[Editor's Note: While I'm out of the office, please enjoy this rerun of one of WordCount's greatest hits. I'll be back next week with new material. -- MVR]
Some freelancers are content spending their careers working for someone else.
Others take self employment one step further and turn a solo enterprise into an honest-to-goodness company.
At a time when fewer publications are making assignments based on unsolicited queries and aggregators like Demand Studios, Associated Content and Helium are encouraging more amateurs to try their hand at creating web content, running your own show sounds pretty darn good.
Taking your freelance game to the next level doesn’t have to take a huge cash investment, though getting some ventures up and running definitely costs more than others.
Here are 10 writing-related businesses an enterprising freelancer could start today. Each includes examples of at least one writer who’s done it. I purposely included not-so famous writers — no Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington on this list — to make the point that you don’t have to start out rich and famous to make a go of it as a journalist entrepreneur.
Here’s the list:
1. Hyperlocal news
The equivalent of yesterday’s neighborhood newspapers, hyperlocal news sites cover what’s happening by the block, voting precinct, parish or or school district. These sites have become so popular you can do the work yourself or use hyperlocal news templates and advertising networks from companies such as Outside.in and GrowthSpur. That’s the good news. The bad news is major digital media companies like AOL and Yahoo have figured out there’s money to be made in hyperlocal and are working on their own initiatives, though whether or not they’ll be successful is still up in the air. Examples of hyperlocal news sites started by a single writer or small group include:
- OpenFile – Read a Q&A with co-founder and Regret the Error blogger Craig Silverman for details on this Toronto start up.
- Portland’s Neighborhood Notes
- Tasha Does Tulsa
Amy Webb spent 15 years covering emerging technology, media and cultural trends for Newsweek (Tokyo) and the Wall Street Journal (Hong Kong) before starting Knowledgewebb.net, a training company that teaches journalists the tools they need to succeed in the age of digital media. Today, Webb heads a team of trainers who hold webinars and travel the country teaching at conferences and providing in-person, one-on-one training. Her work is getting noticed — Columbia Journalism Review recently named Webb one of 20 women to watch who’re remapping the profession.
You don’t have a staff to train other writers on WordPress, Twitter, or other technology. If you know enough about tech tools for writers to teach someone else how to use them, you could offer your services as a consultant, write e-books on the subject, or do like Boston-based The Urban Muse blogger Susan Johnston and teach blogging classes at a local community college.
3. City magazine
Books aren’t the only things the DIY publishing revolution has made it easier to bring to market. Online-based publishing tools have also made it easier for writers become print magazine publishers, as Portland freelance journalist Michael Robinson is discovering. Robinson publishes Portland A Foot, a small format magazine for the famously bike-friendly city’s “low-car” culture.
4. Customized wire service
Nozzl Media is to raw facts what AP is to news. Steve Woodward, a long-time reporter and editor at the (Portland) Oregonian took a company buy out and collaborated with two other ex-Oregonian reporters to create Nozzl Media. A cross between a wire service and a software app, Nozzl provides news websites with a constant stream of public records, social web conversations and other data they can customize to fit their particular location or niche. Since the service launched in 2010, Nozzl has signed up The (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian, The LundReport and ParkroseGateway.com. Nozzl isn’t the only company providing constant news streams. EveryBlock helped pioneer the concept and was subsequently acquired by MSNBC.com.
Speaking of TheLundReport, Diane Lund is a Portland health-care industry watchdog who for years published a well-regarded monthly print newsletter covering the industry in Oregon. After some time away, Lund re-launched her efforts, only this time as a weekly e-newsletter with a matching website. Lund is a strong believer in nonprofit journalism and has structured TheLundReport accordingly. She funds the operation through contributions from supporters, with donations capped at $1,000 per person. Lund makes it easy for readers to donate by prominently displaying a Support the Lund Report page on the website. Though Lund writes a lot of her own stories, she uses freelancers on a regular basis.
