Starting out as a freelance journalist I was forced to write one, and I'm glad I did
Business plans are useless. That's the prevailing wisdom, but then I did one, and the benefits now outweigh the time and pain it caused me.
The German government is generous in helping anyone who wants to be self-employed with financial support. It's a lot of paperwork, and an essential requirement is a business plan to convince them your undertaking will be successful. Easy, I thought.
So I sat down at my desk in my pajamas at 6 am (because that's what you expect me to do as a freelancer, true or not) and got to work. I then realized I had no idea what to do.
I'm not going to lie, it was boring, hard and took a lot of my time. I tried to take a few shortcuts (because I'm impatient) and sent the first draft to a friend (who also happens to be a business coach and knows how this works). She sent it back with the question: so what is it you want to do, exactly?
That's harsh considering my business plan was being a freelance journalist. Fine, she said, but how exactly was I planning to make money, grow and generate the income I needed to keep the lights on?
Attempt No. 2
Without going into the detail, your plan requires you to outline the service you are offering, a marketing plan, target market, and a financial plan.
I'm a journalist, not a business major.
In essence, a business plan requires you to write down your goals, test their validity, and take an educated guess about how productive you'll be.
Five-year goals are what I needed to create, but in reality, I could barely predict the first year, so I started fantasizing.
My service was pretty straight forward: I'd be writing stories for specialist news agencies. I discovered I had a niche offering in financial journalism, which set me apart.
Finding a niche is always a good place to start, but I was really in it to make money, and at this point, I was wildly guessing what my sales would look be.
To figure out the actual take-home pay, I had to start tallying up all my expenses. I had a few items that were expensive but non-essential, like a Headspace subscription for $8 a month. Gone. I had a few other similar entertainment-light subscriptions that all had to make way for LinkedIn Premium, website and other costs.
Doing this exercise forced me to strip down all expenses and get rid of my non-essentials.
There was one thing on there that was non-negotiable: my box (CrossFit lingo for fitness studio) membership. It's expensive, but I had to tally it up, and it was motivation to make sure I could cover the cost.
I did this month-by-month, then year-by-year and the most shocking thing was I could probably get by on less by being a little thrifty.
My earnings tables were detailed. aI had to check through them quite a few times but seeing my own revenue goals laid out in front of me like that was visual confirmation that I had a lot of work to do and a sense of pride in what I hoped to achieve.
I now have a reference for what I set out to do and what I was aiming at. I have a ledger to hold myself accountable. I'm now the responsible boss as I don't have one looking over my shoulder anymore.
Of course, that first version was crap, but even if you're undertaking freelance journalism, it makes sense to lay out how you're going to make ends meet each month.
Each story sold is a sale, and once you get a grip on that and visualize what you need to do it helps spur you on. I've missed and overshot on several targets, but that's okay since that initial plan a projection without knowing what would happen in reality.
Reality will hit.
In my first year, I didn't make much money in July at all. I hadn't planned for that, then panicked and having to make up the shortfall under pressure was no fun. Now, I know to prepare for a slow month and spread the work so I can enjoy some time off.
Had I not created a business plan, I wouldn't have known how or where to adjust my activities, so I'm glad I wrote one, even if the whole ordeal ate away at my self-confidence and time.
Until I figured out how to get more reading in, I only did the minimum confining myself to the reports and articles related to my work as as a journalist
Several years ago, I challenged my wife to a reading competition to get my general reading up. She's a formidable adversary, devouring roughly a book a week.
I don't remember the exact tally, but it was something like 40 to 3 in her favour. I got through The Hunger Games: an abysmal performance.
Fast forward to today, and I'm reading on average 30 books a year. How did that happen?
We all know we should do more reading, I'm not going to go into its benefits. I do it because it makes me moderately smarter, or at least, I appear to know stuff because I've been reading.
I read this book on better sleep habits once and annoyed the crap out of everyone for weeks at dinner parties with what I knew about circadian rhythms, our ancestral sleep patterns and why it's crucial to stay away from screens for 90min before bed.
I'm writing this post because I got a response to my newsletter from someone with the comment that "people don't read anymore." That scared me, so I thought I'd write this post to help anyone who feels like they should read more but doesn't have the strategies, to do just that. Here's what worked for me:
1. Start with books with no more than 200 pages
I needed a sense of accomplishment so instead of trying to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and lose all faith in my existence; I went for non-fiction biographies. Given my interest in tennis, I just started with tennis players (Agassi, Sampras, Federer, McEnroe…). Find something short you can identify with and run with it.
