Cultivating sources and stories: November's freelance update

A child's hands hold a seedling in dirt

With October’s focus on pitching clients and editors, my attention in November shifted slightly: to build a sustainable freelance business by cultivating the stories to pitch editors with, and the sources to support them.

In my past freelance life — the decade between about 2001 and 2011 — the stories were no problem. I regularly received assignments from editors at magazines like Law Enforcement Technology and Police & Security News, and I pitched them regularly, too.

Because it was essentially a part-time job while I raised two babies, and also because of my rampant impostor syndrome, and further because I didn’t realize my brain wasn’t defective, I didn’t really pitch much beyond that small niche.

Nonetheless, I managed to burn myself out midway through that decade. In large part this was because of what ProPublica deputy editor Steve Mills described: “Journalism can be a sort of hit-and-run business: get information from the source, write the story, never talk to the source again.”

Assigned typically two stories per month, that worked out to roughly six or seven people I would contact, converse with, and yes, never talk to again. It started to feel like a hamster wheel, and it made for considerable loneliness. Indeed, as Mills went on to say: “That approach can be a bit unkind… and shortsighted.”

A big part of the reason I came back to journalism in 2008 was a single source, at the time a criminal investigator with a district attorney’s office out West. He cultivated me at a time when I frankly didn’t know any better, and I enjoyed working with him so much that we explored ways to partner up. It didn’t pan out for multiple reasons (one of which was a depression that hit hard and fast in 2009, which neither of us handled well), but that relationship forged the model for what I’m currently working to do.

Cultivating sources and relationships

Having worked in the digital forensics industry for the last 10 years, I know a lot of people. They’ve provided awesome case studies, guided me through multiple white papers, given me feedback on product requirements and positioning.

But the stories a marketer is able to work on with a customer are qualitatively different. A lot of them work in organizations that require them not to endorse specific products, and even when they can, the focus has to remain on the product — not necessarily the whole story of an adjudicated case or an interesting trend.

Joining Forensic Focus gave me back a voice, in many ways, and perhaps more importantly, gave me the ability to amplify others’ voices to an extent I hadn’t been able to while working in marketing.

While there are certainly things I could do better (like reading blogs more regularly), I’m excited to keep building on the relationships I already have. There’s no shortage of really smart people doing really cool research, who can provide consistent perspective on, say, new technology, or the legal implications of a new technique, or different ways of looking at persistent problems. I don’t, in fact, have to “hit and run” — and that’s very refreshing.

Planting the seeds for better stories

Ten additional years of experience in the work world, volunteering, parenting, and living has given me critical perspective I didn’t have when I started freelancing in 2001: the knowledge I needed to make connections and to start pitching outside my comfort zone.

In part, this is a strategy I have for selling more fiction. To be able to pitch stories about wildlife and the environment as the author of the Living Wild Side by Side series seems like a nice way to tie together the two sides of my writing life, for one. There’s also my perspective as a neurodivergent writer and what it has meant for the work world, the challenges of parenting in a digital world, and yes, my love for horror fiction.

Over the years, I’ve found that variety like this makes for better stories because of the way things relate to each other — for instance, how my experience in digital forensics and cybersecurity unexpectedly helped me shape an article for an architectural client, or how my environmental research has made for better analogies (LinkedIn article forthcoming).

If you want to get a sense of where my writing is headed in 2020 (at least as far as I can tell!), check out my recent Forensic Focus article on the forensic analysis of emojis and what they might mean for courtroom testimony, as well as my article on hacking my own ADHD. And stay tuned for more to come!

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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