With fewer staff writers at newspapers and magazines, freelance journalists have more opportunities to take on longform features – both on and offline.
Q: What would you tell other freelancers who are reluctant to pitch longer pieces? A: I wish I hadn’t been so hesitant to reach out to a lot of different high-quality publications.
But the payoff is slow, and many freelancers (myself included) can’t seem to make the commitment.
As an independent journalist, I often have story ideas that I want to pursue, but don’t have the resources to carry out. For one, taking on a story that might not be published for months—or even years—is a huge financial risk. And digging for the story idea, doing background reporting and crafting the pitch can be a time-consuming endeavor that may never pay off.
On the other hand, doing longform gives freelancers like me the opportunity to work with skilled editors who invest more time into editing than a shorter piece. They help me learn new skills.
Andy Kopsa is a freelancer crafting her career from longform journalism, specializing in investigations. She has written for The Atlantic, The Nation and even Teen Vogue and was the recipient of a 2013 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion in American Public Life from USC Annenberg.
For The Nation, she tracked down LGBT inmates in Cameroon. Spent time with a mother who was gang-raped in front of her child for a piece in Cosmopolitan. And looked at the shaming of possible rape victim for the Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly in St. Louis. She admits it can be a difficult career path. “It takes a lot out of you,” she says.
I spoke with Kopsa about how she does it, what it takes to balance the workload, and how she learned to deal with the financial unpredictability. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
As a freelancer, the reality is that not all of the stories you take on can be 3,000 words. How do you find a natural rhythm between longform and shorter pieces?
For better or worse, most of the things I report on have to do with people who have been traumatized in on way or another. I’m being entrusted with some amazing stories—whether it’s work with some LGBT people or those who have been imprisoned in Cameroon. But it can take a lot out of you.
For a year in 2014, I was doing work with survivors of sexual assault. Then I had to step back from the story on Taylor Hirst [a rape victim Kopsa wrote about for Cosmopolitan] for a little bit. From the time it took to start creating a relationship to the time that I was published, it was probably six months.
When I need to walk away from everything for just a little while, I’m busying myself with other things. For instance, I’m doing a piece for Mental Floss about the quirky history of anesthesia. Sometimes, I just have to clear the decks before I can really dedicate to another person, so I try to fit in shorter stories in between.
One of your first breakthroughs in longform investigative work was possible because of a grant. How important are grants to an independent journalist pursuing narrative pieces?
In 2012, I got a grant through USC Annenberg to do some reporting on Mississippi, which at that point had the highest teen birthrate in the country. There were also new reality television shows around teen parents, and the issue was becoming mainstream. Later that story was published in The Atlantic. If hadn’t been able to get a big grant, it would have been difficult to get started. Now I have enough work that money is coming in on a semi-regular basis for me. And some of these longer-form pieces do pay more than 1,000-word news-cycle piece.
We need grants more than ever, especially for investigative journalism, in order to produce it. Some of my stories I’ve been working on for two years, and nobody can sustain it without some type of grant. But since there’s such a proliferation of outlets, everybody is looking for funding, and it’s becoming more difficult. Of course, that process is long as well — sometimes writing a grant proposal is as consuming as writing an article.
I’ve written about Africa and sexual health and HIV, which allowed me to look into niche grants. Some of these more specific grants can be worthwhile to check out, because there’s a lot more fish in the pond with a sort of generalized grant.
Are you ever stuck waiting on sources or pitches or edits and wondering what to do next?
There’s not really any in-between time. I do a shitload of research. A lot of my work is heavily research-driven, because you have to know your subject matter really well. I have never regretted the time that I have spent researching a subject – even if I got turned down in a pitch.
I decide what to do next based on what my deadline will bear. Every morning I get up and turn the coffee on and looking over the revisions I have. I’m also doing admin stuff or writing or pitching or reading or researching new magazines or outlets. There’s never a pause. For instance, it’s been crazy for the last two weeks either drafting new articles or revising. I also travel a lot for work, and I had been on the road for a little over 2 ½ weeks earlier this summer for stories that are going to be coming out.
What would you tell other freelancers who are reluctant to pitch longer pieces?
I wish I hadn’t been so hesitant to reach out to a lot of different high-quality publications. Whether it was Al Jazeera or The Nation, or another outlet. People just need to find publications that they love and those that are doing good work. You also need to find an editor that really works with you, because your piece is only going to be as good as the people that are going to take care of it. Trust or understanding with an editor comes after working together on multiple stories – not just one. I can always learn from the editing process – and writers who don’t really should.
“Some of my stories I’ve been working on for two years, and nobody can sustain it without some type of grant. But since there’s such a proliferation of outlets, everybody is looking for funding, and it’s becoming more difficult. Of course, that process is long as well — sometimes writing a grant proposal is as consuming as writing an article.”
Another thing is that you might want to go ahead and look for publications that play into your strong suit. If you happen to have a specialty, think about how that can be your way in to an assignment. For example, I had a very specific skill-set and started out investigating federal funding and how taxpayer money was used. To an editor, it was relevant and I could provide a unique sort of look at issues that have been around – nothing is ever new.
Your typical workday can be intense. How do you relax after such heavy days?
It can literally be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — sometimes solid (not kidding) or with frequent breaks to clear the slate. Miraculously, I have a small garden on my rooftop and I love tending it; I run when I am able, hang out on the roof deck and read with my husband — pretty tame stuff. Also, I am not ashamed to admit I zone out watching old Miss Marple programs from BBC back to back. And “The Golden Girls.”
What nonfiction stories and outlets are you inspired by and why?
Anything written by Pamela Colloff — her true crime reporting for Texas Monthly is incredible. Colloff’s narrative style interlaced with brutal fact is a joy to read even when a terrible crime is the subject. Joan Didion’s “Salvador” is an inspiration for narrative investigative journalism. Undark is a new-to-me outlet with in-depth stories about science, medicine and social impact. Pacific Standard, Atavist, Genome, Oxford American and Foreign Policy, the latter has some really great investigative international pieces. Great writing also exists in regional publications like the Riverfront Times, Denver Westword and Memphis Flyer. It is important to stay really curious.
Some of the freelancers I’ve met, myself included, say the stability of a partner with a more traditional full-time job is key to getting the business off the ground – and sometimes to keep it going. Is that a factor?
I’m really lucky that I’m married and my husband has an income. And especially when I was getting started a handful of years ago, it meant that I had a little breathing room. I don’t know how I could live in New York if I hadn’t been able to get a big grant and had a spouse that’s working.
As the number of online publications and per-article rates dip even lower, it seems especially difficult to take on these types of coveted longer pieces. Is it possible to break into freelancing these more in-depth pieces?
Especially right now, for a freelancer, it’s tough. The only reason I’ve been able to do it thus far is because I’ve been at it for a long time. Networking is incredibly important for me — whether it’s a Facebook group or listserv. We’re living in an environment where it’s a buyers’ market for freelancers, and some publications know they can get away with paying practically nothing for short pieces.