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Magazines with a mission: Freelancing for NGO and agency publications

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BY MICHAEL FURTMAN

Although every magazine has a mission — for most it is making a profit — there is a segment of the market that puts purpose ahead of profit. Publications by conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League of America and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation fall into this category, as do magazines that are the voices of state wildlife agencies, like North Dakota Outdoors and the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

I have had the pleasure of selling my words and photos to many such clients, and I’ve learned a few things over the years on how to cater to them.

Know the mission.
The most important thing to remember is that these publications serve a much different purpose than trade publications. Even in today’s supposed “print is dead” environs, these magazines are the principal tools used to reach the members or clients they serve. These publishers represent organizations that have mission statements — and you better know what those missions are! They must be reflected in everything you write and each photo you submit for the publication.

To successfully pitch these organizations’ magazines, familiarize yourself with each entity’s philosophy and mission and understand how it differs from others. Even though the Izaak Walton League is a broad-interest environmental organization, their approach on issues is different than many similar groups. You won’t go very far by pitching them a story with an angle suitable for the Sierra Club. Consider also that while both Ducks Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation publish plenty of hunting stories, those pieces are different than those in Field&Stream. You won’t often see product mentions in the conservation magazines’ hunting stories, and you will always find an undercurrent of conservation and resource appreciation. No “whack ‘em and stack ‘em” stuff here.

Know the players.
Whether you’re writing for a state agency magazine, or a non-profit conservation organization, it will serve you well to learn the names of the players within those entities. Who are their board members, big donors or agency heads? What is the organizational structure? Do they have local chapters, fisheries or wildlife offices near you? Getting to know the people involved not only helps to avoid “stepping on toes,” but also provides you with a wealth of knowledgeable contacts for story ideas or photo opportunities, as well as source material for your articles.

Like boxing, politics is a contact sport, and politics plays a larger role with these entities than it does with most of the other markets with which we deal. State agencies answer to state politicians as well as the people they serve. Organizations answer to not only their average members, but to their most active volunteers and officers. Throw a punch in the wrong direction, you can expect one in return.

Know the boundaries.
If you are going to develop a long-term business relationship with these groups, you’ll have to face the fact that you’ll need to watch what you say or write about them, their employees, or officers. Since they reserve the right to purchase material from a variety of sources, you should not be surprised if you step across some boundary, they may choose to no longer buy photos or stories from you.

This is especially true if you’ve been with them long enough to be placed on their magazine masthead.

We as freelancers know that even though we are listed as “field editor” or “contributing photographer” on the masthead, we are not employees of the organizations, but the public doesn’t know that. When they see our name on the masthead, they likely will assume we are employed by the organization. If you tick someone off, not only might they go after you, but also the organization, which isn’t going to make you many friends in the editorial office.

Know yourself.
While it may sound like I’m encouraging freelancers to swallow their pride or hide their opinions, I most certainly am not. Those who know me know that I’m an opinionated SOB, and have never shied away from voicing my beliefs. What I am saying is that you need to be smart. If you must — as I have — take issue with one of these entities while writing in some other venue, a fair and professional approach is your best armor.

Some of these markets pay top-shelf fees for our products, and avoiding them would be a mistake. If you know their mission, know their players, and know the boundaries, you should be able to nurture a long, profitable and enjoyable business relationship. ♦

–Michael Furtman has been a full-time writer and photographer since 1982. He is a contributing editor for Ducks Unlimited Magazine, principal photographer for Puddler magazine and a contributor to many other publications. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

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