Hilary Niles on being a freelance journalist

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 


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

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