My Expat Job: Freelance journalist
In the third part of our new series My Expat Job, we look at what it's like to be a freelance journalist in Germany - and find out the advantages and disadvantages.
What do you do and what does your job involve?
I work as a freelance writer for American and international newspapers and magazines. I also write and edit texts in English for PR agencies that represent German/European companies. Each week, I work on diverse subjects: I write about RFID technology or the German banking industry or I may cover an event on a US military base for the AP.
What are your working conditions like?
My working conditions are excellent since I’m the one in control of them. This is what I enjoy about freelancing. I must pay and manage my own taxes and I’m responsible for my own health insurance and retirement savings. This is pretty standard for every freelancer around the world.
What is a typical work day like for you?
I’m an early bird, so I usually start at the computer before 6am. Coffee in hand, the computer warms up and I clean out my e-mail box with the hopes of finding an assignment from an editor I work with in the US About 40 percent of my work is assigned by editors who know what they want. The rest of it must be pitched. Writing a pitch is always a small investment of time and energy since you essentially have to start with the story in order to know how to shape it for each audience. It can be very frustrating when editors don’t answer your e-mails, but you have to be persistent and stay friendly. I work with file folders and story plans so I can keep all the materials for each story or project together. This is really important since I may do a little bit of work on several stories each day, and it’s no fun to waste time digging for the right papers.
I usually work until about 1.30pm. and then take off in the afternoon. I try to keep up with my reading of periodicals in the evenings.
How important is it to know German in your job?
It is critical to know German for my job since my main selling point is that I can interview and research in German but write texts in English. Most people really appreciate being interviewed in German, and I’ve had to do lots of technical interviews in German. I call these my “double foreign language” interviews – the material is new to me and it’s in German on top!
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing about my job is being able to define when I work and what I work on. I am more often able to decide on the “when” than the “what” since often I feel I have to accept all the translations or stories that come my way in order to make a living. This leads me to the worst part of my job – the ups and downs of making a living as a freelancer. Clients are inevitably slow to pay, and I always say you have to have the right personality to be able to deal with the instability.
What kind of income range could an expat working as a freelance journalist in Germany expect?
It’s difficult to build up a freelance business, but, over the years, it’s quite possible. If you are an experienced journalist, I would say you could make at least EUR 1000 a month after building your network of contacts for six months.
How does the income compare to the US?
I can’t really compare since I’ve never worked as a freelancer in the US.
What are the biggest differences between working here and in the States?
I last worked in the US as a features writer for a small, family-owned newspaper in Alabama. The pay was not that great, but I learned a lot and had lots of fun. Of course, when you’re abroad, the newness of the culture and the ability to travel makes everything more exciting. As a journalist, the biggest difference is surely the ability to write about international subjects.
Have you had any problems with German bureaucracy related to your work?
No. I retain an accountant who manages my tax filings and accounting. I have not had any problems and I did not need to incorporate.
How easy or difficult would it be for an expat coming to Germany to support themselves in your line of work?
It all depends on the person’s experience and contacts. I would always suggest a part-time job to hold you down while you’re building up a network. Many of the American business news agencies have large offices in Frankfurt, and these companies might give journalists with language skills a chance. These are Dow Jones, Reuters and Bloomberg.
What are the best markets for an expat freelancer in Germany? The easiest to break into?
The best markets for freelancers seem to be in business writing. Everyone wants to write politics, so this is, of course, highly competitive. Also, from an American perspective, Germany is a “business” story. It’s a bit of a stereotype, but there’s some truth to it: Americans are really only interested in stories about Germany as an industrial powerhouse or those about Nazis or neo-Nazis.
What advice would you give to an expat in Germany wanting to get into your line of work?
You have to be more than just a native speaker of English to set yourself up as a freelance writer. You need experience, clips and contacts. If you don’t have those and you’re already here, try writing an article or two for your hometown paper. Just try to get your name in print as a way to get started. All the resources you need are out there on the net. Discipline yourself and teach yourself what you need to know. Read and write as much as you can, and try to find a newsroom where you can work – even if you have to volunteer.
Rhea Wessel, born in 1969, currently lives near Frankfurt and is a freelance journalist for English-language publications. She began her career as a foreign correspondent for the Geman press agency, DPA in Hamburg in 1995 and reported for them in English across Europe. Wessel holds a Masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University in New York and has also worked at the Anniston Star in Alabama and with Dow Jones newswires in Frankfurt.
Interview conducted by Chris Gray, a Heidelberg-based freelance writer (firstname.lastname@example.org).
18 July 2006
Copyright DPA with Expatica 2006
Subject: German, Germany, freelancing, journalism, Rhea Wessel
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