Most Things I Know About Freelance Journalism & Cold-Pitching
Once upon a time, an older man told me I could never start my career as a journalist writing longform stories about international human rights issues, and should, rather, try to start in a newsroom and climb my way up the ladder until I was hired as a foreign correspondent. He was wrong in that I did it, and also, about ~six foreign correspondent positions exist in any given country these days. He was right in that it was and is very hard! I’m writing this post to explain that process to you.
Hi! My name is Madeleine Wattenbarger, and I’m a freelance journalist in Mexico City, where I cover human rights, politics and urbanism for US and international media outlets. More and more people have been reaching out to me lately to ask for tips on cold-pitching US publications and/or starting a freelance journalism career. I absolutely ADORE! speaking with early-career journalists about this, but lately I find myself repeating the same things a lot, so I’m writing them down to make things easier for all of us. Note that these tips all apply primarily to US-based publications, secondarily to international English-language publications, and perhaps not at all to other kinds. I am still very glad to talk with early-career journos and share advice as my schedule allows! But as my schedule allows it less these days, I’m sharing these tips generally. If, after reading this, you have pressing unanswered questions that aren’t addressed in any of the resources linked below, send me a DM on Twitter.
First: some things about me that you might want to ask!
- I’m originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylavnia. I moved to Mexico City in 2016, several months after finishing my bachelors’ degree in Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
- No, I didn’t study journalism, though I participated in a lot of writing- and journalism-related extracurriculars during college and had a few related jobs. I love being a journalist who didn’t study journalism. Sometimes I come across dilemmas in whose face I think “I’d know this if I’d studied journalism,” but I have always been able to find a kind person who answers my question for far less than the price of j-school tuition.
- I moved to Mexico City for a full-time volunteer position at an NGO, where I received housing and a food stipend. I left that position after several months and started pitching articles here and there, while cobbling together a living through translation jobs, English classes and nannying. I worked as a part-time college prep tutor for wealthy Mexican teens for two years, which brought in probably 90% of my income. After a while, I realized I really liked journalism, and I left my tutoring job just as I started to bring in a consistent income from freelancing (read: $500 USD a month, my living expenses at that time). I’ve been full-time freelance for almost two years.
- My “success” as a freelance journalist — e.g. the fact that I can survive comfortably doing freelance journalism full-time, after only four years—is due almost entirely to the fact that I’m paid in dollars, and I live in Mexico. As a rule, US media outlets do not pay livable wages for anyone who lives in the US. I can live comfortably on my freelance journalist income only because of the vast inequality between the US and Mexico.
- To put a point on it: in 2020, the year I earned the most money from freelance journalism alone, my income was $13,554 USD. (I also received the $1200 federal stimulus check and a PPP loan for about $2000, which together got me through the year.) If you live in the US and are considering pursuing a full-time career in freelance journalism, I urge you to take this reality very seriously. I cannot give advice on how to make more money than that through freelance journalism, because I haven’t done it. (Other people can and do and have written articles and made podcasts about it. Ask them about it. Don’t ask me!)
I hope for a world where media outlets pay all their workers a more-than-living wage and where freelancers don’t have to worry incessantly about healthcare, retirement savings and liability. I hope to play a part in creating that world. Right now, that is not the world we have. I am always eager to give advice, but I won’t suggest that anyone can do this, or that you’ll succeed if you just did what I did. It is difficult as fuck. I have no savings. If I hadn’t been able to ask family for a few hundred bucks during my tight spots, or if I had any serious medical conditions I had to cover out of pocket, I wouldn’t still be doing this. I say this because I don’t want to misrepresent my path. I have no silver bullet.
TLDR: Freelance journalism is a very precarious profession! Anyone who tells you otherwise probably is either A) an established magazine writer or B) a j-school admissions counselor or C) talking out of their ass. I often say this in jest, but I truly mean it: if there is anything besides freelance journalism that will make you happy and earn you a consistent living, do that instead. If not, start thinking seriously about how to minimize your cost of living, potential side gigs and marrying rich. OK, onward!
