For success, never say ‘no’ to free-lancing

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Never say “no,” be a jack-of-all-trades, be great, diversify and don’t slip up. Those are just some of the traits and skills needed to survive as a free-lance journalist in today’s downtrodden economic climate. Belts have tightened and business is tougher, but it’s still possible to make a living without being an employee.
Never say “no” is the most important rule of thumb, said Dino Quaglietta, president of Crew1 TV in New York. He has placed free-lance news crews for four years and said business remains fairly steady, with assignments coming from Fox News, the BBC and Australian news agencies.
“I never turn down a job,” he said. “I will do whatever it takes to make a job happen. When you tell them `no,’ they remember and you don’t work for them again. When you say `yes’ and make it happen, they remember.”
It’s also imperative to stay on top of your game, said Guy Hernandez, a free-lance photojournalist in Dallas. A free-lancer is only one mistake from being bankrupt. “It’s such a small clique in network free-lance, if you screw up one time, it’ll slow you down,” he said. He also proffers this nugget of wisdom: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” That means don’t bill for what you don’t need. “If you start trying to get more than you need, you turn into a hog,” he said.
Being successful today requires fortitude and the willingness to keep beating the drum to look for new work. Diversification is vital. A viable free-lance business needs a mix of network, cable and corporate work, he said. “They all ebb and flow at different times,” he said.
His work includes projects for “20/20,” “Nightline,” Court TV’s “Forensic Files,” Discovery Network, Food Network and behind-the-scenes work for the kids’ show “Barney,” which is shot in Dallas. “My business has been increasing because I get more and more contacts,” he said. “[The way] to get from the bottom of the list to the top is to be nice and work.”
Free-lancers today also need to be versatile. Mr. Hernandez said he is often called on to be a one-man band and set up, shoot and edit his stories. “It makes me a lot more valuable,” he said.
Those skills are also important for free-lance producers. Jules Bailey worked for CNN for five years before she was laid off last spring. She quickly segued into free-lance producing for the Fox News Channel in Dallas. “You have to be better because so many people have been laid-off,” she said. “There is a plethora of people out there. You have to be at the top of your game. You can’t have one area where you aren’t strong.”
A field producer needs to set up the story, gather the information and write the script. A producer also needs to oversee logistics of satellite trucks and coordinate the on-site coverage, she said. In addition, a skilled producer can ask the questions, thus saving the news outlet the travel expense of sending a reporter.
As with many businesses, free-lancing necessitates a back-to-basics approach, said Jim Robertson, owner of All Ways Entertainment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He works as a producer, and his company places free-lance news crews primarily for newsmagazine shows. He advises photojournalists to lose the toys and gadgets they stocked up on in the glory days and focus on just the necessary equipment. Such gadgets aren’t necessary and clients are cutting back on their requests for ancillary equipment. Many clients also ask for half-day rates more frequently, Mr. Robertson said.
When it comes to equipment, a wise decision for those starting out may be to rent rather than purchase. The benefit of a good lease plan is the flexibility when formats change, which happens frequently, and different stations and news outlets rely on different formats, said Jim Frances, a free-lance director of photography in Boston.
“The biggest risk is watch what formats you buy and what cameras you buy,” he said. “There are so many different news formats. One newsmagazine may do beta SX, another may do DVC Pro 50. If I were going into business today, I would set up a long-term lease rental agreement so you don’t end up owning a camera that doesn’t become a standard.”