By Sarah Jones, SPJ Region 3 intern, SPJ student member from Francis Marion University
Working as your own boss and on your own time is something that many people dream of achieving in a career. One writer, Haisten Willis, has found a way to make that dream a reality by choosing to become a professional freelance journalist.
Willis, a Georgia native, was recently elected as the 2018 President of the Society of Professional Journalists Pro Georgia chapter, or SPJ Georgia.
He was born in Columbus, Georgia, but his family relocated to a city outside of Atlanta, called Smyrna, when he was at the age of one, and he spent his adolescence there. Willis, an alumnus of Georgia Southern University, went on to receive his master’s degree from California State University- Fresno in mass communications and journalism in 2010.
Upon his graduation from CSU, he returned to his home state to work for his hometown newspaper, The Douglas County Sentinel. He said those three years at the Sentinel kick-started his career. After leaving this position, Willis moved into an editor position for different paper, The Villa-Rican, within the same ownership group, which allowed Willis to edit, photograph and write stories of his own.
Next, Willis relocated back to Smyrna, Georgia, where he joined The Marietta Daily Journal, one of the bigger newspapers in the metro-Atlanta area. His time there lasted about two months before he made another career move to France Media Inc. and he also began freelance writing in his spare time. Working at FMI, Willis said he got to enjoy a steady nine-to-five, slower paced work day.
Enjoying his spare time freelancing, Willis started to build a collection of freelance clients and realized that he enjoyed doing this everyday compared to what he was doing at his “normal job.” Although Willis said he did enjoy working for the nation’s largest public commercial trade real estate magazine covering commercial real estate, he decided after nearly two years, he would take on freelancing full-time.
It was a really good move for me. I really like being a freelancer. I can do what I want, when I want and hit my deadlines,” Willis said. “It’s just me and an assignment.”
Before making his final decision to become his own boss, Willis said he remembered traveling to and from Atlanta and spending at least one hour in traffic on the way to work and then back home everyday. In total, Willis was losing roughly 10 hours per week sitting in his car. Those hours could have been spent working [as a freelance journalist], he said.
“There’s no traffic! I might see a couple of squirrels, but that’s about it,” Willis said.
Now he has a 30-step walk into his backyard office where he has used his new spare time to build for himself. Willis said he used his grandfather’s man-cave as inspiration for his “man-office.”
“His [Granddad] shed was the hangout. He had cable and a mini-fridge that was full of beer, so when we would go to my grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, we’d go out to my Granddad’s shed to drink beer and watch football,” Willis said. Although Willis’ “man-office” does not have a mini-fridge filled with beer, it does have a window above his desk overlooking his yard and neighborhood.
Willis became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Pro Georgia Chapter in January 2014 when the chapter began. At that time, he said he was approached and asked to be a board member, but he was unsure if that was a commitment he wanted at the time. Willis went on to become a SPJ Georgia Pro board member in January 2017 and began getting more involved.
By October 2017, his commitment to take a substantial leadership position for SPJ Georgia was switched on. Willis attended the SPJ Ted Scripps Leadership Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that fall.
Scripps was a weekend training session filled with leadership concepts, networking opportunities and idea exchanges offered by the Society of Professional Journalists for those professionals who are seeking leadership in the organization. Attending the conference became a deciding factor for Willis in wanting to be president of SPJ Georgia’s Pro chapter.
“I knew there were other chapters [of SPJ], [at Scripps] but I hadn’t seen any of them. Everyone there was really cool; they were on-point, driven and focused on what they were doing. They were people I enjoyed spending a weekend with,” Willis said.
Willis said that Ellen Eldridge, SPJ Georgia past president, had spoken to him prior to his weekend in Pittsburgh about potentially running, so it was a thought in the back of his mind while at the Scripps conference. When he arrived home, he said it was a clear decision for him to run for president of the Georgia professional chapter.
Willis also said one of the things that benefits him as a SPJ and SPJ Georgia member is the networking opportunities he’s been given as a freelancer.
“As a freelancer, you can become isolated if you’re not making an effort to get out there,” Willis said. “SPJ is kind of my work social network so I can hang out with other journalists, talk about journalism issues and organize events. People that aren’t journalists don’t really know what it’s like to be one; it’s not just something you can go and talk to your mom about.
It’s nice to be able to be around other journalists.”
Willis said for anyone interested in entering the journalism field at a newspaper, magazine or as a freelancer, being involved and building contacts are vital to your success as a writer. The cliché of “getting out what you put into it” is very true, especially in a world where you have to network yourself, he said.
“To really get something out of it [SPJ], you need to join a committee, maybe get on a board, help organize an event, go to people who are involved and really make some good contacts,” Willis said.
Sarah Jones is a junior at Francis Marion University, Florence, South Carolina, majoring in mass communications and minoring in psychology. She is a member of the FMU Student Media Association and is a staff writer for The Patriot, FMU’s student newspaper. Her hometown is Lugoff, South Carolina. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jones’ SPJ Region 3 internship also includes tasks for its March 24 SPJ spring conference in Charleston, South Carolina.