Freelancing,  Journalism

The Unconvential Guide to Freelance Journalism: Part 1- demystifying the entire thing

A couple of weeks ago, a former university friend of mine (she was doing her BA, I was doing my MA) got in touch with me and asked me to meet her for coffee. I said “Sure!”

And we did and she asked me a question: “How do I get into freelancing?” 

This was someone who has a job at a pretty top end publication but for whom it is a bit too stressful and not quite working out to be what she wants to write about. So I understand why she was asking me the question. I understand why she was considering the freelancing option.

But I had to be honest. I am on the WA Media Committee for the union MEAA and I am the person who talks to 100 odd freelancing members in WA and then tries to do something about their needs and wants as far as the union is concerned. And one of the things I know about and hear about often is that there isn’t much work out there and when there is, it doesn’t often pay well. Hence why I started this rates survey.

But I still get this question now: how do I get started? 

And this is why I want to answer it. I want to tell you what I see occurring currently and what to do if you want to start freelancing because I think there are three main things to be aware of about the state of journalism in Australia:

  1. Freelancing is not always wonderful and is often a rollercoaster of emotions and a feast or famine situation so you are either a person who is well suited to all of that and can adapt and deal with it or you are not. Either is fine, there isn’t and should not be any judgement relating to whichever part you fall into but figure out quickly whether you can cope with a freelancing life or not. And then act accordingly.
  2. The state of journalism in Australia is currently rather precarious for freelancing journalists – places are not paying as much and they often prefer more content copy writing styled pieces than anything news related and there often isn’t in many places a steady stream of work you can depend on. So if you freelance, have another steady gig too or cut down your expenses and ensure that you always save for the lean times.
  3. The state of journalism in Australia is also precarious for those people working in-house somewhere. Just because you have a steady full time job as a journalist somewhere in a publication or an organisation does not mean that you will continue to have it. Job security has pretty much gone out the window. What that means for you is that you have to pull up your socks and save. Save and learn how to freelance because even if you aren’t suited to freelancing, you need to learn how so that if you are let go/made redundant/laid off then you can rely on freelancing and your savings to support you till you can get another full time role in journalism.

So for the rest of this week, I will post something every day on an aspect of freelancing and how to get started. This post is on demystifying the entire practice of freelancing because this stuff WILL BE HARD. And if you went in under any illusion that it was fun and easy and glamorous I would be doing you a disservice.

So here are some facts about freelancing as a journalist that you need to think about very carefully:

  1. Australia is slowly losing all its younger experienced journalists to either other industries or overseas publications. This is because as organisations and publications cut down on the number of jobs they have and the baby boomers put off retiring for as long as possible, there is not much career progression and not much room at the middle and top levels anyway for the younger journalists to move up. Those who know what they are doing and are more experienced get to waltz off across the world to work in better journalism roles than they can get here and eventually as the baby boomer generation does retire, Australian media organisations will find themselves with a bunch of less experienced employees who never got the chance to be mentored/trained by more experienced employees and with news output that has diminished greatly in quality and scope. It may initially mean great news for the financial bottom line but it will also eventually kill off the publication concerned.
  2. As a journalist now, you are expected to know everything and have all the skills, the more the merrier. People expect you to be able to write copy, take photos, tweet, blog and record audio and video – it’s called convergence and soon it will be on its way out as people realise that you can know all of these skills but only do a couple of them really well.  I do recommend that you learn all you can about all of these skills because you might find one of them to be more your thing or medium for reporting than any of the others and then you can build on that. Once you start trying your hand at podcasting, you may realise that radio is your thing. And if you know enough about these skills, you know enough to step in and do the job that needs to be done in any situation making you an asset to your employer.
  3. If you are in any way shape or form part of a minority group, you will need to prove yourself even more because the industry still sucks at monitoring discrimination in hiring processes and then sometimes in the workplace as well. You will be working with people who have got jobs due to all sorts of privilege and who will know less than you do and you will have to deal with it. Be one of the people who can adapt to anything because it will come in handy.
  4. If you freelance and you do it well, your CV and portfolio will end up having a lot of big names on it in terms of experience while others working in-house will only have that one publication or organisation within that same time frame. The trade off though is the time spent at one place – sometimes employers and editors do want to see that you have stuck around at a publication for a year which seems counterproductive when you could easily be someone who warmed a desk chair for a year but didn’t actually get to do any worthwhile reporting work. Your work tells so whatever situation you are in, do your work well.
  5. There will be feast and famine moments. And before you start freelancing it won’t just be you that needs to be ok with that possibility of famine. You need to run it past your partners and your family. You need to understand that if you want to build a life together with someone whether now or down the track that they need to be ok with you having a variable income and you need to have plans in place for other types of work or savings that you set aside regularly so that both of you can have the sort of lifestyle that you want whether that means travelling or having kids or both or anything else. You might be straight out of university now, single, footloose and fancy free but you need to think ahead about what kind of life you want and whether that being hard to have when coupled with freelancing still makes you want to go ahead with it or not.
  6. Your career, whether in freelancing or in-house, whether in journalism or not, will involve learning. You don’t stop learning when you graduate, sorry. If you don’t learn or don’t make an effort to learn, you become a whinger constantly wondering why nothing happens or works out well for you and when you start networking you will soon meet people like this and understand what I mean by the whinging. You may have a job but you won’t progress past a certain point and you will be more likely to have dreams and goals that will never be fulfilled. So whatever your career path be ready to learn. You may not use all of what you learn but it may come in useful to know about a skill just in case one day you need that knowledge to make an important decision about others who do use it. Like, you knowing the ins and outs of accounting enables you to hire someone to do accounts for you and you know enough to not hire someone incompetent or allow them to cheat you.
  7. Freelancing (and honestly, I feel this applies to any career) requires that you show initiative. Nothing is going to fall into your lap. Things will surprise you, yes but they usually come about because you went out and did something. So make sure you go out and do things and stop worrying about failing because then at least you know what doesn’t work and what needs tweaking. Failure is your friend. I wrote a post about initiative and freelancing and I think you should read it because I rant rather well in it and it should give you ideas.
  8. Freelancing involves rejections. If you have major issues with rejection and with criticism, are you sure journalism is the right thing for you right now? You won’t become a better writer or journalist (or anything for that matter) without being open to criticism and rejection. Quite often, neither of those things are about you but about the piece of work you produced not being a great fit for the place you sent it off to or about the place not having any room for it at that point in time. But if you can’t take criticism or rejection it very quickly says a lot about who you are as a person which means suddenly no one wants to work with you at all. So sort out your issues around rejection and criticism before starting any sort of work – try to figure out if you actually can accurately judge when you are getting constructive criticism and when you are not and so on.
  9. Your worth as a person is not related to how much you earn. You need to know this and know it in the sense of actually be firm about this in the core of your identity because freelancing does muck about with your sense of self often when you can’t do what you want because this current famine period has settled in for what seems like a geological era rather than a mere microsecond long blip. You need to be certain of your self worth and how you measure that and how it has more to do with how awesome you are as a person rather than how much you earn because other people fall into the trap of judging themselves and others on income and you need to avoid that trap at all costs. Success does not equal income, sorry. Success can be being commissioned and getting some money in through the door but it’s not entirely bound up in what you make per year.

The next part will discuss the actual how-to of setting yourself up in business as a freelance journalist but I felt you needed to get yourself in the right frame of mind first so ask yourself if you still want to freelance or if you want to learn how in case you ever need to temporarily do so between jobs. Think on it – tomorrow is all the business stuff.

And if you are a freelancing journalist, comment below and add anything here about myths and wonky ideas and so on that you think I missed. 

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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