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Career Profiles: Freelance careers take time to develop

Career Profiles: Freelance careers take time to develop

Picture of Angilee Shah

When Linda Marsa received a copy of the December issue of Discover magazine in the mail, she was thrilled. Her story about climate change and its effect on long forgotten diseases in America made the cover.

Never mind that she has been a journalist for 30 years, Marsa finds health journalism as riveting now as when she first began. And she is still learning ways to be a better freelancer.

This week at Career GPS we talk to two freelance health journalists about how they developed their careers and how they sustain themselves financially while growing their professional satisfaction. You can find new opportunities in health media at the end of this post. Keep up with Career GPS by subscribing to the ReportingonHealth weekly newsletter or via RSS.

"I can't think of any better thing to write about than health," Marsa says. The breadth of the subject -- it can include spot news, columns and investigations, science and personal drama -- holds her interest and the importance of the subject keeps her motivated. But it wasn't always that way. In her college years, Marsa was on track to become a scholar. She went on to be a labor organizer and then a school teacher in Watts before getting a job at a magazine in Redondo Beach. Marsa wrote movie reviews and covered the arts while developing a freelance network.

Freelancers at this summer's Asian American Journalists Association conference called this an anchor gig: steady work that leaves enough space to develop a a freelance career while helping to ease the stress of making ends meet.

Freelance radio producer Laura Starecheski teaches sound production part-time as an adjunct professor and applies for fellowships and grants to help sustain her work.

"Otherwise, I find editors who want to work with me on long-term (sometimes more than a year) projects and can compensate me reasonably well for the work I do," she writes in email. "I haven't had a problem selling health and mental health stories; Those topics seem to be very much on peoples' minds this year."

The magazine where Marsa got her first job folded, so she started freelancing full time as the early 80s recession took hold.

"That was hard, probably the worst period career-wise," Marsa says.

It took about two years to get her career going again. She took on any work she could including some public relations gigs. She wrote about a broad array of topics for Family Weekly, and found a mentor in her editor, Patricia Adcroft. When Adcroft moved to Omni she brought Marsa with her, and that's how her career writing about health began. She wrote her first cover story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1992.

Building a reputation and a career took years for Marsa and Starecheski. Freelancers always have to hustle, Marsa says. Starecheski echoes that sentiment: "I've been in radio seven years," she writes, "and it has taken all that time to build up a number of editors that I like working with and can return to with other story ideas."

Marsa made twice-yearly trips to meet editors in New York, which she believes gave her an edge when she pitched. "If you do find editors you like, get to know them," she says.

Starecheski made pitches and phone calls to make connections with editors, but always on the advice or referral of others. "Most editors took a gamble on me after hearing a bit of my other work, and tacitly agreed to spend a lot more time with me to get me up to speed with the production style of their shows," she writes. "But a good story is usually enough of a draw to make the extra work worth their time."

Admittedly, hustling can get very tiring. While working on her first book, Marsa was a contributing editor to Omni. For five years she focused on those two outlets. So when her book came out she found herself without a network of magazines to write for. It took her seven or eight months to get her freelance career going again.

"I'll never do that again," she said. "You always have to keep hustling, always trying to schmooze and make contacts."

In 2000, Marsa joined the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer. She stayed there for three years, and realized that the job just wasn't for her. But putting time in on staff was very important to get an insider perspective and hone basic skills, she says. Her position at the Times gave her an opportunity to work on stories that wouldn't be cost-effective for a freelancer and dive deeper into her investigations of the pharmaceutical industry.

"There's a lot of work out there," Marsa said. "And there's really a lot of work for good health and medical writers." She's thrilled about her Discover cover story, but she decided long ago that her goal was to get the stories she cared about published, rather than focus on making covers.

"The essential pleasure is in the work itself," Marsa says, which is the driving force behind many freelancers who have the conviction to strike out on their own.

