How to become a freelance journalist, with Marta Vidal

Marta Vidal is a freelance journalist that has written for international papers such as The Guardian, Washington Post and Al Jazeera.

Marta Vidal is a freelance journalist that has written for international papers such as The Guardian, Washington Post and Al Jazeera, collecting stories from places like Portugal, Bosnia, Jordan and the West Bank.

Se quiseres ler esta entrevista em Português, clica aqui.

The “OK, what’s the next step?” moment

How was the beginning of your journey as a journalist?

I studied journalism at the University of Lisbon, and when I finished it, I didn’t want to stay in Portugal – the idea of ​​staying and doing several unpaid internships until I found a job was just depressing. So, I spent a year working with NGOs. One was in Sarajevo, an organization that works with human rights. The organization had a platform in which they published articles in English and Bosnian about human rights and social justice, which allowed me to start writing and publishing my articles in English. 

Then, I spent five months in Palestine volunteering with another NGO that worked with children. I joined a local, non-profit newspaper that covered issues related to the Israeli occupation and human rights violations in the West Bank. I think this was what kicked-off my career as a freelance journalist. The editor of the newspaper, who at the time also worked as a correspondent for Al Jazeera, encouraged me to send proposals to international newspapers and shared their contacts with me. After that, I did a master’s degree in Holland and then moved to Jordan, where I have been for more than a year. Jordan is in the Middle East, but there are very few journalists there – so I felt there was a void to fill and stories that weren’t being told.

When you went to Palestine, weren’t you afraid? How did your family react?

I think my family gradually got used to it. It’s not exactly dangerous for someone like me – white, with a European passport. It is much more dangerous for those who live there and are suffering abuses by the Israeli military. I might have felt a little bit unsafe in one or two occasions because of what became known as the “knife intifada”. In the West Bank, the Israeli army accused Palestinians of trying to attack soldiers and civilians with knives, shooting and killing suspects. I remember that when I arrived, the soldiers accused a 60-year-old woman of trying to attack them and killed her at the checkpoint, just a few meters from where I lived.

And why the Middle East?

I’m from Porto but I moved to Lisbon to study, where I first met a Palestinian refugee who had arrived in Lisbon, shortly before I did.

In a way, we were both displaced and had several things in common. Yet, I also noticed the things that we didn’t have in common, like all the privileges that I had just because I’m Portuguese. I could visit his home country, but he as a refugee couldn’t do the same. I could move around freely, but he couldn’t.

Meeting him made me aware of my privileges and how unfair they are. At the same time, there was a refugee crisis happening and the rise of Islamophobia in Europe. I was shocked to see the rise of anti-Semitic speeches and hatred that were common decades ago, and how Arabs and Muslims were represented as “The Other” and as a threat. I wanted to demystify that. 

I started learning Arabic and discovered that we share a lot of common words. I was intrigued by how Arab heritage is still present in the Portuguese language. When I started traveling through the Middle East, I realized that there are many things we have in common… It’s funny because when I lived in Holland I always felt like a foreign, but in the Middle East I have a strange sense of belonging – I feel more at home in cities like Beirut, Ramallah or Amman than in the Dutch city where I lived for two years.


How are your work routines?

It depends a lot on the job, as a freelancer I can work weeks straight without having a day off because I have stories to deliver and tight deadlines. Other weeks, it’s much more relaxed because I don’t have orders for articles, so it’s more about doing research, reading news and books to look for inspiration and new ideas for other stories and to develop topics that interest me. I don’t really have an office, but I try to separate home from work by having a designated space for each. There are places in Jordan that I use almost as offices – libraries or cafes. I usually wake up early, sometimes I have an Arabic class in the morning, but I start working around 9 am and try to turn off the computer at 5 pm or 6 pm.

Is it a lonely job?

Usually, you work alone but one of the things I like here is that people are really friendly. It’s easy to make friends. For example, there is a library where I usually work, and almost everyone there knows me. People come and talk to me and sometimes we take coffee breaks together. Also, I think that it needs to come from you to try to get to know more people and find other ways to collaborate. I’ve done some collaborations with local photographers. Sadly, only a few Jordanians work with the international press.

That also makes you a better journalist, right? Because you’re giving locals access to convey their stories.

I feel uncomfortable with “parachute journalism” – journalists who come for a few days, do the interviews and leave immediately. I think it’s important to get to know the local context, and who does that better than local journalists?

So, I think that the international press should trust and give more work to journalists who live in the countries they’re covering. These journalists are the ones who speak the language, who have knowledge about their country. I’m not content with the fact that there are so few Jordanian journalists working with international newspapers. 

I think it’s important to collaborate with each other because they have the knowledge, the language. At the same time, international journalists can help them with exposure and getting in touch with editors, so that more local journalists can start working with the international press. In the case of Jordan, where freedom of speech is limited and local journalists are more at risk, international journalists are more likely to cover sensitive topics because they’re more protected and the consequences are less serious – they cannot be arrested, for example, nor lose their jobs.

How does it work to send pitches to newspapers?

