Lost an income stream? 5 ways to avoid a drought

by John Burfitt
01 May 2015

You’re seeing all the signs with one of your regular editors – phone calls are no longer returned, emails barely rate a reply and all those pitch ideas come to nothing. Something has changed. It could be many factors – the company is closing down, the editor is moving on and hasn’t told you or you are suddenly out of favour – but the only thing you’re sure of is the work is no longer coming your way.

This happened to me recently when a favourite editor started avoiding my messages, before one day announcing she had to slash my freelance rates of 12 years by two-thirds. Finally, she admitted she had been avoiding me, too humiliated by the management decision to break the news.

So, rather than waste one more minute pitching 10 new stories ideas or leaving yet another phone message, listen to your instincts. If you sense something’s up, start weighing up options and laying down a future path. It’s time to get busy.

1. Do a current work evaluation

Take a tough look at where your work is coming from. If you have only a couple of clients, so effectively all your eggs are in just a few baskets, what would happen if one day that changed? How would you cope without those core clients?

Action: Time to take care of the Business Development side of your career. Follow up new clients, pitch ideas to those people you have been meaning to and pick up the phone and cold call two new editors a week. All your eggs in one or two baskets is too precarious a way to exist.

2. Start networking

How many people actually know you do what you do? Outside your circle of colleagues and clients, who else is there? It’s time to let the world know what you bring to the table, and the best way is to get out there and start networking.

Action: Dust off your contact book and start catching up with all your connections – former colleagues, past clients and industry mates. Who knows what they might need right now. And sign up for those MEAA events, and see who you bump into. At one industry drinks, I caught up with a former editor I hadn’t seen in years. By the next week, I had five new commissions.

3. Exploit your online presence

If someone wanted to find you, how would they do it? And if they did find an online profile, what would it tell them? LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have the power to spread the word about what you are doing, but what is your online presence telling the world?

Action: Update your website with new copy and pics, paying close attention to search engine optimisation. Also, refresh your profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, positioning yourself as an authority in your field of journalism. Now’s the time to become your own best PR person.

4. Pitch, Don’t Bitch

Yes, yes, it is awful you lost that client and they slashed your rates and the editor is a nightmare. Now you’ve had a whine, get busy working up a range of great ideas and concepts to pitch to new editors and clients. Look forward, not back.

Action: When approaching new editors, dazzle them with at least five pitch ideas. If they hate all of them, offer another five. Editors like people with ideas, not the ones who announce – “Here I am, give me the work.” Amazing that there are so many journos still taking that tack!

5. Trim the budget and dig into the emergency fund

Check your bank balance and the accounts – what have you got, what’s coming in and what has to be paid. This is not the time to bury your head – be aware of what your financial situation is today to plan for the months ahead.

Action: Look at the balance sheets and call your accountant for advice. That trip to the Maldives may have to go on the backburner as the mortgage and groceries are the top priority. And if you have wisely built up an Emergency Fund, now is the time to use it. This is indeed the rainy season you were planning for.

Have you been in the situation of watching an income stream trickle to nothing? What did you do? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

6 responses on "Lost an income stream? 5 ways to avoid a drought"

  1. Debbie says:

    Excellent advice John. Your ‘pitch don’t bitch’ mantra has pulled me out of a self-pity hole many a time!

    Over years of freelancing I’ve often experienced sudden dips like this – and they’re often through no discernible fault of your own. For me, the lessons for freelancers are:
    – Always keep that emergency fund topped up, as you never know when you’ll need it.
    – Make time for marketing and networking even when you’re flat out. (I’ve often found a dry spell comes after a particularly busy spell and most likely that’s because I’ve neglected to market myself in the meantime.)
    – That said, make hay while the sun shines, as you never know when the next lull might hit.
    – Never rely on one (or even two or three clients). Diversification, and expanding your skill base wherever possible, is the name of the game.

    Thanks for another great post JB!

    1. John says:

      Thanks Deb. I’m glad these words meant something to you and – from an experience I had this afternoon – obviously to some others too.
      I was in at Bauer Media and one of their senior editors saw me at the lifts and called me in her office. “Whatever you wrote online today got some people into action as I had a journo tell me about your blog post, and as a result, pitched five great story ideas to me!” Whoever that was, well done – I hope they all result in solid commissions.

  2. Rachel Smith says:

    I’ve been in this situation more times than I can count and often, been blindsided by a mag closing or a section being axed. It can be very unsettling when suddenly your main source of income is cut off and as freelancers, that can happen anytime.

    Early on as a freelancer I started diversifying because I didn’t want it to be such a huge deal if I did lose a client or an editor moved on and that’s served me well. I agree with all your points and also with Debbie about how you can neglect the marketing side when you’re in a busy period and then go into a slow patch so you have to keep that side of it up – hard as it is!

    Thanks for the post John, great to have you write for us again. And glad it’s already helping other people!

    1. John says:

      Hey Rachel. This is a new reality of the way our marketplace now works – you must maintain that social media presence and regular marketing, in addition to taking care of the workload at hand. I think we have all come out of full-on-and-frantic periods and wondered why everything stopped and how come there was not a pile of new work waiting with editors calling down the line?
      A colleague in Asia who is a marketing strategist advised me that – no matter how busy I was – I had to make two approaches / pitches / social media call outs every few days in oder to keep the flow going. I commenced that mid last year and while it took a while to become part of the routine, she was right – it does keep all the future work bubbling along and popping up right when I needed it. She calls this way of working ‘planting seeds’.

  3. Adeline Teoh says:

    In my last non-freelance role I spent far too much time in the company of salespeople but it did teach me one thing: develop a pipeline of work. Every week you should be looking at what’s coming in work-wise (and payment-wise). This will allow you to see any holes in your schedule (and income) for the next few weeks so you know when you should be pitching new work and when you should be focusing on closing existing commissions. And don’t assume anything: don’t put regular work on the schedule until it’s confirmed.

    1. John says:

      Hi Adeline. Just proves the point that no contract is a waste, as watching those sales people offered such a great lesson about the reality of the work flow and the cash flow and how having a strategy in place to ensure the fits and starts can be smoothed into a regular workload to sustain you throughout the year. I have taken note you of your great comments for the need to moderate when to be pitching and when you need just to be getting down to work and getting it all done.

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