If I were starting out, what advice would I give my young self about becoming a freelance journalist? Dentistry looks like a good career move. In all honesty, it’s not an easy hustle working as a freelance journalist in 2018. It takes a lot of hustle and a lot of hard work, not to mention plenty of resilience, a bucket load of ideas and a fair bit of self-promotion. Why do it? Most of us would say because we love it. Journalism is what we’re trained for and we believe in the importance of journalism to tell us about the world. Some writer, whether we’re journalists or novelists, find it a creative outlet for our minds too.
Freelance journalists on the rise
First let’s understand: what is a freelance journalist? This strange, crazy entity going it alone in uncertain media times. A freelance journalist is a gun for hire. A researcher, writer or producer who uses their skills to create articles, videos, podcasts, photos essays and a whole host of other media products. The aim remains the same for all journalists, whether they are employed by a media outlet or working for themselves and selling their journalism themselves: to provide news, information, reportage and analysis on the world and its events in an honest, accurate and fair manner.
Freelancer journalists, instead of being employed as a permanent employee of a media company, work solo, or sometimes with one or two other people, and sell their stories and services to media and other businesses. It’s pretty simple in essence, although there is a bit more to it in real life.
Media industry in flux
The ranks of freelance journalists have swelled in recent years as newspapers have retrenched more journalists because of shrinking budgets. Why the shrinking budgets? Heard of the internet? Yes, that thing we love for its ease of communication, shopping and everyday transactions has also led to a historic shift in the media industry. In some places it’s called ‘disruption’. The neat word for mass change by new technologies, which can lead to innovation and new ways of doing things, but often at the expense of people and jobs. So we are faced with the question of how to continue to make meaningful journalism that finds its audience of readers who are willing to pay for quality, reliable news and information.
If you look at how your own habits have changed over the last five to 10 years you can see the shift on the micro level that has led to the industry upheaval on the macro level. There are at least a few good reasons that the media industry has been hurting in the last few years from technology and access to information to reader attitudes and change of habits.
Where are the rivers of gold online?
Where five years ago you probably still bought a newspaper every other day along with several magazines, nowadays you most likely turn online. However, many people haven’t carried the same acceptance of paying for information from the newsstand into the online world. Once upon a time, newspapers and magazines had a readership that could be estimated and used to sell advertising space to businesses, but it just hasn’t translated in the same way online. There’s also just a whole heap more websites vying for our eyeballs which means the audience is less reliable and concentrated for advertisers who aren’t as willing to pay big dollars to run their ads on websites.
eBay, Amazon, Etsy, RealEstate.com, IdealFlatmate.co.uk, Seek, RSVP.com.au, carsales.com.au, AirTasker. I could spend hours listing the many, many websites that have sprung up to help us with our everyday business on our lives. But the thing is that before the explosion of the web most of these had one central, fixed home: the classifieds section of the newspaper.
It was a common practice, and in living memory so not that long enough ago that I can still remember it, that we used newspapers to buy and sell things. It’s where we turned to buy a secondhand car, find a part-time job, look for a room, list a birth or marriage, sell our secondhand stuff and so on.
The money that flowed to newspapers through the classified ads that helped fund the expensive business of journalism has been referred to as the ‘rivers of gold‘. It’s no understatement to say that this was a lucrative form of income for newspapers and that if it was reduced it would create a crisis for the business of journalism. And that’s exactly what happened when we all got excited about using websites for these services and newspapers, and magazine to a lesser extent, felt the pinch. It shrank the newspapers physically as it shrank the budgets and the staff of journalists, photographers and others as their jobs disappeared.
Why don’t we pay for news on our phones?
Read an article on Facebook? Yep, that’s part of the problem too. Newspapers weren’t quite prepared for the huge upheaval brought about by technology — the waves of change as readers started to move online and newspapers from all over the world, via websites and apps, became accessible on a computer and then our phones.
Smartphones with their apps and social media platforms brought yet more change to a media industry trying to adapt to the speed of the internet, the availability of mass information and shrinking advertising dollars. Sites like Wikipedia, the abundance of blogs and other free information, whether entirely correct or not, trained people in a very short space of time to expect free access to news and information.
How to be a freelance journalist
To be a freelance journalist, you need many of the same skills and tools as being a staff journalist, although there are some extra, important, things needed as a freelancer.
A good network of contacts is essential.
If you’re covering a ‘beat’, which is a certain type of news such as technology, crime, politics or the environment, you need to know where to go to get information, quotes, verification and so on.
As a freelance journalist, you need contacts where you can pitch your stories to sell them and make a living from your work. Lots of freelancers, whether they work on newspapers or magazines, cultivate a network of contacts before going freelance. If you’re made redundant unexpectedly or accept an offered redundancy, it can bring with it added uncertainty if your contacts aren’t developed. If possible, it helps make for a smoother transition to freelance, financially and functionally, if you’ve got some work or at least good possibilities lined up beforehand so it’s not too hard a landing.
