To be a freelance journalist in 2019 requires compromise and creativity. Is there a transparency obligation to disclose other kinds of work?
By Susie Armitage
Two years ago, after getting laid off from a digital media company, I decided to freelance full-time. I was nervous about the financial risk but excited about my freedom. Sprawled on my living room floor with my laptop, researching story ideas and outlets, it seemed the entire media world was my oyster. So many amazing stories to write! So many editors to write them for! I imagined all the impressive bylines I’d rack up, showing my former employer it was their loss.
Anyone who’s tried to make a living as a freelance journalist in the last decade knows this phase of unbridled optimism was short-lived. (So many pitches that went unanswered!) I sold one story quickly, then struggled. My severance drained rapidly, along with my confidence. To cover bills, I worked as a TaskRabbit helping strangers run errands and organize their closets. I sold my old clothes online. I transcribed interviews for a podcast company and did some consulting for a healthcare data startup. Eventually, I got a part-time editing job at a small nonprofit, which provided some financial stability while I pursued freelance stories.
Two years on, I’ve managed to stay afloat in New York because I don’t have student loans, dependents, a mortgage, or serious health issues, and after my first year of freelancing, I inherited some money. Even in this privileged position, I still wonder: How long can I keep doing this?
In May, Jacob Silverman published an essay about the struggles of freelancing in The New Republic called “Down and Out In the Gig Economy.” Even after publishing a well-reviewed book and collecting bylines in elite publications, Silverman described being no closer to financial stability. “I am tired of making $20,000 a year,” he writes. By the end of the piece, he’s applying for a content role at WeWork.
The essay generated a wide-ranging discussion among freelance journalists on Twitter. Many expressed thanks for Silverman’s honesty, while others pushed back against his characterization of freelance journalism as “a monetized hobby,” arguing that this framing allows publications to justify low rates that hurt all of us, but have a disproportionate impact on journalists from marginalized backgrounds and limit the diversity of the field.
Several freelancers chimed in to say that, while it is a grind, they do manage to support themselves without help from a partner or generational wealth. While many are forced into the freelance life because of layoffs — at least 2,700 journalists have lost their jobs this year alone — some genuinely prefer it, and a subset makes more than they did on staff.
Because a lot of advice dispensed about making a living as a journalist boils down to “don’t do it,” I wanted to hear other perspectives. I spoke with nine freelance journalists about how they pay their bills. They largely agreed that most freelancers today can’t survive solely on proceeds from their bylined stories. Everyone I interviewed has supplemented their income with other work, including fact-checking, editing, translation, content marketing, writing coaching, communications consulting, and part-time contract gigs with news organizations. These bill-paying projects alleviate financial pressure and make it possible for freelancersto continue telling the kinds of stories that drew them to the field.
“Some of us are building mixed careers, where we have our ‘passion projects’ that we subsidize through our steady work,” says Taylor Barnes, a freelance journalist in Atlanta. “I don’t think that’s a great model, but that’s where we are.”
Barnes makes ends meet through shifts as a contract international desk producer at CNN and by writing a daily newsletter for the Council on Foreign Relations. The newsletter income allowed her to fund an eight-month stint studying Arabic in Jordan, save for a down payment on a house, and pay off a chunk of her student loans. She feels fortunate that the work she does at these two anchor gigs relates to her freelance interests. Still, they don’t leave much time for independent reporting.
“Between those two jobs that are paying the bills, it’s a good week when I have 10 to 15 hours to actually do my own freelancing,” she says. “That’s the thing that is squeezed into the very end, and that I do at a very slow pace.”
Wudan Yan, an independent science journalist based in Seattle, estimates that last year she earned around 50 percent of her income from her own stories, 35 percent from fact-checking other writers’ articles and books, and 15 percent from other writing for companies and institutions. She says this mix suits her, and she’s careful to avoid conflicts of interest when taking on non-journalistic work. If her creative reserves are running low but she needs money, she’ll take on more fact-checking assignments. If she’s got a lot of writing projects on her plate, she’ll focus on those. “I like that balance of being able to shift my priorities based on how I’m feeling,” she says.
Five years into freelancing, Yan estimates she works about 35 hours a week, and she doesn’t work on weekends. Last year she took about two months of vacation. When she accepts an assignment, she sets boundaries around her time. “If a publication can only pay me $500 for the story, that means I don’t want to spend more than 15 hours total on it from start to finish,” she says.
Jake Naughton, a Mexico City-based photographer, has some blunt advice for those getting into the field. “I think it’s impossible to make a living as a freelancer if journalism is your sole source of income,” he says. He estimates that he currently earns about 40 to 50 percent of his money from photojournalism. In recent years, the rest has come from grants, work he does for commercial and nonprofit clients, and strategic communications consulting, which he says pays a lot better than journalism.
Taking on these gigs gives Naughton the freedom to pursue his own long-term documentary projects, which can take three or four years to complete. “I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission,” he says. “I also really just like doing a bunch of things.” The strategic communications consulting lets him use a different part of his brain, and he finds it fulfilling to use his skills to help nonprofit organizations he believes in. The money he earns outside of doing journalism also frees up important mental space.
“I think it makes you a better creative because you don’t have to stress about the financial renumeration coming from your creativity,” he says.
Tatiana Walk-Morris, a freelancer in Chicago who runs a blog called The Freelance Beat, estimates that the amount of income she brings in from journalism and content marketing work is about “neck and neck.” She maintains a firewall between the two: marketing clients can’t become sources, and sources can’t become clients. “I make peace with my content marketing [because] it allows me to feed myself while I advocate for higher wages for my reporting work, and work on longer-term projects that I’m not going to get paid for right away,” she says.
