Elon SPJ Students Learn Perils and Rewards of Freelance Journalism

Elon Communications students learn about the precarious world of freelance writing from two veteran journalists at a dinner held in the American Tobacco district in Durham, N.C. 

Society of Professional Journalist students from Elon and High Point universities pose with pros Barry Yeoman and Ken Otterbourg.
​Elon Communications students learned about the precarious world of freelance writing from two veteran journalists at a dinner held in the American Tobacco district in Durham, N.C. on Nov. 6. The event was a joint effort between the campus chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists from Elon University and High Point University, in conjunction with the NC Professional Chapter of SPJ.

NC Pro Chapter President April Dudash, a reporter for the Durham Herald-Sun, organized the session. The two speakers were:

Barry Yeoman, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone among many others. A graduate of New York University, Barry moved to Durham in 1985 where he began reporting for The Independent, now called The Indy. He has covered subjects as varied as politics, zydeco and the poultry industry and won numerous awards.

Ken Otterbourg, who left a 21-year career in 2010 at The Winston-Salem Journal to work as a freelance journalist. His first big assignment with Fortune magazine was an investigation of Alcoa and its North Carolina dams. Since then, he’s written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Business North Carolina. He also regularly works for nonprofits, doing grant writing and case studies for capital campaigns.

Asked about the self-discipline required to solicit new work and complete freelance assignments while working solo, Yeoman replied that “fear is a great motivator.”

Both Yeoman and Otterbourg said they spend much of their time pitching stories to editors, researching unfamiliar topics and making sure that magazine fact-checkers have very little to do. “If you write for a newspaper, it’s assumed that you got everything right,” Yeoman said.

“Magazines have fact checkers who have to justify their jobs and love to point out something you got wrong,” Otterbourg added.

He added that if you mention in your piece that someone has blue eyes, you had better supply a picture.

On the positive side, they said, freelancers get to set their own hours, work from home and get to travel extensively when covering the right story. Yeoman was sent to Turkey for one writing assignment and spent some time traveling around Europe.

Ken Otterbourg and Barry Yeoman talk with SPJ members from Elon and High Point universities.

Elon SPJ adviser, Associate Professor of Communications Anthony Hatcher, who is treasurer of the NC Pro Chapter, and High Point SPJ adviser Bobby Hayes accompanied their students to the meet and greet.