasized cash flow. When checks don’t arrive on time or it’s a month of fewer work days, it’s can be a challenge to pay all the bills and still have money to stay afloat. Creative entrepreneurs learn how to deal with fluctuating income.
- The challenge of cash flow is mitigated when a financial goal is set every month. How much a creative entrepreneur wants to make each month varies depending on expenses and the cost of living in the geographic area. Santos said to multiply expenses by 20-30 percent, then compare that to the industry base range for earnings in the city or state or residence. If the answer is yes, that’s the target salary for the month.
- Santos said to keep your eyes on the numbers. She suggested using Excel software to record and regularly track expenses and income each month in relation to salary target. Santos said to determine money brought in, number of working days left in the month and additional income needed to meet the target.
It’s important, Santos said, to monitor the pipeline, which is expected income for the next two months. This information goes into the spreadsheet, too. Tracking receivables—what’s in the pipeline—with Excel helps with cash flow.
“A pipeline is the list of all projects I’ve completed but haven’t been paid for. Ideally, the amount I have in the pipeline should cover at least two months of the monthly target,” Santos said.
With monthly data recorded in the Excel file, it’s possible to identify trends, including seasonality. “I’ve seen in my own revenue charts. December for me is a very slow month because it’s short,” she said.
Working less in December means reduced collections in January, a month when expenses may be higher because of license renewals and other yearly expenses. Santos said this means that the October and November incomes must be sufficient to also cover shortages in December and January.
Tracking includes where income comes from, too. Santos said she writes, speaks, teaches workshops and fixes for foreign journalists in the Philippines. She said she wants to know which jobs pay the most so she can prioritize projects and decide which to accept, decline or pass on to other creative entrepreneurs.
“Once you start accounting for your money and see you’re not in the red but money’s coming in, and it’s a healthy cash flow, and you can really live off your talents; you’ll feel very fulfilled,” she said. “What helped me stay grounded…was really monitoring the numbers.”
Femme Freelance Festival
The idea for Femme Freelance Festival originated with Shannon Kaestle, an independent multimedia journalist from Florida. She floated the idea among a group of Facebook friends, which included SPJ Florida members, and chapter members contacted her about partnering with the organization to bring the idea to fruition.
Kaestle said the idea came from her perception that journalism schools don’t prepare students for today’s freelance market.
“There’s so much information out there. Why not put it all together in one place and have a tool kit,” she said. And Femme Freelance Festival provides that tool kit.
But why all women presenters? Kaestle said female graduates are doing freelance work because more men than women are hired within the industry.
Results of the five-year study of women’s representation in media by the Global Media Monitoring Project released in 2015 indicated that only 26 percent of reporters and radio reporters in North America were women. For print, the Women’s Media Center’s study, “Divided 2015: The Media Gender Gap,” found that in 10 of the most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S., men wrote 62 percent of articles compared to 37 percent for women.
Kaestle said she wanted to empower women with the selection of women presenters.
“There are women kicking ass in our industry and they’re not getting recognized,” she said. If women journalists see other women of all ages and backgrounds succeeding, they realize they can, too, said Kaestle.
The last two presentations are next weekend. Alex Lancial talks about setting up a freelance business Friday, May 26, from 10 a.m. -11 a.m., and Caitlin Kelly presents that afternoon from 1 p.m. – 2 p.m. about negotiating contracts. You can still register for these webinars. The previous five webinars are available for viewing. Here are SPJ Florida’s links:
- Editor-writer relationship: how to pitch effectively, what questions to ask, how to maintain momentum (full video here)
- Eight things to know about contracts and copyrights (full video here)
- The Freelancer Editorial Calendar: Staying ahead of the deadline (full video here)
- How to start your freelance writing career (full video here)
- Working internationally: Getting Started (full video here)
- Setting up a freelance business: Organization, finance, and contracts
- Negotiating Contracts: How to make it work for you
Pamela Dorsett is a member of SPJ and SPJ Georgia and a freelance journalist. She is interested in covering medical and mental health news and general freelance assignments. Pamela has worked as licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 25 years. Her hobbies include hiking and renovating a mountain home.