Please don’t conduct a conference call from the blanket fort: How to find and vet great freelancers, Part I

When I told my longtime freelance clients in February 2004 that I had taken a full time job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a deputy business editor, most of them told me that I’d soon find how hard it was to find and hire great freelancers like me.

How hard could it be? I had plenty of great freelance friends who were always happy to take on new clients.

Very hard, it turned out. I had flaky freelancers who took assignments and disappeared, never again responding to phone calls or emails. I had arrogant freelancers who took assignments and turned in what they wanted, and who wouldn’t change anything about their barely publishable copy.

My favorite freelance nightmare story happened just a couple of years ago. I hired a mom of young children who said she loved the research topics and who definitely needed the work. So I agreed to pay her by retainer and asked her to log her hours and progress in a cloud-based collaborative workspace.

She was always “on it!’ but somehow, ‘it’ never really got done. For two whole months, she didn’t even log in to the online system, while reassuring me that she was “on it!” (To be fair, that was over the Christmas holidays, but still..Christmas doesn’t last for two months. Yet. )

With the deadline approaching and no copy or work materializing, we had a status call. She allowed that she was behind and needed to really ‘get on it!.” I told her that needed to happen, indeed, posthaste.

After the call I checked my Facebook account. And there was a fresh post from her, stamped with the exact time we’d been on the phone: “Nothing like talking to a client from the blanket fort in the living room!”

Ha, ha.

Let’s just say that she’s not working with me any more.

This freelancer was, fortunately, the exception. Since I toughened up my process, I’ve found freelance researchers, writers and editors who are smart, organized, responsive, and great collaborators. Oh, yeah: they’re terrific at writing and editing, too.

Here’s how to find great freelancers, excerpted from the handout that accompanied the Content Marketing World panel I participated in on September 9, 2015.

Go where smart, experienced freelancers hang out online. They stick together, so you can find them here:

  • American Society of Journalists & Authors Freelance Search service – contact Alexandra Owens, director, at director@asja.org; ASJA also offers one-on-one meetings with writers and editors at its annual and regional conferences. ASJA is where I’ve found my best freelancers. And, I’m a member, too.
  • Society of Professional Journalists, Society of American Business Editors & Writers; and other specialized sources.
  • Journalism school alumni online forums.
  • Specialty sources such as ProBlogger.net.
  • Content management firms that integrate freelance sourcing with copy flow, such as Ebyline.com, Scripted.com.

One caveat: lots of former staff journalists are going freelance because their jobs don’t exist any more. Unless that former staffer has a significant portfolio of freelance work separate from her staff job, you’ll want to proceed with caution.

Staff journalists often are terrible time managers, getting their work done only because a mean managing editor is standing over them. As well, the traditional (often mythical) wall between ‘church and state’ – i.e., advertising and the newsroom – means that many journalists look down their nose at dirty business functions like corporate approvals for copy; working with marketing staff; managing clients; and not operating under cover of the First Amendment.

Just because you’re familiar with someone’s byline and just because they’ve covered your company in what you believe to be a positive light doesn’t mean the relationship can successfully transition to freelancer-client. Hire freelancers who are experienced as writers, editors and project managers and in the business of freelancing.

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