6. Blog network
There’s power in numbers. That’s the philosophy behind blog networks, groups of blogs linked by a common theme. By aggregating content and traffic numbers, blog networks can go after companies that might not have been interested in advertising on a single property. BlogHer, which now has more than 3,000 blogs in its network, was started in 2005 by former journalist Lisa Stone and two partners and today competes with some of the largest women’s magazine publishers for Fortune 500 advertising dollars (Disclaimer: I’m a member of the BlogHer network.) Examples of other blog networks include:
- NewWest.net – A news and blog network covering the Rocky Mountain West
- Living on the Cheap – A network of 33 independent blogs run by freelance writers who help readers “find ways to not merely survive tough economic times, but to enjoy themselves and not feel deprived.”
7. Turnkey editorial services
Why let Demand and Helium have all the fun when you, too, can become a content aggregator. I’m not joking. Magazines, news websites, custom publishers have a constant need for fresh information and many would rather work with one source that can provide them with a steady, dependable stream of high-quality breaking news, feature stories or SEO-enabled web copy than deal with individual contributors. Some enterprising freelancers have figured this out and created editorial services companies to fill this need.
One of them is Gina LaGuardia, proprietress of Gina LaGuardia Editorial Services. LaGuardia started her company after a dozen years as a magazine editor and editorial director, and since then has handled content syndication management for AOL.com, MSN Encarta, the Internet Broadcasting System, WorldNow, Salary.com, BellSouth, and more. LaGuardia uses freelancers – a lot of them. Right now there are 29 on the GLES contributors page. If you’re super organized, have editing experience, contacts in the publishing industry and know a lot of freelancers, this could be for you.
8. Pop up website
In October 2008, Conde Nast laid off most of the editors who’d been working on Portfolio.com, the website for its then new-ish and since shuttered business monthly. Two of those suddenly jobless editors were experienced enough business journalists to know a trend when they saw one. Laura Rich, Sara Clemence and partner Lynn Parramore built a website to track the personal and cultural fall out of the bad economy and called it RecessionWire, with the tag line “The upside of the downturn.” They called it a pop-up site, after those retail stories that show up in time for Christmas and close once the post-holiday bargains are gone. The thinking behind RecessionWire and other pop-up sites is that the founders will keep them alive as long as the trend they cover lasts. The site wound down with the recession, and Rich has gone on to start StreetFight, an online company that tracks the latest in hyperlocal news.
9. Netcasts and podcasts
Leo LaPorte has been around the tech industry since the early days of the personal computer. After pitching shows to radio, TV and publishing companies with varying degrees of success, LaPorte used the advent of cheap podcasting technology to start an Internet-based netcast called TWIT.tv, and it’s paid off in spades. Today, TWIT.tv consists of 15 separate shows covering some aspect of technology available via live streaming video and downloadable audio and video. At the 2009 Online News Association conference, LaPorte reported making approximately $1.5 million in advertising a year for shows that cost about $350,00 a year to produce, which he does with a staff of seven.
10. Creative services
To market themselves effectively in the age of digital media, writers need a website, blog, letterhead, business cards, Twitter background page, e-book design and so on. To make the best impression, all those marketing pieces should sport a common, professional caliber graphic design. Writers who are comfortable with HTML code or have a flair for design can do this work themselves. But many aren’t or would rather pay someone to do the work for them so they can focus on other things, like clients. That’s opened up an opportunity for freelancers with a degree of technical skill and design sensibility to provide creative services for other writers.
Denver freelancer Ron S. Doyle started designing blogs and websites for other writers in 2009 (Disclaimer: I’m a client). By the end of that year, Doyle’s website work accounted for 40 percent of his income. By 2010, it was up to 75 percent. In the beginning, writers made up the bulk of his business, but that number shrank as Doyle picked up work from small businesses, schools and other clients. Things are going so well Doyle brought on a business partner — his wife.
If you’re a freelance writer who’s started a small business, I’d love to hear from you. Share the details of your entrepreneurial journalism venture by leaving a comment.