How I (Sort Of) Figured This Stuff Out
As I write this, I’m exactly four years into my freelance journalism career, and I finally feel like I’m ready to be awarded a bachelors degree in cold-pitching articles to (mostly) US-based digital publications. Many generous people have contributed to that education, particularly through Study Hall and The Writers’ Co-op; Wudan Yan’s coaching sessions; and other, more seasond journalists, including Sarah Aziza and Rachel Nolan, who have been incredibly kind to answer emails and review my pitches. Jamie Keiles’ breakdowns of their first and second years of freelance writing, as well as their Zoom workshop on feature writing, also have been tremendously helpful. In my darkest moments of racking up credit-card debt to buy canned beans that I ate cold in my kitchen-less, furniture-less, baby-freelancer apartment, listening to other, more successful journalists on the Longform podcast also gave me hope that maybe I could keep doing this.
Much of what I have learned has come from those sources, as well as countless other friends and colleagues who have given me advice over beers and coffees and DMs. Much of it has also come from trial and error: hundreds of pitches, most unread or rejected, plus the lessons from at least a dozen killed stories. If you do this every day for three years, you’ll get good at it, too!
How To Get Started Cold-Pitching!
- Every media outlet you read has guidelines on how to pitch them. It’s probably on their website under “Writers guidelines” or “How to pitch us” or “About us” or something like that. If it’s not there, search on Twitter until you find an editor at that publication. They may have tweeted about how or what to pitch them. Look for that information! Think of it as a reporting challenge! Here’s one resource with lots of pitching guides! (Tip: most of the time, DM’ing complete strangers just to ask for their editors’ contacts is not the best move.)
- Cold-pitch, don’t send drafts. Editors usually like to have some role in shaping the story. Maybe your angle is close to what they’re looking for but not quite; maybe they’d want you to speak to certain people; maybe they want you to avoid a certain approach. I’ve gotten a lot of responses that begin “I’m interested, but I’m looking for something more…” If you submit a full draft, you lose the opportunity to shape the pitch into the story the editor really wants.
- Think about the structure and genre of your piece. Is it a reported hard-news story? A political commentary? A personal essay? An op-ed that draws on reporting and personal history? A longform narrative story? This will dictate both the structure of your pitch and who you pitch it to.
- If you don’t know where to pitch your story, look for pieces that are similar, structure- and genre-wise, to what you’re pitching. Who publishes those stories? Pitch them.
The Structure of a Pitch
Good news for both of us: the internet is full of information about writing pitches! Many people have written about this. Tim Herrera has some particularly helpful tips. This is a brief summary of how I go about things.
Each pitch should have:
- A brief summary of the story. This can be anywhere from a few sentences to several paragraphs. It should be as brief and direct as possible. Say how long you estimate it will be and what genre.
- An explanation of why it’s relevant or important now. Again, this can be a few sentences or a few grafs, explaining any current news hooks or ongoing items of interest that give context to the story.
- A mention of why I’m the best person to write it. For most pitches, this is usually just a sentence or two — I’ve already gotten in contact with TK sources; I have previously reported on this topic; I have access to TK; few other people have investigated TK from this perspective. If other people have written on your topic lately — e.g. if a major book has come out about it — you might want to mention that and explain why your approach is different. Link to your previous work here.
Depending on the kind of story you’re pitching, you may also want to have:
- A character/characters. This is most important for longform or narrative stories, but any pitch is better with a human connection, even if it’s just one sentence. That character may not figure hugely in your story, particularly if it’s, say, a news analysis piece, but their experience gives a concrete example of how whatever you’re writing about affects people.
- A US hook lol :) This is the bane of every freelancer who covers things outside the US. If you’re pitching to a US outlet a reported story about anything outside the US, you need to make an argument for why people in the US want to read it, because many people in the US do not care about things outside of the US. For me this is usually a policy connection or a trend: “this is the result of a policy the US has pushed” or “this is how TK trend in the US is playing out in Mexico.” Let me be clear: THIS SUCKS! This has a huge and very bad effect on the global media landscape. We can talk about that when you call me and/or on Twitter.
I could say a lot more, but most people have already said it and I’m getting tired of typing, so go read what they said in the links above!
Time for some sample pitches!
There are dozens of these on the internet already, but I’ll share some of mine anyway, mostly to demonstrate how pitches can vary across different genres. As a rule, write SHORT PITCHES for SHORT ARTICLES! These pitches are even a little longer than I’d recommend.
