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Global Beats: Turning the Economics of Freelancing Inside Out

Global Beats: Turning the Economics of Freelancing Inside Out

Robert Steiner, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, tells us why he believes freelance journalists should be developing a global "beat", and gives his tips on how to start.

Freelancers - it's possible to gain market power in your own practice by owning a global speciality.
Traditionally, editors have held all the cards in the regionally based stringer model. You’re out in the field, scrambling against other freelancers who look a lot like you to pitch more-or-less the same editors. The desk drives your rates down and draws a red line on expenses, insurance and even the most basic safety training.  Why? They're cash-strapped too, and you're playing into some basic laws of supply and demand. As long as the news is hot where you are, you cope. But when the spotlight moves, you start thinking about moving somewhere too, even if it's somewhere that's too risky for everyone else.
There's a safer and more sustainable way to increase your scarcity value: mine your current expertise to develop a global beat, and report it from wherever works best. ('Beat' is the North American term for a reporting speciality.)
When you own a global beat, you gain economic power. Instead of being one of a dozen reporters pitching the same editors back home, you are one of a handful who can deliver reliable coverage of a complex issue to editors all over the world. And as they lay off their staff beat reporters, you get more market power as a stringer. Climate change is a global beat, for instance. So are women's rights. Or infectious disease. Or the politics of aid. Or economics. Or the small-arms trade. Or cycling. Or, really, anything you pick.
This is what we teach in the Munk School Fellowship in Global Journalism - and it comes, in part, from my own experiences at one of the great beat-driven papers of all time: The Wall Street Journal.

Here's how to start: 

1. Mine your current coverage for four or five global themes. Whatever you cover now, your current beat touches on themes that also play out around the world. The stories you've already done probably make you more knowledgeable about those themes than many other reporters. Find no fewer than four or five global themes you’ve already covered. 

2. Gather potential clients hungry for those themes. Compile a list of media covering those themes. Niche is key: anything serving trades, professionals, hobbyists or academics is under constant pressure to fill its news hole, but may rely on a small number of reliable stringers. Advertisers and subscribers pay up for those products too. All of this gives you economic power. The mass media will pay less, but give you profile. Assemble a portfolio that includes both. Seek clients around the world, in every language you speak, and in every medium. If you’re working in English, here’s a litmus test: How many Indian clients are on your list? Canadian? South African?
3. Which beats need you most? Understand how your potential clients already cover your theme. If they're missing stories that seem obvious to you, then the beat needs you. Prioritize the beats that need you.
4. Model the business. Once you've figured out the beats that need you, and the mix of niche and mass media around the world that will buy your stuff, figure out how much each pays for what. Maybe your business should be 70% trades and 30% mass media. Model the kind of business mix that is likely to optimize revenues on your beat.
5. Go 'upstream' for story ideas. Now start reading like an expert. Immerse yourself in trade media, academic literature and conferences – cultivating sources as you hunt for stories.
6. Start pitching. As soon as you can, contact the editors in your portfolio of clients you've developed, and start pitching. The more you file, the more you own your beat.
Pretty quickly, you'll find you've leveraged your past work into ownership of a global beat. The more you file on that beat to the clients in your portfolio, the more they'll come to you as one of the few freelancers who can cover that global story reliably. Keep extending your portfolio of clients around the world, and keep deepening your knowledge of your beat.
While some beats (business and technology) are more lucrative than others, the economic power you regain as a specialized, global reporter should make the business of freelancing more sustainable on any beat at all.

Main image: Ali Morrow (Fellow in Global Journalism, 2013) reporting on a crisis in the Turkish fishery, for Reuters, 2014. Copyright: Stephen Starr

The Rory Peck Trust partners with the Munk School Fellowships in Global Journalism to teach a one-term course in Freelance Tradecraft.

We'll be regularly inviting guest bloggers - partners, journalists, experts in their field - to share their personal views and expertise on subjects that are relevant to freelancers - from safety and digital security to insurance, professional development and sources of funding.

The views expressed here are the guest author's and not necessarily those of the Rory Peck Trust.

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