Over the past 25 years, Karen E. Klein successfully reinvented herself from full-time reporter to full-time freelancer. In the process, she established herself as an authority on small business trends and landed contracts with the likes of Businessweek and the Los Angeles Times.
The past quarter-century also brought some uncertain times to the freelance and journalism landscapes and Klein adjusted to maintain and grow her portfolio and reach. Klein now writes two columns per week for BloombergBusinessweek.com’s SmallBiz channel.
Klein supplements those columns by writing a cover story or profiles for a L.A.-based publication and with projects at Pearson Publishing, where she serves as a freelance development editor for business and tech books.
Klein, a former staffer for the Los Angeles Daily News, landed on the small business track after being persuaded by an editor for the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t think I could write business, but she encouraged me to freelance for her on small business stories, starting with entrepreneur profiles,” Klein says. “I gave it a try – that was almost 20 years ago.”
Klein recently spoke with the Reynolds Center about her freelance workload and how she navigated sometimes choppy waves in the industry.
1) What did your transition to freelance look like?
I was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Daily News, covering federal court, when my older son was born in 1989. I decided not to go back to work full-time after my maternity leave and transitioned into freelancing in early 1990, starting with judge profiles for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal publication, and stringing for the Los Angeles Times.
2) How have the broader economic waves affected your work?
As publications cut back, some of them reduce or eliminate their freelance budgets. That has affected me, most notably when I lost a regular column I had done for the Los Angeles Times for almost 15 years.
On the other hand, with staffs being cut, other publications rely more on freelancers and I get to know new editors who begin to rely on my writing. I definitely notice that I get more work as the economy starts on an upswing.
3) How has freelancing changed in recent years as both companies are working with tighter budgets and more writers are flooding the market?
“Be creative with ideas.
Often, an outside-the-box
take on an ongoing story
or trend will be very
appealing to an editor”
Editors today often ask if I will write for very little — or no — compensation. This happens particularly with online publications. Others want to pay less than what I was making when I started in journalism 30 years ago. Fortunately, I’m in a situation where I can turn down work that does not compensate me adequately.
4) What steps can journalists take to succeed in freelancing?
Read the publications you’re interested in writing for – not just one issue, but several. Get familiar with the sections, find out who the editors of those sections are and what kind of writing they’re publishing. If you’re interested in a specialty field, like business, read other business publications and follow news and trends.
Be creative with ideas — often, an outside-the-box take on an ongoing story or trend will be very appealing to an editor. Get to know other freelancers, writers and editors in person at networking events and on social media. Ask them to recommend and refer you. People hire people they know and who’ve been recommended to them, especially in freelance writing. If an editor takes a chance on an unknown writer, the assignment may never get done, it may come in late or it may be filed in terrible shape and take a lot more work than expected to be publishable.
5) What are the obstacles and benefits to freelance, as opposed to a full-time reporting position?