Jobs, Awards, Fellowships

Content and Community Manager, (via Craigslist)
Location: San Francisco, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

News Editor, Modern Healthcare
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Status: Full Time
Medium: Trade Publication

Healthcare Editor, InformationWeek Healthcare
Location: Manhasset, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Health Associate Producer, CBS News (via JournalismJobs)
Location: New York, New York
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Health care reporter, Jacksonville Business Journal (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Jacksonville, Florida
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper/Online

Junior Staff Writer, (via Ed2010)
Location: Telecommute
Status: Part time
Medium: Online

Pregnancy and Parenting Bloggers, iVillage (via Ed2010)
Location: Telecommute
Status: Freelance ($35-50 per post)
Medium: Online

Senior Editor for Health/Medical Content, Arthritis Today (via mediabistro)
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Status: Full Time
Medium: Magazine/Online

Writer/Editor (Science), National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Status: Full Time (open to current permanent Title 5 Federal employees and status candidates)
Medium: Research Publications

REMINDER: Request for Proposal for the Los Angeles Toxic Tour, and
Eligibility: Short-term projects using text and multimedia to document pollution and communities in greater Los Angeles
Included: Maximum proposed budget of $6,000 with funding mostly from individual donors; work will bepublished and promoted by Newsdesk and Spot.Us, and shared with regional and national media partners, including the Investigative News Network
Deadline: Nov. 12, 2010
From the Website: "Would you like to bring the award-winning "Toxic Tour" reporting project to Los Angeles? and Spot.Us welcome proposals from journalists interested in developing new coverage of pollution and environmental health in Los Angeles communities."

REMINDER: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation Health Coverage Fellowship
Eligibility: Open to medical reporters and editors
Included:Year-long fellowship with nine days of training on issues ranging from mental health to public health and health reform in Babson College's Center for Executive Education in Wellesley
Deadline: December 3, 2010
From the Website: "Most media fellowships take seasoned journalists away from their jobs for a full year and require employers to pay part of the cost. In contrast, the Health Coverage Fellowship residency component lasts just nine days, requires no financial contribution from media outlets, and ensures that participating reporters and editors come back with a list of story ideas, a Rolodex of new sources, and a full year of free tutelage from a former Boston Globemedical reporter with 20 years of experience at small, mid-sized, and large newspapers."
Contact: contact Program Director Larry Tye at larrytye [at] aol [dot] com

REMINDER: Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 on a wide range of health topics including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics, entry fee $30-$75
Award: Cash prize of $500 for first place winners in five categories, a framed certificate and complimentary lodging for two nights and registration for the annual AHCJ conference,
Deadline: Dec. 28, 2010 (discounted rates), Jan. 28, 2011
From the Website: "he contest was created by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups."

REMINDER: Kaiser Media Internships Program
Eligibility: New journalists who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with experience reporting on health issues of diverse and immigrant communities, typically graduating from college and/or journalism school
Included: 12-week summer program with stipend, travel, training, and some accommodations, and 10 weeks residency with a news organization
Deadline: Dec. 1, 2010 doe print, Jan. 6, 2011 for broadcast
From the Website: "The Media Internships Program provides an initial week-long briefing on health issues and health reporting in Washington, D.C. Interns are then based for ten weeks at their newspaper, online, or radio/TV station, typically under the direction of the Health or Metro Editor/News Director, where they report on health issues. The program ends with a 3-day meeting in Boston to hear critiques from senior journalists and to go on final site visits. The aim is to provide young journalists or journalism college graduates with an in-depth introduction to and practical experience on the specialist health beat, with a particular focus on diverse and immigrant communities."

REMINDER: Nieman Fellowships in Global Health Reporting
Eligibility: Full-time journalists with at least five years experience
Included: One academic year of of study at Harvard's School of Public Health, access to faculty and courses across the university, three to four months of fieldwork in a developing country
Deadline: January 31, 2011
From the Website: "Nieman Fellows represent the changing face of journalism. They come to Harvard from locations as different as Bangor, Maine, and Younde, Cameroon. They work for national and local print publications, broadcast news outlets, news Web sites, and documentary film ventures. Some are making their mark as freelance journalists. Some have practiced their craft under repressive governments or on far-flung fields of conflict. Together, each year they form a Nieman class that is rich in diversity, experience and aspirations for the years ahead."


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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