2. Delete all games from your phone and install the Kindle app
No one is going to like this, but the only way for me to increase my reading was to use all available time to read and make it more accessible. The games had to make way for knowledge. I still play games but on the Xbox (once in a blue moon).
3. Pick up and re-read of a book that made you feel amazing
There must be a defining book you read at some point in your life. That's Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, so, I re-read it. It was amazing to relive the wonder with the new perspective of age and added experience. The feeling of reliving that book was ecstasy (or soma?) and catapulted me forward.
4. Create a booklist
Prick your ears for books that come up in conversation among your friends, or, ask them. You can also find someone else's reading list online and start there! I met someone on a flight who said he's working his way through Jordan Peterson's reading list (ah, there's Crime and Punishment again!). Purchase the first two books on the list and then knock them off one by one, purchasing the next as motivation for getting through the last.
5. Read multiple books at a time
I rotate between themes and categories but try to have a few books on different subjects going at the same time. I get bored easily. My wife sometimes laughs at me because I'm chewing on a long read before bed and it seems like it's taking forever. I'm making steady progress every day, even if I only read 5 - 10 pages a night.
6. Designate time to read
I read for 10 minutes in the morning before the day kicks off (p.s. got that from a Hal Elrod's book The Miracle Morning). You can make it more or less. The morning book is inspirational.
I have an audiobook for when I walk the dog, that's 10 to 20minutes of reading, well, it's cheating, but I can't walk and read so this makes it easy. On short trips, I read on my mobile (especially when the WiFi is patchy),
Finally, there's a book at my bedside table which I dip into before bed, which I'm not always consistent about.
7. Read consistently
Think about it, if I have three books that I'm reading averaging only ten pages per session on each, that's 30 pages a day, or 3000 pages in 100 days. Only one of those books will be a 1000 pages, the others will have much fewer, so you'll quickly be reading two books a month and that doesn't include audiobooks. Now, all you've got to do is do that, and after a year you'll have easily read 30 books or more, gained some knowledge, feel accomplished, and have more fodder to talk about at dinner parties.
"Foster a love of reading, it's our core skill as human beings. It's the gateway to everything else. It gets you involved." - Bill Gates (taken from "If I could tell you just one thing…" by Richard Reed)
I protect peoples anonymity because otherwise, they won't talk but it severely complicates my work as a journalist
Rule number 1: try to get someone to go on the record. If a source stands by their word, it's more potent than the shadow we cast on our stories by using sources.
Having someone on record also takes the pressure off me and generally makes my work more manageable, but that's not always possible (I have made enemies).
People are paranoid. They are scared of making outrageous claims; or what they think will be perceived as controversial (sometimes it's not, they're just scared). They don't want to be in the spotlight, they're private, humble (possibly). People don't trust journalists (*big sigh*). Sometimes their position demands secrecy and, sometimes, people are simply lying and putting their name to a statement would expose them as a fraud.
These people won't talk unless the conversation is off the books, off the record, on background and remains unattributable. What does off the record mean anyway? Different things to different people, unfortunately.
A messy ordeal
Can you still use the information just not attribute it to the person? Or does it mean you can't use the information at all as the conversation was private? So, the information was just for my knowledge and understanding? To me, off-record means that I can still use the information but I can't attribute it to that person and have to find another way to confirm it. The problem is, not everyone gets all this nuance.
The biggest mistake I made early on in developing sources was not being clear about what off the record meant and how the relationship should progress. Just the other day, I confirmed and reconfirmed with a source the use, and attribution, of the information he gave me destined for a story.
As journalists, we often don't want to have a conversation about attribution because we fear they'll bolt out the door (or hang up the phone), not trust us or retaliate in some way once they find out we did publish what they fed us. I'm for transparency, so I do my best to always clear the air.
So if you're developing a source you need to ask:
* Why can't you go on the record? (Rule 1, remember?)
* How do you know what you know?
* What does off the record mean to you?
That first question will expose if they have a legitimate reason to or not to be off the record. If you dig deeper, maybe they will go on record.
In the past, I've pushed sources on these questions and found that some sources are so close to the news at hand, it would be apparent where the information came from. The source would be exposed, so, why did they tell me? God only knows but they have an agenda.
On other occasions, I've found out they know nothing of value and got what they know from a conversation with someone over lunch. Chinese whispers anyone?