It’s really boring, I think that’s what I hate the most in this job. Sometimes the editors aren’t interested and don’t even answer you, so you’re left hanging for a long time. In the beginning, it’s normal for many of the pitches to be rejected, but you have to be persistent. The best tip I can give you is to make sure you send it to a specific person and not to a general email. The most effective thing is to be succinct and concise, to say in a few paragraphs the idea you have in a way that catches the attention of the editor you’re contacting. Go straight to the point and also include examples of other work you’ve done to show them that they can trust you and your work.

What was your favorite story to write?

That is difficult to answer, but I can say that I was very happy after publishing a story about the Yazidi genocide on the Fumaça podcast. At the time I was doing research, I didn’t understand why people didn’t pay more attention to the genocide, and why that was yet to be recognized as such in Portugal.

After the story was published, the only deputy who answered my interview requests, from a left-wing party, sent me an email stating that they were going to vote on it in the parliament to recognize the genocide.

The votes were unanimous, and this was a win for me because if the states don’t officially recognize it then it’s difficult to take the case of the Yazidis to an international court. That was also one of the aims of this story – to call to attention the importance of recognition and the promises made to Yazidi survivors. This recognition shortly after the story was published made me believe that journalism is worth it.

Is social responsibility what moves you as a journalist?

On the one hand, yes. I think journalism is my way of feeling connected to the rest of the world and feeling that my work can be a way to fight for a fairer and more supportive world. But there are selfish and personal reasons, too. For example, when I started researching the Yazidi genocide, I had a hard time dealing with the stories I heard, I had nightmares. But the act of writing helps me to deal with situations like that, and I felt lighter after finishing the story. I do it to feel better – if I share the weight of the stories I carry, they become lighter. In a way, I think it’s also related to issues of privilege and power. Like the Palestinian refugee I met, who was stateless. I became more aware of my privileges and how unfair they are. How can I go visit his parents’ land because I have a Portuguese passport and he can’t?

For me, this job is also a way to use my privileges in the best way I can.


What piece of advice do you have for someone who wants to become a freelance journalist?

First, you have to be very persistent. To start with, you always need to have a portfolio to be able to prove to the editors that you reach out to that you can do the reports you’re proposing, and that you can do them well. Contacts are very important – look for contacts from publishers, know who to contact and how. In the beginning, it’s very difficult, you have got to insist. But it’s also important to be curious, always question and read a lot about the subjects you want to cover.

I think it also helps to find a kind of niche – what stories are not being told? It can be both a topic or a region that needs to be covered more on the news.

In my case, I found Jordan as a place where there aren’t many journalists, but where there are a refugee crisis and many stories that I think need to be told in English.

One thing I wanted to add, that it’s a big problem for aspiring journalists, is that you have to spend a lot of time writing for free to create a portfolio. This makes the occupation very elitist and unfair because only those who can afford to work for free for some time will be able to pursue it. I was lucky to have my work published in several newspapers while I was still studying and to continue to do so while working for NGO’s. But it’s very difficult for people from the working class to be able to do this type of work (which on top of that, continues to be very poorly paid), and for me, this is very problematic, meaning that in most cases, only certain people, with certain privileges, can work as freelance journalists.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you have given yourself before starting this career?

Maybe I would have said to believe more in myself and my work and to write more in English. At first, I thought I had no chance, while I was in Palestine I didn’t even try to make proposals to international newspapers because I thought that nobody would be interested in what a Portuguese journalist could write since there are many journalists whose mother tongue is English. It took me a long time to trust my own abilities and to realize that my work could also be interesting for international newspapers, that I didn’t have to limit myself only to journalism in Portuguese.

And what’s the best advice you’ve received?

I might have never thought I’d have the slightest chance of working as a freelance journalist if it wasn’t for the editor of the Palestinian newspaper I worked with and a few other journalists who insisted to me by saying “No, your work is good, you’ve got the skills to keep pursuing this and get published in international newspapers ”.

Who’s your source of inspiration?

There are many journalists and writers who I admire. One of my favorite journalists is Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich. I love her work, she’s extremely brave and sensitive. She has an admirable commitment to social justice. I also really like Arundhati Roy, who in addition to writing beautiful fiction books, also writes chronicles and essays on social justice, inequality and politics in India. The writers and journalists I most admire are those who manage to combine a talent for storytelling with a strong social conscience and solidarity, and with a commitment to condemn injustice and confront the establishment. In Portugal, I really like Alexandra Lucas Coelho’s work.

I have a friend of mine who loves Svetlana Alexievich’s books. I haven’t dared to read them yet because I know they’re very sad.

Yes, they’re really heavy, but when you’re done, you feel lighter.

It’s funny to say that because I always feel heavy. It’s like these stories mirror what I’m doing to help people, which is nothing.

But I think that reading is already doing something. Listening and feeling solidarity, giving your time to hear these voices and to feel with them. But I understand that feeling of helplessness… For me, it works better to be aware than refusing to know and feeling disconnected.

If the stories are heavy, we have to share them, so they become lighter.

The beauty of the stories that are shared – even the saddest ones – also helps. It’s a way of giving meaning and making human suffering lighter.

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