CAMP 2017: Connections can be the key to side gigs

Story by Amanda Woytus, 2017 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

If 2017 is the year of the side gig, Michele Weldon, author, journalist, senior leader with The OpEd Project and editorial director of Take the Lead, hopes for an especially creative job.

“My dream?” asked Michele at the start of her JAWS CAMP session. “To write captions for art museums on walls of large exhibits.”

Michele counts writing five books and doing public speaking engagements as additional ways to earn income, but the options for journalists feel endless: write newsletters and press releases; copyedit websites; manage social media accounts; write copy for ad agencies; give media training to non-journalists; edit textbooks; teach; write speeches; and even write scripts for slideshow presentations. (“Really—they can’t figure that one out?” Michele joked.) But even though the opportunities are there, it’s clear that, just like looking for a full-time job, networking is key to locking down a side gig.

“Michele has all these jobs, but how did she get them? For me, it’s about networking,” said Alicia Shepard, a contributing USA Today writer and panelist. “I spent two years in Afghanistan, and when I came back, I wanted a full-time job. I just reached out to everyone I know. The Newseum contacted me, as a result of a connection, about updating the news history wall.” In addition to writing, Alicia has diversified her income sources by teaching and training writers at nonprofits.

Panelist Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, a senior editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, director of The Los Angeles Review of Books/USC Publishing Workshop, seconded the importance of networks. “The reason I even got connected with The L.A. Review of Books was through a JAWS member,” she said.

Janice recalled a time where a side gig ended up not working out—writing an anniversary book for FX that was never printed. She was able to keep building contacts, and she still got paid. “My career has continued to flourish because I’ve been able to say yes to a lot of things that sound crazy but allowed me to write,” she said.

When panelist Stell Simonton switched to freelance writing after leaving the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she perfected the art of cold calls.

One day, Stell walked into the Center for Sustainable Journalism without an appointment or a contact, and left with an assignment—which led to more assignments. Stell also runs social media for an author, a natural fit for journalists. Building a website for someone is another option, she said: “Probably a lot of you have made a website, and there are a lot of people who need a website.”

What if you’re not sure what kind of work you’d like to do outside journalism? “Interview yourself,” Michele said. “Start at the top. Where you want to be. Then say, ‘How do I get there?’ And how do I get there? And there? You gotta pay the mortgage and for food, and then figure out what floats your boat.”