Arkansas Freelance Writers Find Footing on National Press Scene

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.

In what Barnes called “a happy circumstance, New York had been reading my stuff on the Reuters wire. So I added The Times and fairly soon People and then Time magazine.”

He wasn’t immediately self-supporting as a freelancer, but he had the support of his wife, Amy, who had a good job.

Barnes said his career is “sort of like a one-man law practice. One day all you have is an uncontested divorce, but the next day you have a capital murder trial. So it’s not exactly feast or famine. But I was extremely lucky. ”

The Clinton presidency also provided Barnes opportunity, as it did for other journalists, though covering the Whitewater controversy was challenging. “On those days when The Times didn’t have a correspondent there, I was covering the trial for them as well and often doing backup for the correspondent who was here. And I picked up NBC Radio too along the way, so I’m filing for sometimes three, four different agencies.”

His business has slowed some since the end of the Clinton administration, but Barnes said he still has plenty to keep him busy, a couple of books, for example.

As far as annual earnings, Barnes again referred to good fortune: “Let’s just say I’ve been very lucky.”

Eric Francis

Eric Francis of North Little Rock had been in journalism since 1990 and was managing editor of Stephens Media’s central Arkansas newspapers when he turned freelance in the spring of 2008. He has been living off his earnings for about the last three years, although “Going freelance in the middle of the biggest recession since the Great Depression was probably not my best decision.”

“I wanted to be a writer again,” Francis said of his decision. “I wanted to write something more than editorials and I didn’t want to have to do all the stuff a boss has to do.”

How has having been an editor helped?

“It helps me because I understand how editors think and I understand their role and responsibilities,” he said. When the editors who employ him “know that I’ve been in their shoes, then they can have a little more confidence when dealing with me that I’m going to quickly grasp their needs and understand the importance of things like deadlines.”

Francis said his biggest misconception about the life as a freelancer has been “that you set your own rates. There are your rates and there is what your client will pay you. And infrequently do the twain meet.”

“You generally have to take what you’re offered as far as rates go,” he said. He has earned from 10 cents to $1 a word, Francis said. “Locally, usually for a decent size story I can generally expect to get $500.”

“When you are ‘self-unemployed’ as I like to put it, you don’t really have the option of turning away too many jobs.”

Francis’ biggest advantage is that he lives cheaply. His house is paid for and he has no credit card debt.

Although he was well-known in the journalism community, “people don’t just start knocking on your door and calling your phone,” Francis said. Marketing and networking are essential, and little is better than positive word of mouth. “If you’ve got an editor or another freelancer who tells somebody, ‘I can’t do it but this guy can,’ then that’s a stamp of approval that you really can’t buy.”

Rhonda Owen

Rhonda Owen of North Little Rock came to freelancing four years ago after she was laid off by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she had worked for more than 20 years and was an associate editor in the features department. She’s making a living, Owen said, but is still building her business. That business is WordSense Creative Services, which she established formally as an LLC in March 2011.

Owen said she knew going in that freelancing would be hard work “that requires discipline and a lot of hours, that I’d be working nights and weekends, that it would take time to build a client base, and that sometimes I’d have to deal with difficult situations and people.”

But she loves journalism and wanted to continue to practice it. And because she, like Francis, has many years of experience in print, she knows what editors need and understands the pressure editors feel “to feed the ever-hungry copy monster. I know that if I don’t meet a deadline, it creates stress for them, that they may be faced with a last-minute hole to fill. I don’t want to put them in that kind of situation.”

Her biggest — her only — surprise, Owen said, was “what Arkansas publications pay for quality freelance work. Sadly, it’s lower than what I could have imagined.”

She has written for corporations and nonprofits like the Heifer Foundation, and her work has appeared in the Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas Life and AY.

Although Owen misses the give-and-take of a newsroom, she loves her career. “I get to write stories about people and topics in which I’m genuinely interested and that excite me. I’m traveling the state meeting amazing people. I’m having the time of my life.”

Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker’s father was an accountant and self-employed businessman, so she listened to him when he told her she needed a strong business plan before setting out as a freelance writer.

Parker, who’d also worked at the Democrat-Gazette, began her career in 1997. She had savings and for those first few months, she earned steady income as a hostess at Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock. She was determined, however, to build a freelance journalism career. After six months of “hard hustling,” she was able to quit her hostess job though she still worked in the restaurant’s catering business. Within less than a year, Parker said, she was supporting herself as a freelancer.

The first phase of her business plan had her listing every publication in the state “that I thought I could write for and get paid for. The first part of the plan was never write for free, never write for free, unless it got you to a next step of the plan.”

However, “I quickly realized that I was never going to be able to live on what the local or state media was going to pay. You could barely buy a meal with some of the fees they were going to pay me. At that point I also said that I would do some PR writing but even then I was like, this is not the direction I wanted to go in.”

But she, like Barnes, found opportunity in covering the Clinton administration. “He was in the White House as president and there were a lot of journalists on the ground here,” Parker said. “But a lot of those outlets were getting tired of sending people down here and running up expenses.”

So she implemented phase two of her business plan. Parker “networked.”

“I contacted every person that I possibly had ever known. I was lucky that several the people who came through the Democrat-Gazette in those early Clinton years went on to Washington, so I had those connections.

“And then I would just also blindly email — I had a list, a huge list, a gigantic list of publications around the world, and I would just email them and say, ‘I’m a journalist based in Arkansas and I would be interested in writing about Bill Clinton.’ I figured that was one thing I had that someone in Omaha wouldn’t have. ... And I was amazed at how many people said, ‘Thank God. We’ve been looking for someone in Arkansas to write about Bill Clinton.’”

Parker’s work has appeared in The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times Magazine, and the Dallas Morning News. Those clips brought her more assignments; she is now Reuters’ Arkansas correspondent.

Mel White

Mel White of Little Rock left the Arkansas Times in 1990 to focus on the subjects he really liked: travel and nature. Since then he has visited the Amazon River and climbed Kilimanjaro. And White’s work regularly appears in the magazine that he had targeted 23 years ago: National Geographic Traveler.

What he likes to call his luck can be traced back to a freelance assignment he did when he was still working for the Times, a piece for the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America.

The guide’s editor liked his work, “so when I wrote to Traveler I gave them some references and she was one of the references.” In an “amazing coincidence,” the editor had worked at National Geographic. “She knew those guys and they knew her. So when they called her she was enthusiastic about me and gave me a good recommendation.”

In addition, Traveler had just undergone a staff shakeup “and they were more or less under orders to find new writers. It was just an amazing coincidence of luck and timing that led them to give me one small assignment.”

White’s work with National Geographic Traveler led to assignments for the book division of National Geographic. It has been his primary employer for more than 20 years.

White’s freelance career has ensconced him in the middle class, he said. “There have been some years when I’ve made a lot of money and there have been some years when I’ve made very little money. That’s just the way it goes. But I’ve always had enough of a cushion in the bank that I could coast through the slow years.”

White pays for his health insurance and contributes to a retirement plan. He has an accountant who provides occasional advice. As for the ups and downs of the freelance life: “To me it’s been worth it because of all the incredible things I’ve gotten to do over the years.”

So You Want to Freelance
These five freelance writers have carved out careers in different ways, but following are some tips culled from their experience:

  • A business plan can help focus goals.
  • Be available.
  • Meet the deadlines.
  • Consider carving out a coverage niche.
  • Think of every assignment as a step to the next one.
  • Be reliable. Everyone agrees on this. And it’s part of meeting deadlines. If an assignment isn’t working as planned, let the client know as soon as possible.