Sometimes they have direct access to classified information (the definition of a real source, I might add). The reverse can also be true, you've had someone who's told you something they shouldn't, they didn't mean to but you know they could lose their job. You'll need to protect both of these sources.
Complications heat up
Taking someone off the record is a dilemma which is hard for journalists to solve. We have an important story that unearths something that's not in the public domain and feel compelled to write about it. It's critical, but we also want to value and protect the people who supply the information. We can't publish the news because the source won't confirm the information on the record. We get stuck!
In many of the business deals I've covered as a financial journalist, nearly all the parties are bound by non-disclosure agreements. So, how do I get the story our? The investigation demands a complicated mess of talking to multiple parties to corroborate the information. You'll see sometime like "according to people familiar with the moves" as in this scoop by Aaron Stevens on Deutsche Bank's management reshuffle.
That's why getting people on record makes my life tons easier. Confirming the information via multiple independent sources is both hard, takes time, and demands patience and tenacity.
Any serious publication won't take source-based reporting lightly. It will require at minimum two — but more than often - multiple independent sources to say the same thing. You need to work hard to corroborate each morsel of information with precision. There is a ton of pushback from editors and, as a reporter, you need to be crystal clear about who you sources are and why they demand to be off-record (hence the questions above).
You need an understanding of how sources know what they know and linguistic finesse to compile their comments into an accurate and true picture of the situation. Serious reporting also demands that all parties in the story get a fair chance to comment. If they haven't, our job hasn't been done right.
Using sources is tricky business, demands finesse, can undermine the credibility of a story, expose inadequacies in our reporting but sometimes it's the only way for journalists to shed light on dark spots and a tool we can't work without.
If you agree to take the conversation off the record, you have to stick to it as your integrity is on the line. If you go out and quote the person after agreeing to an off-record interview, it will damage your reputation, tarnish the publication's and expose someone who might be in serious trouble.
Protecting your source could even mean you go to jail, and journalists do.
In the end, the journalist's rule is simple: if it's not true, it's not a story. Source or not.
It won’t hurt but you can probably make it without one
Degree or no journalism degree both pathways can lead to success but many professionals I talked about their journies into the profession said the degree was secondary.
I was shocked by a recent comment from a colleague of mine who pursued a journalism masters. She said it was expensive, grew her network but she wouldn’t do it again.
TNW's tech journalist Matthew Hughes said “he’s never worked alongside someone with a journalism degree” in a recent article outlining the home truths about breaking into tech journalism.
I have a bachelors in journalism but added a master's in international studies to make my pursuit for journalism more attractive. The bachelor’s got me internships but no jobs and I felt like I needed a specialism.
I wouldn’t say specialism is the key but it certainly helped.
The days of working a local newspaper, learning the craft on the job and getting moderate pay are far and few between but not impossible. There’s a growing call for more locally-based journalism to create the necessary glue to keep democracy alive at a local level and both philanthropists and tech companies are putting money towards the cause.
The time might be right to pursue the local avenue.
Generally, I agree with Hughes that to make it in journalism (not just tech, in his case) you need:
*financial resources to keep you afloat while you build your portfolio
*a person that takes a gamble on you although you’re inexperienced
*a passion for a meta-topic like economics, culture or technology
That constellation is mostly luck - like someone taking a gamble on you and having money under the mattress - but it's also in your control. If you’re not lucky enough to have parents to help you out while you intern and build a portfolio, you’ll need a job that pays the bills while you work journalism gigs on the side. You choose the meta-topic you want to tackle, you can take steps to go out an meet people that might help you along.
If you’re still floating around and don’t know what you want to write about, find a focus. A lot of journalists I know were engineers, science majors or came out left field and put their knowledge to work writing on these topics. I picked international law, peacekeeping and the political economy.
This begs the question: do you even need a degree in journalism to be a journalist? The simple answer is, probably not, but it helps. Journalism is a vocation and a theoretical understanding of libel, defamation, ethics and media production and possibly even the dying art of rapid writing known as shorthand, will show that you are committed.
I cared enough about the field to study it as an undergrad and cemented the belief that I was serious about doing it. I failed at shorthand and didn’t write a single article for my student newspaper while studying my masters and still somehow managed to get a job as a journalist. So can you.
Supportive parents and a lucky break from a person who believed in me helped me set sail. I was deficient in many areas but journalism is a vocation and you’ll learn on the job, so don't wait 10 years like I did before before getting your second article in print!
Do you think you’re moving in the right direction? Are you unsure about your next move? Let me know as I'd be happy to help you sort through the tough decisions you face.
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