Life as a freelance journalist - five things I have learnt

Unbelievably I have now spent four years as a freelance journalist, but on Monday that changes when I begin at the BBC in my first fully-contracted role.

Given this milestone (of sorts), now feels a good time to write a follow-up to this blog post I wrote at the end of my MA journalism course in 2013, forewarning of the struggle I may face breaking into the industry. 

In short, here are 5 things I have learnt during my time battling out in the trenches.

1. Know your worth

Journalism has always been competitive, but now also finds itself in flux more than ever before as publications struggle to effectively monetise the digital landscape. 

This means you have to sell yourself. Know what you are good at, tell people, and then work on having the means to SHOW THEM with copy - both pre-prepared and on-the-spot during trial shifts.

In short, anyone can brand themselves a freelance journalist, but make sure every freelance journalist is not you.

The cliche piece of advice is to "build a niche", which is all well and good, but rings pretty hollow when you are first starting out, scrambling for money wherever you can find it (cheers for nothing Ariana).

More realistically, it is better to work on developing malleable skills that cover the breadth of the industry - from subbing to social media and digital production.

And when you do get the chance to write, understand the difference between what is desired during freelance shifts (efficiency, an eye for detail, appreciation of audience), and what makes you stand out when it comes to pitching one-off pieces: Your OWN VOICE.

2. Know you are disposable

Theresa May might still be desperately trying to sell zero-hour contracts amid coughing fits, but the reality is they devalue worker rights to an alarming extent. 

For freelance journalists their prevalence is comparable to Uber's client/driver dynamic. Just like a debt-ridden millennial looking for an affordable late night ride home, cash-strapped publications (both big and small) love how these contracts allow them to squeeze out quality content, all the while normalising the no strings attached gig economy, slowly bringing these service providers - be it drivers or writers - to their knees.

Stability is so 20th century. Understand this truth and play it at its own, dirty game. Never stop looking for opportunities. Prioritise yourself, but also look out for your freelance colleagues - they, rather than full-time editorial staff protecting their own positions - are most likely to be your real support network.

And lastly,  at some point as a freelancer, you'll find yourself chasing money, so brush up on how to send notices threatening legal action over late payment.

3. Forge connections....and keep them

One of the best ways to survive the chronic short-termism of modern journalism is to form strong bonds with your freelance comrades. Beyond the benefit of providing emotional support through shared experience, in practical terms they know people, who know people, who...well...know people.

Speaking personally, I finally found my break in journalism not through my hard work alone, but because I made good, genuine friendships with people in a position to help.

For instance, I found a friend a job at a publication, and, when the opportunity arose for a role suited to me, he in turn highlighted my application. Once given a chance, the skills learnt in that position allowed me to find work elsewhere, and the domino effect was set in motion.

All this from a relationship struck by chance, while working together on a music documentary on wheelchair access at gigs. I was not paid for the project (shoe-string budgets), but did a cost-benefit analysis: the issue could help me make a name for myself, and it felt like a unique opportunity. 

In the end it proved more valuable than any one-off payment. 

4. Internet journalism is its own worst enemy

Click, click, hear it? It is a sad truth that The Kardashians rule the modern digital news agenda because they rule social media, a phenomenon Donald Trump recognised and manipulated to propel himself to the White House.

Traditional media sources have either ignored the internet with their heads in the sand for too long, or are now chasing click rates so blindly they disregard content control. These publications, haplessly unprepared for the shift to digital, find themselves trying to catch up, but only succeeding in pushing themselves in a race to the bottom.

The most thriving digital publications do more than simply aggregate the online social media carousel, they invest in finding new, interesting angles and innovative ways in which to tell them.

Think of all of your article ideas in broad terms - how would it work on social media, how can you make it interactive - how can you push boundaries?

Often true innovation will face resistance because most media companies are scared to do anything that is not a safe financial bet. But back up your ideas with recent evidence of engagement, using a word that the greying "Head of Digital" may have heard of, and you might just stand a chance.

5. Believe in yourself...and your ideas

Freelance journalism can test even the strongest of souls. Rejection is common place, communication dire, work often impossible to depend on.

And when things go wrong, it is easy to blame yourself. But the truth is, for much of it, you are simply a victim of a media nexus that is in complete panic, and has no overall strategy.

Be firm, chase editors. Add them on all social media avenues, so that when they suddenly don't offer shifts, you can push for some kind of explanation (but take care not to push too far).

I say this knowing how quickly things can change.  I lost months of steady, well-paid work with a tourist publication, purely because an editor moved on. Elsewhere, I heard nothing back following one trial shift at a publication, only to be headhunted six months later by its new editor who found my name on the records. This morphed into six months of secure work.  

 

Use this same self-confidence and resilience when pitching. Rejection does not mean your idea is not worthy, just that you are yet to find the right fit. Many of my most popular articles have been spurned by numerous publications - in one instance eight times (!) - before finally being accepted.

Now, someone get me a drink.