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Navigating the world of freelance investigative journalism

By Taylor Bembery

Isaiah Thompson of New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Maria Zamudio of The Commercial Appeal, and Hella Winston, an independent journalist, have experienced with the good, the bad and the ugly that comes with being a freelance journalist. At the IRE Conference in Philadelphia, the three discussed strategies for producing stories with impact and navigating the freelance world.

Zamudio, who has won a Peabody Award for some of her work, offered tips on how to find stories with impact.

  • Look for trends. Is it an isolated story or part of a bigger problem?
  • Are government agencies not following rules and regulations? Are businesses not following the law?
  • Follow money trails.

Freelancers come a dime a dozen in the already competitive field of journalism, so storytelling plays a huge part in a writer’s piece receiving attention. Here are several ways to find a fresh approach to telling a story:

  • Push yourself to find different mediums for that story. Are you a print reporter? Then try to produce a video or radio story. Try an interactive map or maybe an animation.
  • Partner with other media outlets.
  • Promote your story everywhere. On Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.
  • Get friends, family, nonprofits and activists to promote the story or use the research to create change.

But going the freelance route isn’t easy. Hardships can include little or no income, un-credited or stolen work, and a lack of resources. Journalists have to monitor everyone who gets ahold of their story. This is where the entrepreneurial mindset kicks in. With freelancing, if you do not work for your story, your story will not work for you.  

Here are a few more tips from the panelists:

  • There is funding available to help your investigation, such as Fund for Investigative Journalism, ICFJ, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, 2015 Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship, IRE Freelance Fellowship, and Fund for Environmental Journalism grants. The Global Investigative Journalism Network has a full list of fellowships.
  • Freelancers should keep in touch with everyone they pitch their stories to in order to avoid an incident of un-credited work.
  • If a freelancer is good at covering something, the people that care about that issue will help them get their story out to the masses.

Despite the many challenges, Zamudio closed the panel with some encouraging words. 

“You need to become your own advocate for that story, because these are stories that you have a passion for, obviously, and you have to make sure they get to the right people,” Zamudio said. “You have data and you have resources that some of the activists don’t have, bloggers, attorneys don’t have. So if you get the story to the right people they will know what to do with it.”


Taylor Bembery is a 2015 IRE Conference Knight Scholar and a recent graduate of Jackson State University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications with a concentration in Multimedia Journalism and a minor in English in December of 2014. Taylor is also the former Associate Editor of The Blue & White Flash.

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