Walk-Morris says she earns more now than she did in her last full-time job. And while she’s applying for full-time positions, she says she can now afford to be pickier about finding the right fit because she knows she can survive as a freelancer.
When freelancers — who often spend entire workdays alone staring at our laptops — open up about what we do, it can quickly start to feel like therapy. Some of my interviews for this story stretched from the planned 20 or 30 minutes into an hour or more, as we commiserated over the ongoing mental toll of uncertainty in an industry that feels like a sinking ship.
As more journalists find themselves freelancing, networks like Study Hall and various Facebook groups for freelancers can provide a valuable source of support. The most difficult part of my first few months freelancing was the overwhelming sense of isolation. When I worked in a newsroom, I could float a half-formed idea to my coworkers in Slack and ask, “Is this a thing?” On my own, I second-guessed myself and fell down rabbit holes researching stories that I couldn’t realistically report and sell in the near term. Now, when I have a question about rates, contracts, how to frame a pitch or handle a delicate situation with an editor, I have thousands of colleagues an email or a Facebook post away.
The rise of groups like Study Hall has been enabled by technology — and there have long been professional membership organizations that provide resources and networks for journalists — but I suspect they’ve also sprung up partly because freelancing is more difficult now than it used to be. [Editor’s note: Pressland, the company that publishes News-To-Table, has a formal partnership with Study Hall.]
I asked Caitlin Kelly, a New York-based freelancer who built a feature writing career before the Great Recession, if things have always been this hard. “Oh Jesus, it’s a disaster,” she said, referring to today’s freelancing landscape. Back when rates routinely ran from $1.50 to $3 a word, “I didn’t break a sweat, I was making money.” She successfully parlayed freelancing into staff rolesat The Globe and Mail and The Montreal Gazette in her native Canada, and later at The New York Daily News. She returned to freelancing after she was laid off there in 2006, and for a time supplemented her income by working in retail.
While some writers were shocked by the recent revelation that celebrated feature reporter Taffy Brodesser-Akner commands $4 per word, others, like NPR’s Linda Holmes, pointed out that it was still possible to get half as much being “a total nobody” not too long ago. “If the idea of one of the best profile writers in the world making twice what I made as a near rookie in like 2003 shocks you, it’s because rates have fallen so much,” she tweeted.
Along with pay that’s stagnant or falling, reprint rights, once a significant source of income for writers, have largely disappeared in the digital era. Kelly thinks the psychological grind of pitching has also intensified. As newsrooms shrink, the remaining staffare stretched thinner than ever. Though it’s easy to find editors’ email addresses and calls for pitches on Twitter, that also means their inboxes are flooded. “You get ghosted, and then you get frustrated,” she says. “I see a lot of emotional wear and tear on freelancers.”
Kelly tells me bluntly that the career path she had as a young journalist just isn’t there for most people today. “That really does disturb me,” she says.
Most freelance journalists now can only dream of pulling in $4 per word, so we find other ways to get by. Is it anyone’s business if we’ve got day jobs, or if we’re writing marketing copy or walking dogs on the side? On the other side of the spectrum, if a journalist has significant stock holdings or a trust fund, do they need to disclose that to readers? To some, transparency feels like a risk they can’t afford to take. One of the freelancers I interviewed contacted me later and asked me not to use her name in this story. She worries that being open about her side hustles “will somehow cause me trouble” and could jeopardize her chances of getting grants and assignments.
In her book, Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age, Nicole S. Cohen offers an eye-opening history of freelancing. Magazines in the United States, she notes, didn’t start paying their contributors until 1819. This was influenced in part by ideas of “gentlemanly dignity” and “the exalted character of art.” Some writers even refused to be paid, not wanting to classify their words as labor. “By the 1930s, freelancing was still considered a hobby or an avocation,” she writes. “A guide for aspiring writers published in 1954 encourages writers to ‘be provident enough, or have good enough credit, to live for months sometimes without income.’”
Even the idea of journalism as a career, rather than a professional stepping stone, is relatively new. “This notion that reporting was not a permanent occupation or that it was the vocation of young writers aspiring to something better served to keep work insecure and wages low, and perhaps even justified these conditions,” writes Cohen, an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. When it comes to freelancing today, she tells me, “I think the conditions that have always existed have been kind of deepened and intensified.”
“If you feel like you can write for a living and you can make a little bit of money doing it, you feel like you’re winning,” she says. “But on the whole, media companies benefit the most out of the situation.”
How might conditions for freelance journalists be improved? Organizing for one, says Cohen, the same way every other industry or class of workers has improved their lot. She noted that while U.S. freelancers who seek to bargain collectively face legal challenges — the government views us as independent entrepreneurs subject to antiquated price-fixing laws — New York’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act is a big step. She also sees promise in the rise of digital newsroom unions, which can, if they choose, advocate on behalf of freelancers. A group of freelancers, currently unaffiliated with a union, is in the process of coordinating with a few of these unionized media companies to advocate for better conditions for freelancers who work for them.
Cohen is encouraged by the fact that freelancers are talking more openly about our working conditions, rates and side hustles on Twitter, in Facebook groups, in listserv discussions and in articles like Silverman’s and this one. Access to this information helps all of us, but it’s especially important for journalists from marginalized groups, such as women, people of color and LGBTQ people, who can use it to identify pay disparities and ask for more.
“It is such an isolating career,” she says. “People historically have been in competition with one another, so it’s significant that there are groups of freelancers coming together.”
Susie Armitage is a writer, editor and audio producer living in New York.