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Friday, December 20, 2013
Freelance Toolbox

What I learned from Moore, Okla., tornado coverage

By Carol Cole-Frowe

NOTE: A portion of this column ran previously on SPJís SPJ's Independent Journalist blog.

A few months ago, there was breaking news almost in my backyard, and suddenly I had more freelance business than I knew what to do about.

Iíd just come out of my Norman, Okla., basement on May 20, after an EF-5 tornado ripped an almost 17-milelong gash through Moore, Okla., and parts of south Oklahoma City, about 10 miles north of my house. My cell phone started ringing and didnít stop for about a week.

One journalist friend at The Oklahoman called to see if I could be available for The Wall Street Journal. Another freelancer friend referred me an NPR interview. Another friend sent me a gig on Huff Post Live. The Weather Channel was referred by journalism professor friends. I turned down more business in two or three days than Iíd had in a month.

My other freelance friends were just as busy.

Friend and Oklahoma City freelancer Heide Brandes got a call from a former journalism professor with a referral to do tornado coverage for The Washington Post, and she wrote for them for about three days. I referred her the WSJ job, and she wrote some for Reuters, too. Brandesí work for Reuters has continued with other unrelated assignments after the tornadoes.

What did I learn during those hectic days?

NETWORKING PAYS OFF

All of the jobs after the tornadoes came from referrals from journalist friends, colleagues and connections weíd made years before. Some came from other SPJ freelance members. You never know where a referral might come from.

EVERYBODY HAS A STORY ABOUT WHERE THEY WERE WHEN THE ďBIG ONEĒ CAME THROUGH

People who have been through that kind of trauma often want to talk about it.

ITíS IMPORTANT TO BE SELF-RELIANT WITH YOUR OWN FOOD AND BEVERAGES AND BRING YOUR OWN ICE CHEST

People who are out on a scene will try to give you food and bottled water. But you donít know when those sandwiches were made or if they were made in an appropriate, healthful way. I made a mistake of eating a sandwich offered to me by a tornado victim after Iíd been out all day. Apparently, the sandwich had been out all day as well, and I got food poisoning. Not good timing when youíre that busy.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

The first request from The Weather Channel was to find some of the hero teachers who covered their students with their bodies. I picked my way around the affected area immediately to one of the two destroyed elementary schools and found a teacher cleaning items out of what was left of her classroom with the help of parents and students. I was able to turn my first two stories and art for them within about two to three hours.

HAVE PROFESSIONAL BUSINESS CARDS

I used an SPJ and Radio Television Digital News Association lanyard from a previous Excellence in Journalism conference and inserted business cards, my SPJ membership card and a press pass from another organization, and that seemed to look official enough for the police and firefighters to let me into the tornado-affected areas. Best-case scenario would be to have a letter from the media that is employing you, but if youíre already in the field, that may not be possible.

KEEP YOUR PERSONAL WEBSITE UPDATED ALONG WITH YOUR LISTING IN SPJíS FREELANCER DIRECTORY

When news breaks is not the time to be updating your website or listings. Jobs Iíve gotten from the Freelancer Directory have paid for my SPJ membership many times over.

REQUESTS FOR INTERVIEWS BY OTHER MEDIA CAN EAT YOUR TIME IF YOUíRE NOT CAREFUL, AND THEY DONíT PAY THE BILLS

Prioritize what you need to do and stick with it.

Carol Cole-Frowe is a fulltime independent journalist who splits her time between Oklahoma and north Texas. She is also an adjunct journalism professor at The University of Oklahoma. Contact her at carol.colefrowe@gmail.com.

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