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Virginia Tapscott: In Her Words

Virginia Tapscott
Virginia Tapscott is a freelance writer based on a farm in southern NSW, creator of the podcast “My Sister’s Secrets” and the 2019 Caroline Jones Women in Media Young Journalist’s award winner. 

A career in media has been a gift in terms of balancing work and family life. Following the birth of my first child in 2015 I started down the freelance path and it has enabled me to maintain a level of income, career progression and professional satisfaction in my life over the years. The timing of our decision to start a family was serendipitous as it has coincided with growing support for women in the industry and an increasing awareness of the need to better accommodate workers with young children. Freelance might not be for everyone but this what I have learned over almost a decade in the media.


1. Do what in-house journos can’t


Media organisations outsource content creators for a very specific reason – to do what they can’t. In-house journos are extremely well connected with contacts and follow the news cycle closely. They are quick off the mark and have the resources and support to follow a breaking story. Don’t try to be an in-house newshound when you are starting out or if your hours are minimal. In my opinion, big picture and longer form features or columns are where freelance content creators can shine and bring something to media organisations that they desperately need.


2. Find characters typically out of reach to a newsroom


Newsrooms can have the commissioners, the politicians and the polished spokespeople. Where they struggle is finding grass roots people to represent the issues. There is opportunity for freelancers to capitalise on big or breaking stories through their unique ability to spend time with people on the ground and tell the story through them. In-house journos occasionally also include everyday people in their stories but often time does not permit and they lean on regular contacts. This is a crucial point of difference freelancers should push – having talent that the big news organisations wouldn’t typically be able to access.


3. Pick up complex or information heavy stories


Media organisations can struggle to dedicate the time needed to wrap your head around the information for some stories. I once worked with a child sexual abuse survivor who had meticulously documented correspondence, transcripts and research that was invaluable but difficult to sift through. The story was months in the making but something I could chip away at because no one else was chasing it. Freelancers can alternate between shorter turnaround pieces and longer projects if cash flow allows.


4. Generate content regularly


Getting knocked back is hard to take. I still struggle if a story doesn’t get up. Getting rejected is a normal and manageable part of freelancing. The stories that do get up will eventually be enough to compensate for failed ventures. You also gain a better sense of what certain organisations will pick up, how the editors work, and their audience, so your fail rate should settle down to a manageable level. Also, editors love to be able to count on a regular contribution. I collect stories that don’t get a run the first time and often find they eventually become relevant again, or parts can be repurposed for a different article.


5. Do what the editor says


Don’t be precious about what you have written. If your editor says to make changes or do it differently, you do it. Don’t make life difficult for them when they are working with you. If an editor engages, it means they are investing in your work. This is about respecting the chain of command even though you are technically your own boss. If an organisation specifically reaches out to you for a contribution I would seriously consider never saying no to an opportunity like this. They won’t ask you twice.


6. Take advantage of your location and branch out


Your location will provide distinct advantages for certain stories and you need to take advantage of this. I live in regional NSW and while living remotely can have its struggles, it also places me in an area which is often under-represented. News outlets love a good bush story because they are harder for them to access. Another advantage is that competition for stories isn’t huge. If you live in a busier area, try to capitalise on your connections in the local community, local knowledge, or your expertise in certain industries or regions.

If time allows it’s also important to pitch around every now and again to build relationships with a variety of different organisations. This allows us to have options when pitching and more likelihood of getting published.


7. Work on financial literacy


Working for yourself is pretty straightforward for the most part but there are things you can do to protect yourself. A few key points – I have the MEAA freelancer insurance in case anything ever goes wrong for me in a legal sense and they also advocate tirelessly for freelancer pay rates and conditions. I also opt for higher tax brackets than what I think we will earn so I don’t end up with a nasty tax bill. I have earned enough as a freelancer to pay superannuation at times but it hasn’t been consistent so, more recently, my partner began contributing to my super account to make sure it didn’t fall too far behind.


8. Enjoy the perks


For me, the advantages of freelancing far outweigh the drawbacks. Whenever I’m feeling annoyed that my income is so dependent on editorial decisions largely outside of my control, or frustrated that the pay is taking longer than expected to process, I remind myself of a few things. I have extraordinary flexibility that is super important to me at this stage in my life. If my kid is sick or we take a long weekend to visit friends I have no one to answer to. I also get full freedom in stories I follow up and when.


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