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Staff by proxy: The business affairs of a freelancer

By Kris Millgate
I started Tight Line Media because I wanted the freedom to produce content for any media outlet. I wanted to own my work rather than have it belong to a TV station. I finished my last TV contract in 2004, sat out for a year because of a non-compete clause, then made the bold move to freelance in 2006. Now I’m a multimedia journalist producing content for TV, Web, newspapers and magazines.
Switching to self-sufficiency comes with a few hurdles I not so gracefully stumbled over in order to stay in business. That’s where my staff by proxy comes in. The following components are listed by importance according to how they influence the operation of Tight Line Media.
Advisory Board
I noticed the loss of the newsroom right away when I started freelancing. I spent a decade working as the lead, live reporter in crazy newsrooms full of loud scanners and loud mouths. Ideas and opinions swirled around the room daily as the flow of communication carried on in healthy, and sometimes unhealthy, ways. Now I’m alone in my studio when I return from a shoot. I’ve adjusted to the void and even enjoy the lack of distractions, but I continually seek out feedback from viewers, readers, family and friends. It’s important to keep yourself plugged in to what’s going on around you. The best journalists don’t live in a bubble floating above everyone else.
Business Plan
I wrote my first business plan when I started Tight Line Media in 2006. It is nothing fancy, but it works for me. I refer to it on a regular basis and I update it annually. I’ve never used it as a supporting document in a loan request because I’ve never taken out a business loan, but I know it holds validation in that capacity if I need it. It contains marketing and operation information, finances, an equipment list and goals for a few years out. There’s nothing more satisfying than setting a revenue goal, meeting it two years early and not even knowing it until reviewing your business plan at the end of the year. Now that’s working with your nose to the ground rather than in your books.
Tech Team
The Web world overwhelms me. I rely heavily on brains built differently than mine when it comes to the Internet. An intern earned his degree building my original Web site. It worked for four years before it really started limiting growth and looking outdated. My new Web site, www.tightlinemedia.com, launched in January. I hired a firm to build it and I pestered them like the control freak that I am until it was just right. It cost me an arm, a leg and top search engine rankings to move to the new site, but a new client came on board a week after the site launched and that one piece of new business covers the cost of the Web site upgrade.  The search engine ranks and visitors will come in time as Web users re-find me.
Tax Man
I hold myself to high journalistic standards. My ethics and codes of conduct do not bend. I don’t want my accountant’s to bend either so I found an accountant who runs his business like I do. We play above the board with no sneaking around. I do write off haircuts because on-air hair requires more than usual upkeep, but I don’t write off dog food.
I only see my accountant face-to-face once a year, but I can call him any time I have a tax question or business decision that requires his input so I understand what benefits me most in the way of taxes.
And after fours year of paying him, he just may pay me this year. He uses a bald eagle as his business symbol. He called me looking for bald eagle photos and of course I have some ready for him when I drop off my tax papers.
Legal Counsel
I’ve seen my business attorney twice since I started Tight Line Media. Once to set up all of my legal contracts and another time to put my business affairs in order for my will. Frankly, that’s all I can afford. I have to work three hours to pay him for one.
I shouldn’t need to see him again any time soon, but he’s there if I ever need legal advice or if a client has a contract they want me to sign and the wording is over my head.
I keep three legal documents from my attorney on hand:

  1. An Independent Contractor Agreement: Firing power if anyone defaults on deals including payment.
  2. Talent Release: Good for talent used in non news production work.
  3. Location Release: Good for space used in non news production work.

Insurance Agent
I’ve seen this guy once since I started freelancing and it was just a few months ago. When you’re standing waist deep in a rushing river with a brand new HD video camera on your shoulder, you start to worry more about the camera than the shot. The day after a winter fishing video shoot I called my insurance agent for business equipment insurance. It was crazy to go without it for as long as I did.
I don’t exactly shoot family portraits out of my house so the agent had a tough time finding a policy for anyone of my kind. Guess that’s the ultimate niche validation. It took a few weeks for him to find a carrier and for me to make $1,000 to pay for the policy. Now I can stand against the current, camera in hand and throw caution to the water. Well, I could, but I won’t.
Kris Millgate is a freelance multimedia journalist based in southeast Idaho. Contact her at kris@tightlinemedia.com.
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