News Pitch: Coronavirus in Mexico: Street vendors agonize over health or livelihood
Just this week, Mexico has moved into phase two of their coronavirus response. Schools across the country are no longer operating, and in Mexico City, mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has ordered all bars, theaters, museums and churches closed. But Mexican workers face a dilemma unlike any other country where coronavirus has begun to spread wildly: 60% of the population works in the informal economy, and 40% of the population is under the poverty line. In Mexico City alone, where public health officials anticipate coronavirus to spread most quickly, approximately two million people work as street vendors — and most of them have no intention to stop working.
The predominance of the informal street economy has been a key factor in the government’s response, as officials have acknowledged that Mexico confronts a unique challenge in confronting the virus. The outlook in Mexico may become a blueprint for how the virus will unfold in other countries with high levels of poverty and participation in the informal economy.
For this story, I’m planning to interview street vendors who are continuing to work as the rest of the city shuts down around them; I’m also planning on speaking with a few unions and interest groups of street vendors in Mexico City.
This story was published in Deutsche Welle at a rate of $287 for 1000 words and photo, which I split 60/40 with the photographer I worked with. (We agreed on me taking 60 because I had come up with the idea, pitched and placed the story.)
News Analysis Pitch: Mexico’s President Says the War on Drugs Is Over. Not All Mexicans Agree.
Just two weeks ago, Mexico’s new president declared that the country’s drug war is “officially over,” echoing his campaign promises to end the violence that’s taken tens of thousands of lives since 2006. But at the same time, AMLO is pushing for the creation of a National Guard to augment domestic policing, which many worry could worsen the abuses. Despite his insistence that he’ll no longer receive US funds to bolster Mexican security forces, Lopez Obrador’s government also continues to cooperate with US security initiatives, including the recent “Remain In Mexico” agreement to send US asylum seekers across the border. And the collusion between security forces, cartels and political parties that’s flourished in the last two decades won’t be unraveled overnight. I want to write a piece analyzing what it would mean for AMLO to end the drug war, both in terms of its domestic impact and its relationship to the US’s war on drugs. I’ll speak with drug reform activists and political analysts both here and in the US.
This story was published in the Nation, at about 1200 words for 400 dollars. (Side note: stories like this and the last made up 90% of my assignments until just a few months ago. They are easy to write, and I’ve found that — for those of you thinking in these terms — they actually tend to come out to a much better rate, in terms of pay per hour, than more glamorous and exciting longform stories.)
Reported Medium-Form Culture Pitch: Are We Killing the Markets of Mexico City?
My favorite thing about my neighborhood in Mexico City is my local market. It’s a block and a half from my house; the guys at my favorite produce stand always slip me a mango or a few oranges with the rest of my purchase, I can get enchiladas or fresh-squeezed juice along with my groceries and the man who sells me milk and cheese always notices when I’ve been out of town. Like most of the city’s neighborhood markets, when I moved into the neighborhood, its façade was painted with a brightly colored geometric pattern. One day late last year, though, my roommate came home from a grocery run bemoaning the market’s new renovations. “They’re hipsterifying our market,” she bemoaned, “and they’re going to gentrify our neighborhood.” She was referring to the facade being torn down and replaced by faux exposed brick, a makeover that had been applied to a nearby public market in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. That market, Mercado Tlacoquemecatl, now looks more like the food halls that pepper tourist-friendly neighborhoods like Juarez, Condesa and Roma: pristinely organized, each stall neatly lettered with its offerings, with third-wave coffee stands among the tacos and dry goods.
The last 25 years haven’t been easy for Mexico City’s public markets: many of them haven’t seen renovations since the city first inaugurated them in the 60s, and it shows in the sagging ceilings, faded paint and occasional scurrying creature. The boom in supermarkets, particularly the Walmart-owned Superama and Bodega Aurrera, has also eaten into the niche public markets previously occupied. But nearly every colonia in the city has one, and they’re neighborhood touchstones. The city has poured funds into the remodeling of its markets in fits and starts in the last five years, and 41 of its 329 public markets have received funds from its Development and Improvement Plan. As tourism in the city booms, establishments that cater to working- and middle-class locals are increasingly replaced by ritzier locales. Reinventing themselves as food halls — also now ubiquitous in Mexico City’s more touristy zones — is a survival strategy.
