Political Freelancers Talk About Finding Work in the Age of TrumpBy Alex Thomas October 4th, 2018
There have never been more opportunities for political writers and journalists. New outlets are flourishing as publishers begin to understand how to make money online. Meanwhile, lifestyle publications are finding new ways to incorporate political coverage and commentary into their content. The current political landscape is so divisive, which is problematic in many ways, but it’s also created space and appetite for new voices.
This isn’t to say that covering the machinery of Washington is easy, especially for freelancers. With more room for new voices comes more competition. I’ve been a political writer for a few years now and a full-time freelancer for almost six months, after the start-up website I was with went under. Over the past half-year, I’ve managed to sneak bylines into a a few impressive outlets, among them The Daily Dot, IJR, and Playboy, but not without employing a handful of strategies to stand out from the crowd.
First, some good news: You don’t need to live in Washington, D.C. to have a successful career as a freelance political journalist. I happen to live two miles from Capitol Hill, but other writers, like Liz Wolfe, snag bylines in The Federalist, Reason, and Playboy, all the way from Texas. While it can be tougher to get your foot in the door from outside the district, local issues, like border control, can often pave the way to an editor’s heart (or inbox).
One other way Wolfe flourishes is by focusing on a speciality—in her case, that’s libertarianism. Politics is a wide-ranging sport in terms of skill, just like baseball, and nobody makes it to the big show by trying to play every position on the field. Instead, focus on one area and become an expert at it. I’ve found success in writing about Democrats on Capitol Hill poised to challenge Trump in 2020. I’ve been able to turn my expertise into stories on a few specific Democratic policies and the evolution of the party. But any time I have attempted to branch out with a piece on Melania Trump or the Republican tax bill, I find myself staring at an unforgiving blank page.
But having something to say about politics (and who doesn’t these days?) is not a guarantee of publication. Like anything, but especially like Washington, success is also about who you know. Matt Laslo, a professor of politics at George Washington University and one of the best political freelancers in the business, has written for Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic and Vice, to name a few. “The key to being a successful freelancer is relationships,” Laslo said. “You’ve got to build up those relationships with editors and especially, today, keep those relationships online.”
When he does pitch, Laslo makes sure the title grabs the editor and includes “one, maybe two paragraphs that cut right to it—dive right in.”
Wolfe agreed. Her perfect pitch is “concise, anticipates the needs of editors and publications, and doesn’t waste their time.”
Of course, once you are able to work with an editor once, keep your foot in the door. Breaking news is a good way to do this. Laslo noted that often he texts his editors, saying: “This happened, I have this interview, do you want me to explore it more?”
It also helps to demonstrate an active presence in the national conversation. In other words, stay on Twitter, post often, and engage with others in the space. Whatever you do, don’t shun those on the other side of the political fence. Tyler Grant is a conservative freelancer with bylines in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The Hill. “The age of Trump is difficult because of the wide variety of factions that exist between sycophants, middle of the road folks and #NeverTrumpers,” Grant said. “But there are lots of conservatives that care about changing minds rather than ranting into the void.”
The next few years will be a difficult time for the electorate, politicians, and those telling the stories behind it all. But it’s also going to be that much more exciting for freelancers who have something meaningful to say and who can carve out a space to say it in.