Arkansas Freelance Writers Find Footing on National Press Scene

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Apr. 15, 2013 12:00 am  

Interviews with five successful freelance writers in central Arkansas reveal a shared attitude toward their careers: Luck, they say, has been their friend.

But scratch deeper and what several of them call luck is really the good fortune of the smart, the accurate, the prepared, the disciplined, the willing and — most important — the reliable.

Asked what national publications base their pay scales on, Steve Barnes said, “Frankly, whether they like you.”

And whether they like you, said the 26-year freelancer and long-time stringer for The New York Times and Time magazine, depends on a combination of factors:

“Do you meet the deadline? What’s your correction rate? Can they rely on you? Will you answer the phone? Will you take the assignment?”

The five came to their careers by different paths, but all are experienced Arkansas journalists. Despite the massive job losses that have hit the publishing industry, only one turned to freelancing after a layoff, and in the end she made a conscious decision to continue to pursue her love of journalism rather than enter another field.

A chart produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics underscores the vulnerability of employees in the publishing industry. From January 2003 to January 2013, the sector — the bureau doesn’t include Internet jobs in its calculations — lost 211,400 jobs, declining from 942,200 to 730,800.

But these five are supporting themselves as freelancers, and a couple — Barnes and Mel White — have been plying their trade for more than 20 years.

Steve Barnes

Older readers will remember Steve Barnes from his Little Rock TV anchor days. Barnes left KATV in April 1986 after the expiration of his contract. A few days later he had signed an agreement with KARK to work as 10 p.m. anchor and a reporter. He worked at the station off and on, mostly on, until December 2001, but in the meantime he had developed his career as a freelance print journalist, first writing a column, which he eventually syndicated, for The Times of North Little Rock starting in 1987.

Soon, he was also working with the Arkansas Educational Television Network, but in “a client relationship.”

His biggest break came through the auspices of the reporter who had had the job stringing for The New York Times, Anne Farris. When she left Arkansas for Washington, D.C., she referred the prestigious newspaper to Barnes, and he ran with the opportunity.



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