I want to write about how gentrification is affecting the viability of the public markets. In particular, I’ll examine what the changing relationship of Mexico City’s public markets and neighborhoods says about the changing city fabric, including the booming tourist economy. Larger markets, like Jamaica and Merced, are popular tourist attractions: their sheer scale, covering several city blocks, is a spectacle in itself, the crush of smells, sounds and colors a draw for visitors hungry for “authentic” Mexico. But in neighborhoods that increasingly draw AirBnb-ers looking for an instagrammable meal destination, the market model, integrating produce, dry goods and unglamorous workday lunch options, is losing its viability. I plan to talk to market vendors, people from Mexico City’s Secretary of Development, in charge of the markets’ remodeling, and developers of new food halls in the city.
This story was published in Eater at 2500 words for $1000. You’ll notice that the published story is very different from my pitch — that’s normal.
Longform Narrative Pitch: Meet the Women Smashing Mexico’s Male-Dominated DJ Scene
Marisol Mendoza Gomez, the founder of the all-female DJ collective Musas Sonideras, knows about 60 other female sonidero DJs in all of Mexico. She knows about 60 male sonideros just in her Mexico City neighborhood of Tacuba.
Sonidero refers to both a style of music — generally a mixture of cumbia, salsa and other Latin rhythms, mixed live by DJs over mobile soundsystems — and to the cumbia block parties where the music is played. On any Saturday afternoon, you’ll find streets throughout Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods roped off with sonideros mixing over enormous speakers, as neighbors dance and sip micheladas. Mendoza’s father is a sonidero MC, and she grew up with his looming speakers and subwoofers stored next to the dresser at home, under a cloth crocheted by her mother.
Growing up, Mendoza never saw women emphasized in the sonidero scene. The few sonideras received little to no publicity; flyers for sonideros usually included a sexy photo of a woman, but rarely, if ever, were women themselves behind the sound system. Three years ago, Mendoza, along with several other women in Mexico City, started the collective Musas Sonideras, which brings together female sonideras at all stages of their careers. Their 30 members include women across Mexico and in San Diego and Chicago.
Each Musa, as they call themselves, has struggled to make it in the famously machista sonidero scene. Mendoza recounts hearing women in the bathrooms at parties say, “oh, the women are going to play now, let’s get out of here.” But as the collective has gained traction, they’ve played everywhere from block parties to museums to queer bars to the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. They’ve also recently appeared in the documentary Yo No Soy Guapo, which has appeared in film festivals across Mexico.
I want to write a profile of Mendoza and the Musas Sonideras project. Aside from Mendoza being a really interesting character, I see this as a portrait of the really unique sonidero subculture, which the city government has attempted to quash in recent years. Sonidero music is associated with working-class neighborhoods and street culture, and the government has increasingly criminalized it, making it difficult to get a permit for sonidos and shutting them down in some of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods.
This story was published in Zora at 2000 words for $2000. You’ll notice here that I did some in-person pre-reporting before I wrote the pitch. In this case, I had interviewed Marisol once and gone to one party where she DJ’ed — about half a day of work. For longer stories like this, I may do several pre-interviews before I pitch the story. I usually explain the situation to the people I’m interviewing — “I don’t know who will pick this up yet but I’ve worked previously for TK and they may pick it up and I’m also pitching it to other outlets like TK” — and they understand.
After typing for a while, I’ve said most of the smart things that I have in my mind. If you still have questions, click on some of those links I put up there and see if they have your answers! If you still have questions, or would like advice on a specific conundrum or pitch, send me a DM on Twitter. I can’t guarantee that I will have time to talk on the phone, but I will respond more quickly if you have a specific question. And, finally, I especially prioritize sharing this kind of advice with BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people, folks from outside the US/Europe/Oceania, women and people without access to elite education, so if that’s you and you have any questions, I especially hope you’ll reach out!
I hope you enjoyed this frenetically typed guide and that, at the very least, you’re left contemplating how the neoliberal gig economy relies on an infinite pool of ever-more-precarized workers who fight over lower and lower wages as they generate value for a handful of fascist millionaire media tycoons. Journalism, like most things, is a pyramid scheme. Until next time!
P.S. I forgot about this part, but most of the time you will get paid for your story at a minimum of 30 days after it’s published, which can be months or years after you pitch it! I know, right? Don’t spend that money until you have it!