This is a guest post by my great friend Albert Simiyu. He is a freelance writer who has also had some training and experience in journalism. Kindly make sure you like, tweet, comment and share this with all your friends.
What is Journalism?
By definition, journalism is the activity of journalists or other writers in the preparation of audio, visual or written material meant for dissemination via the public media with particular reference to actual events of public interest.
Ideally, journalism seeks to reflect the current state of society and expose things that would otherwise remain private. For a long time, the news media has faithfully served as the chief conduit of information and opinion on public affairs in Kenya.
Today however, the roles and status of local journalism (with other forms of mass media) are fast evolving resulting from the internet. This has occasioned a massive shift in reading from the print media to smart-phones, e-readers and related electronic devices.
Owing to the informative, investigative and fast paced nature of journalism, many Kenyan youths are longing and ambitious to join the forth-estate. Actually most of them have taken up this course and qualified to practice.
But as we know, all plans and ideas always promise heaven when on paper, yet after venturing deeper, everyone has to wrestle down some ‘devil in the detail’ to reach the apex of their aspirations.
I discovered my gift in journalism way back in 1981 after scoring 75 marks in a class four English exam. Being an English teacher, my dad was very impressed and made me his ‘special project’. Every week, he encouraged me to visit a public library, borrow a book and read it comprehensively.
Accountability was so high that he expected me to write down a summary of every book I had read. Though challenging to a 10 year old, this mentorship strategy worked wonders as my scores in the subject continued to get better by the day.
As expected, I started scoring clean ‘A’s in all English exams. One book that had a tremendous impact on my creative thinking was ‘Things fall Apart’ by the late Chinua Achebe. I casually read it in class 8 and reread it once every following year, least aware that it would appear as the set – book at my o-levels.
By the time I was sitting the o-level literature paper, I could quote incidents in this book by their chapter and exact pages. These formed the foundation of my current practice as a freelance journalist.
How to become a Freelance Journalist
Looking at my background, it is clear that vast reading was central to the foundation of my career. Remember as a freelancer, you are a free agent (not in regular employment) who takes up jobs from varied sources.
You therefore need to have a culture of reading to remain well informed and prepared for any project. To date, I still make a point of reading an interesting book, magazines and other online literature at regular intervals.
Kenyan journalism now offers various kinds of freelance writing. You can write for Web, better known as the new media or go for newspapers and magazines. In Journalism, the most important thing is proving that you can deliver.
Traditional media editors are more attracted to writers who have first demonstrated their ability before they even ask for papers. It is at this “proving self” juncture that a freelance journalist gets a window to showcase their work and get published.
To keep my gift afloat and gain entry, I started off by writing weekly letters to the editor. Although the local media doesn’t pay for published letters, this sacrifice exposes the talent thereby setting pace and momentum for beginners.
The Standard, Nation and Star newspapers published very many of my letters (2 or 3 per week) and anytime I would see one in print, my determination to keep writing soared. It is true that practice always makes perfect. Once you venture into the circles of freelance writing, you begin to take a good grasp of your weaknesses and strengths and start targeting a niche or jobs that showcase your potential.
Unsolicited stories from Kenyan freelancers usually face an 80% rejection rate unless it is a unique, hot story that eluded the notice of regular journalists. I remember having so many of my stories rejected until I one day filtered through tight security to see the Standard newspapers’ managing editor without any prior appointment.
Back then it was difficult to meet such a person without notice. Surprised at how I got at his desk, Mr. Oketch Kendo answered a few of my questions, received my article and wished me well. 10 yrs down the lane I am still hoping that article will shake off dust and see the light of the day (get published).
Recent legislation liberalized the traditional media and opened up space for more contributors. This notwithstanding, a Kenyan freelancer has to be aware of the specific steps and procedures leading to acceptance, publication and payment of an article in the mainstream media.
The first step a freelancer should do is read various newspapers and determine their house styles. Identify an editor and approach them for an assignment. Assigned tasks stand higher chances of publication if well done because editors deploy writers to research on pertinent issues.
I remember doing this with an editor of the Standard immediately after college. He asked me to research and send him an article on “Why Luyias love tea “. My article was accepted and given a massive 2 page coverage in the weekly county magazine.
Seeing it, a friend of mine hinted that such an article would fetch me not less than 7000/- shillings. For a while, I was so excited and optimistic for my first freelancer’s pay only to learn that freelancers have to publish 3 such articles in brief succession to qualify for the first payment.
When I called to learn more, the editor told me that it was general rule across most media houses.
Freelance writing calls for determination, working smart and resilience. Patience is the main keyword in this game. You hardly start off and see the fruits. The last thing a nascent freelance journalist should have in mind when making entry is cash because it always takes time to start coming in.
I am aware of great local journalists who started off as mere volunteers, rendering unpaid services for many months. Such patience and sacrifice always pays off because once you generate some working relationship with editors; your work is given priority.
The internet dispensation has however tilted the journalistic playing ground and is fast crafting new rules to its advantage. In the event that traditional media is congested, the new media freelancer can comfortably log into a freelancing website and practice lucrative journalism from the comfort of their pillow. Online journalism is a freelancing concept that has cracked the shell and exposed the Kenyan freelancer to the wider global market.
The paradigm shift opens freelancers to more work than any single writer can handle. In fact, many writers have risen from paupers to employers raking in hundreds of dollars every week.
Amazingly, you don’t have to be so educated to practice online journalism. In fact, owing to the harsh economic times, many professionals, those between jobs and school leavers have now resorted to online freelance writing as a fall back measure. It is a new era in journalism with less bureaucracies and minimal payment defaults.
When I saw this opportunity, I never hesitated but took a brief informal training that has seen me writing web content, blog posts, and other forms of online content to date. Kenyan freelancers now enjoy more space and enjoy the liberty of choice since the internet has turned a field once weighing down with suffocating journalists into a spacious domain of ease and convenience.