Being a freelance writer is all about choice. You get to choose when and how you work, as well as what assignments you want to pursue. You decide where to pitch and can shop around an idea until you find the right fit.
However, the unfiltered freedom of freelancing comes with trade-offs. Staff writers may have to answer to the same editors every day, but they have inherent credibility, which comes in handy when trying to gain access to events.
According to a Columbia Journalism Review survey of independent journalists and staff writers, one in five journalists has been denied press credentials, but some creatives are denied more frequently than others. 14 percent of staff writers said they were denied access at least once compared to 32 percent of freelancers. Freelancers may have to deal with more barriers when trying to report on important events, but, as we’ve outlined below, there are a few standard practices they should look to when trying to score press credentials.
If you want to attend a certain event, don’t wait until the last minute to request a press pass. There are a limited amount of passes given out to members of the media, and if you don’t make the list, you’ll have to pay your way in. In case you forget, or you find out about an event after registration has closed, you can still try to slip in the day of, if you’re lucky.
“There will be someone there to deal with walk-ins,” said Michael Fitzgerald, a freelance journalist and the chair of the Freelance Community for the Society for Professional Journalists. To increase your chances of getting in, he recommends coming prepared with a letter from your editor (if you have one) and a business card.
For those who apply a few weeks in advance and still get turned down, there may be a reason why. In a post on the blog Gamer Theory, founder and editor Jeff Rivera cautioned that it usually takes two to three weeks to get approval for major conventions like E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo). But for the little guys who want to gain access, he argued a credible blog has to be live for at least six months to even be considered.
When you’re filling out an application for a press pass, you’re required to list who you’re representing. If you’re covering an event as a freelancer for your own blog, rather than for a traditional news source, you’ll have to prove you have clout.
“There is one parameter that speaks louder than where or who you write for, and that is how much traffic you get to your website,” said Bill Belew, social media expert and content marketer. “It has been my experience that venues will check the ranking [Alexa] of your site to gauge how popular you are. If you have a good enough ranking, they will invite the freelancer.”
According to Fitzgerald, freelancers are taken just as seriously as big name outlets as long as they have a serious audience and have statistics about unique visitors and pageviews to back up their claims. “The good news is that organizations of all sorts understand that there is a widely diverse media out there now,” he explained. “Someone on the Internet can have a bigger impact than someone who works at the local paper.”
If you’re a news reporter requesting press credentials for settings like government meetings and crime scenes, you will have to fill out an application with a specific offices (think city hall or police department). Be patient if your paperwork quest turns into a wild goose chase; we are talking about the government after all. And as the CJR survey points out, government organizations, specifically, have turned down freelancers at a much higher rate than staff journalists. For example, 20 percent of freelancers were denied at least once by Congress compared to only four percent of employees. By connecting on a personal level and not stirring up trouble, you’ll have a better chance of bypassing red and yellow tape.
Fitzgerald believes your first move should be to build relationships with the employees at the offices, which won’t happen overnight. Also, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press suggests always following orders from police officers at any crime scene. If you’re covering a demonstration or an event where people may get arrested, the RCFP encourages journalists to bring $50 or $100 in cash in case they have to pay for a bail bond. Hopefully, it won’t come to that, but even after you snag a press pass, it never hurts to prepare.