The Future of Freelance: Q&A with Freelancer Susan Johnston

Adam Novak

We in PR understand the plight of today’s journalist. Editorial staffs shrink, budgets diminish and full-time journalists go into a freelance career. Some, like many on the PAN staff, get into the content creation side of PR.

But Susan Johnston’s story is a bit different. She left a job in PR several years ago to pursue a career as a freelance writer out of her home in Boston. As her credibility grew, she started landing work for some of the largest outlets in the country, like U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe, AOL Jobs and Daily Candy. Today, she’s made a full-time career from her work, serving as a resource for those who want to monetize their love of writing.

When she dropped by the PAN offices last week, we sat down with her – this time on opposite sides of an interview – to talk about the profession’s evolution and work with PR. Here’s what she had to say:

Freelance writing has grown substantially during the past few years, oftentimes through necessity. Do you see the freelance profession continuing to increase?
Yes, and I see that driven by a couple of factors. First, some companies prefer using freelancers because they offer more flexibility than an in-house staff. With a good pool of freelancers, they can scale up and down according to their needs more quickly than hiring or laying off staff. The other factor that specifically impacts writers is the rise of content marketing and storytelling. Companies like LinkedIn or Twitter that wouldn’t traditionally have a journalist on staff are hiring journalists to tell their stories and synthesize information. The same is true with freelance writers as well. Now that big brands are investing in their blogs and social media campaigns, that opens up freelance opportunities that weren’t around even a few years ago.

Is there going to be a critical mass of writers, at some point? Are there enough stories to go around?
I don’t even have time to pursue all the story ideas that interest me, so I think there are plenty to go around.

Should PR be cognizant of freelance competition for stories?
Yes. A PR professional’s job is to get their client into as many large news outlets as possible so I understand why they pitch multiple writers on the same story. But editors (and by extension, the freelancers who want to please editors) don’t love seeing another outlet run an almost identical story. Part of this falls on the writer to do some of their own sourcing and research instead of using a press release or a PR professional’s source recommendations as a template for writing the story. With breaking news, it’s almost inevitable that other outlets will run similar stories. But with stories that aren’t on a tight turnaround, freelancers have more of an opportunity to dig deeper into the topic and find fresh quotes, angles, and sources.

Describe your day-to-day work. How many pieces are you working on at the same time? How does this impact how you prefer to be contacted by PR people?
My day rarely varies. Sometimes I have phone interviews scheduled back to back and other times I have a few hours to really dig into a story and polish it. Most weeks I probably have 4-5 stories in various stages from sourcing to interviewing to proofreading or revising. I strongly prefer email to phone calls. I try to be polite on the phone but it’s really valuable to see the information in front of me so I can decide if a source is a fit for a story and get back to the person rather than answering on the spot. The other reason I prefer email is that if I’m collecting my thoughts before an interview or I’m “in the zone” with a story, email is less disruptive.

What’s one key piece of advice for PR pros that want to work with you?
It sounds so basic, but please deliver what you’ve promised. Rather than promising an expert source or a stat about X, check with the client first to make sure it’s a fit. Otherwise, PR pros might get back to me three days later saying their client isn’t interested or sometimes they just go MIA and that can really throw a wrench in my ability to meet a deadline. Also, double check time zones and communicate interview schedules with both parties. I once had a PR pro tell her client to call me for an interview at a certain time and she hadn’t told me she’d scheduled the interview (I had another call scheduled at that time already) so I got a voicemail from her client about how I’d blown him off.

Thanks again, Susan, for stopping by and sharing some advice with us. For more on Susan’s work, visit http://www.susan-johnston.com/ and follow @UrbanMuseWriter.

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