Building a Freelance Portfolio Is Like Playing Poker

By Joe Grimm

Over the summer, I talked with several journalists about how their careers have shifted from the traditional stability of full-time jobs to the uncertain flexibility of freelancing and project-based work. Many describe what they do as portfolios, rather than jobs.

They struggle to find the best arrangement of clients and gigs to give them the kind of work and income they want.

These arrangements are becoming more common and, perhaps because I had several conversations with people at the Unity ‘12 convention in Las Vegas, a comparison to a poker hand seemed natural.

Journalists with portfolio careers must play their hands strategically, as card players do.

Every player knows, and every portfolio journalist should realize, that cards will inevitably leave the hand. The strategy is in deciding what to add to a hand to produce a winner.

Smart play means planning for discards and building around the best cards for a win. Turn a pair into three of a kind. Build a straight.

Some of the journalists were just trying to stay in the game, picking up whatever cards were available to meet their income needs.

Others who are more established said they often pass up opportunities that don’t improve the hand. They don’t pick up low-wage cards, those that don’t fit the hand they’re building or that can hurt them.

Each time they lose a client, they try to replace it with something better. They cultivate prospective clients in advance, knowing that they’ll have the need or opportunity to replace something in their portfolio with something better.

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.


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