Develop several income streams
It’s no understatement to say that editorial rates have been stagnant or going down over the years. I knew that as I’ve kept involved in a few freelance groups while working at my previous staff job. To survive, you’ve got to market the hell out of yourself, at least for the first 6 – 12 months depending on how much work you’ve got coming in, and then keep up a little bit of self-marketing. Social media is a great tool for this and you can broadcast yourself with a few clicks and project into lots of areas.
I think savvy freelancer journalists look at their skills and then realise that they can offer these as a service to others, usually in the business arena, to earn a good, reliable income and make the most of their training and experience. Have you appeared in the media or had media training? You could offer media relations and media appearance training as well as writing articles.
Consider content writing for business
It’s very difficult to survive on editorial writing with low words rates and less outlets to write for, unless you’re a big name who can command high word rates or you can write a hell of a lot every week. But there’s loads of work in the content marketing arena. Google is rewarding sites with good quality content and so there’s a lot of work in this area. Most sites live and die by the Google algorithm so they want to please the ‘Google gods’ by having solid content on their sites.
It can be confronting to realise how the freelance landscape has changed … but it’s helpful to understand what you’re facing if you’re considering turning to freelance.
Journalism skills as a service
The challenging side to today’s media landscape is that there are loads of people who do a six-week course and call themselves writers; there are load of people wiling to work for peanuts and lots of unscrupulous places hungry for content who want to exploit freelancers with very low rates and huge demands for output of blogs, articles or videos. The good thing about journalism skills is that they are transferrable, they don’t need a huge amount of expensive equipment and we can work from just about anywhere.
Build your skills to offer more services
Best freelance website
There’s no single best freelance website where you can find freelance jobs. If you’re strictly a freelance journalist, rather than a copywriter or content writer, you’ll be looking for very different type of freelance work. I don’t include sites such as Freelancer, Fiver or Upwork in this list because they are well-known enough already and they aren’t always the best places to find well-paying work. You may need to do a lot of low-paying work before gaining access to higher paid jobs and you’re work is mediated by the platform.
I have avoided these sites as they can encourage the idea that freelance work should be about finding the cheapest rate, rather than recognising professional experience that should be paid appropriately. Having said that, I’ve already experience my share of places offering ridiculously low rates for work and I’ve declined and explained that it’s just not financially sustainable for me to be paid peanuts. As the saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you know what you’ll get.
Here are some sites that may be helpful to find leads for writing or other media gigs. If you’re a freelance journalist of general freelancers, these may be worth checking out.
The Freelancer by Contently is a site to list yourself in their freelance directory as well as loads of useful articles on how to freelance.
Journalism.co.uk has a freelance listing that you can add yourself to so you can be found by editors looking for freelancers.
Craigslist might surprise but some people swear by using this listing site for finding freelance work.
Freelance Writing Jobs site has a host of jobs including writing, blogging and editing.
iFreelance is another site for finding freelance work.
People Per Hour has a freelance listing and a range of jobs from hourly to project.
Toptal is more for developers and designers.
YunoJuno is a newish site for finding and booking freelancers.
Freelance Writing has a jobs list.
Media Bistro has a listing of freelance jobs.
FlexJobs is another place to look.
LinkedIn has freelance job listings.
Rachel’s List has a jobs board, blog and freelance tools and is invaluable if you’re a freelancer in Australia.
Freelancer as multimedia producer
This blog post has been a bit of a journey through the changing media landscape to understand why the ranks of freelance journalists have swelled in recent years and how to be a freelance journalist in 2018 and beyond. There’s a lot more that could be covered in future blog posts, such as balancing the competing interests of content writing with journalism and understanding in more detail how freelance works differently for designers, video producers, photographers, stringers and producers. I’ve focussed mostly on what was once called print journalism, but is now journalists who write for online and print.
There are also new types of journalism such as data journalism that combines heavy data analysis with the art of finding a story and some technical skills for coding or visualisation. The other trend is the move to multimedia journalism where journalists need to have multimedia skills so they can produce stories in written form as well as visually for social media, apps and websites.
Freelance journalist is the new norm?
To close off, I’d like to finish on a somewhat positive note. I’m not sure that the disruption to the media landscape is complete. It may never be and that may be one of the numerous ongoing challenges the media professionals and the industry continue to face because of the ongoing technological shifts that continue to bring to change the way we live our lives.
I don’t think there will be a single model of success in the media business. Paywalls, subscriptions, micropayments, branded business content, marketing and event revenue, donations and philanthropy, and affiliate schemes are just some of the numerous ways media business will look to remain profitable.
Journalists have experienced the rough and tumble of the media disruption. Freelance journalists are particularly vulnerable because of the insecurity of working for yourself in an industry under duress. There are signs that some new revenue models are working but the industry will never be what it once was, just like our lives won’t return to the pre-internet days.