Hilary Niles on being a freelance journalist

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 

“Hilary

Photo by Jeff Watts, AU

Hilary Niles  

After my summer at the Workshop in 2012, I returned to school for my second year of the graduate program at the Missouri School of Journalism. I followed that with 18 months as a statehouse reporter in Vermont, at the nonprofit news website VTDigger.org. This turned out to be a great way to get to know a small market. 

But I found myself wanting to do more data work and more investigative reporting. There aren't a ton of journalism jobs in north central Vermont, so moving to a different newsroom in the area wasn't an option. And it's great here — my husband and I didn't want to move. Analyzing the fundamentals of what I wanted, I realized no single job could provide it all. So I decided to create my own reality. I have been full-time freelance since January 2015. I love it. 

At any given time, I may be: 

Creating interactive visualizations for a client newsroom's data project, like this micro-site I developed with Vermont Public Radio to explain the EPA's directive to clean up Lake Champlain, or the time I crunched the data behind every bottle of booze sold in Vermont in the past five  years; or 

Investigating regional economic and community development and social justice efforts, such as this inventory for The Boston Globe of red flags that preceded $200 million fraud charges against local ski resort developers or this print story exposing the inadequacy of a state law meant to mitigate racial profiling by  police; or 

Enterprising my way into paying work, for example last summer, when I spent two days on the back of a Harley Davidson Road King  to cover Vermont's venture capital culture for public radio, or

• Writing a radio script to profile my dad's college football coach for NPR's Only A Game, a  nationally syndicated sports radio program; or 

Pursuing press freedom advocacy and training, by (slowly) finishing my thesis on freedom of information laws around the world, or volunteering for the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Committee; or

Enjoying the business side of freelancing by exchanging insights through professional networks, such as SPJ's Freelance Community, and fine-tuning my business systems, which I feel deepens my understanding of the businesses I cover.   

Additionally, I maintain databases for a group of trade publications, and I'm helping Champlain College, a small private school in Burlington, redesign the curriculum for the school's journalism concentration. I'll also be teaching Champlain College's first data journalism course in Fall 2017. (I'm so excited about that, I've already started drafting the syllabus.) My goal is to maintain this kind of variety, but also work into longer form reporting, ultimately book-length.

This diversity of activity suits my interests, and the autonomy fits my personality. I have an office at home, and I also share an office at a co-working space in nearby Montpelier, Vermont's capital — but I can (and sometimes do) work from anywhere and on my own schedule. Plus, with freelancing, I value the opportunity to work with a variety of editors and across mediums, because I learn so much from their wide-ranging perspectives. 

My experience at the Workshop turned out to be varied, too: Toxic Taps, for which I interviewed an activist for the video portion and later fact-checked the investigation; Economic Indicators, whose numbers and graphics I proofed; Measuring Impact, which I got to co-authored with Chuck Lewis, executive editor; and also contributing research for a conference presentation Chuck was asked to deliver at Oxford.

This exposure to a range of investigative and research projects deepened my skills and bolstered my confidence — which, of course, is required in abundance in both investigative reporting and self-employment. 

I can say with certainty that my time at the Workshop helped me develop as a journalist in ways that simply working as a general assignment reporter, for example, never could have. And that's good, because I don't want to be a daily reporter. I want to dig deeper into the news, stretch myself as a storyteller, mentor new reporters and stand up for the Right to Information as an essential human right — all roles for which the Workshop prepared me well. 

— Hilary Niles

Incubating new economic models for journalism.

Latest from iLab

Asian journalists wrestle with new rules

Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea news organizations face new challenges online as their governments now include internet activity in their regulatory structures. What used to be a niche for independent media has instead become a new battleground for freedom of expression. 

Seven signs Cuban media is moving toward openness

While it’s too soon to tell if a true sea change is in the works, here are seven relatively recent shifts in the Cuban mediasphere. Many of them would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago and bear watching in the future.

Blogs

Most Recent Posts

'Business of Disaster' finalist in IRE awards

“Business of Disaster,” the PBS FRONTLINE program about ongoing housing problems more than three years after the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, was a finalist in the IRE awards this year in both the large broadcast/video category and also in the large radio/audio category. 

The back-story behind Workshop's first data project on banks

In BankTracker, our long-running series that debuted in March 2009, we analyzed publicly available data to report on the financial health of the nation’s banks and credit unions. Though the project met with resistance from the banking association at the time, the updates continue to be welcomed by readers.

Washington journalists on Trump’s war on the press

Trump’s war on the press is a political strategy and it’s working, Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post, said at the 2017 Missouri-Hurley Symposium at the National Press Club last week.

A journalist who sought to democratize data

In a period when many academics, journalists, civil-society groups and citizens fear that federal data may be altered to suit political agendas, the tools and techniques data journalists use will help keep it honest. And David Donald was one data journalism's standard bearers, taking steps to lowering barriers to entry in the field, including co-hosting workshops for social workers, real-estate brokers, designers, business managers, pediatricians, even zoologists. 

Sharing data and ideas

Jacksonville, Florida, was the host city for this year’s Computer-Assisted Reporting conference, one of two annual conferences run by the Investigative Reporters and Editors. The March 2-5 program included practical tips, story ideas and computer training. Tipsheets and links are online, too.

Partners

Workshop Partners

We publish online and in print, often teaming up with other news organizations. We're working now on a new program with FRONTLINE producers, to air later in the year, and on the "Years of Living Dangerously," a series on climate change that has begun airing on Showtime. A story last year on the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers was co-published with The New York Times. Our updates to our long-running BankTracker project, in which you can view the financial health of every bank and credit union in the country, have been published with msnbc.com, now nbcnews.com, and we co-published stories in our What Went Wrong series on the economy with The Philadelphia Inquirer and New America Media. Our graduate students are working as researchers with Washington Post reporters, and our new senior editor is a member of the Post's investigative team. Learn more on our partners page.

Projects

Investigating Power update

Investigating Power update

Profiles of notable journalists and their stories of key moments in U.S. history in the last 50 years can be found on the Investigating Power site. See Workshop Executive Editor Charles Lewis' latest video interviews as well as historic footage and timelines. You can also read more about the project and why we documented these groundbreaking examples of original, investigative journalism that helped shape or change public perceptions on key issues of our time, from civil rights to Iraq, here.