On Journalism’s High Cost of Entry
Starting a career from the ground up.
In January 2014, I was almost two years into my cancer biology PhD program and well on my way to taking my qualifying exam — except I knew I was going to quit grad school.
My grand plan was to break into science journalism. I spent many hours every day reading long-form articles on the internet and wondered what it would be like to get to write about science instead of having to do the science myself. But I didn’t want to be in school again after immediately escaping, so that precluded the idea of applying to a journalism program. More established freelancers advised me to look for an internship, which would give me a chance to learn the trade and sit at the big boys’ and girls’ table so I could pitch stories and ultimately write. At the time, I was concerned about how I would break into a new career. I didn’t even consider how I would actually finance a career in journalism, and I’m not independently wealthy.
In April 2014 — when I left grad school for good — I had approximately $4,000 to my name, an internship that paid me $10 an hour, zero bylines, and a one-way flight to San Francisco, where my partner at the time lived.
Fast forward three years. I now live in a city I love (Seattle) where I’m able to live comfortably by my own simple standards. I get paid almost exclusively from writing or other journalistically-relevant work (read: fact-checking) and I still have time to spend time on my passion projects. I’ve written for a bunch of different places. I’ve reported internationally around South and Southeast Asia, and I’ve had the good fortune of receiving grants and fellowships to support my work.
Only recently did I start thinking about how my finances — or lack thereof — have played into the decisions I’ve made in my career as a journalist.
Notably, about two weeks ago, I read an interview that the New York Times did with David Winslow, a veteran photojournalist, and a series of tweets from Shane Bauer — a senior reporter at Mother Jones perhaps best known for his undercover work as a prison guard. Both of them highlighted the financial difficulties of going freelance or entering journalism because of the abysmally low pay that interns and some working professionals in the field have to accept.
When I look back on my own start, I realize that while it was important for me to be practical about my career from a financial perspective, I was also quite naive. But I didn’t let the dwindling numbers in my bank account cripple me to a point of inaction. In fact, the opposite happened. The amount of money I had, or not, inspired me to be creative about how I would support myself in the early stages of my career.
When I started freelancing, I was surprised to learn that my internship was paid. When Nautilus, the magazine that accepted me as an intern, sent me the paperwork, I was overjoyed to see that I’d receive $10 an hour. I knew that breaking into a new career meant having to do things to “earn my stripes.” And some money was better than no money.
The second thing I learned was that San Francisco was not an easy place for me to start a freelance career. My internship with Nautilus ended two months after I moved there. I supplemented my income by tutoring students by Skype. I sent a steady stream of emails to various publications to see if they needed any help with fact-checking, the one gainful skill I picked up during my internship. I was paid to help with a few research projects, but these short-term, one-off contracts just weren’t going to cut it. I got some money back from my tax returns, which helped. I cut out any extraneous spending, although I did admittedly splurge on some outdoor gear, because, California.
In those early days, I wasn’t bursting with story ideas, nor did I feel very confident sending cold pitches. Because I still needed to build my portfolio, I continued applying to internships, only to realize that there was no way I could support myself on what some places were offering. It seemed ridiculous that a publication would say “WE PAY!!” — as if unpaid internships were the norm — and assume that the prospective interns would rub his or her hands with glee and feel so indebted to the system that we’d take anything that was offered.
California Magazine, UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine, offered me $700 a month for a 40-hour week internship. After taxes, I’d have approximately $450 worth of disposable income to live on for a month. In San Francisco. If anyone has figured out how to survive on that amount of money in the Bay, please get in touch with me. I would gladly hire you to be my financial adviser. I couldn’t justify the low pay for the work that I’d be producing, so I declined California Magazine’s offer.
When I think back on this chapter of my life — titled “San Francisco, an interlude” — I am so, eternally grateful that my partner never once asked me to help him pay rent. I was never able to communicate my gratitude to him at that time, nor did I have the ability to ever express it afterwards. Frankly, I didn’t have the guts or vulnerability to talk about how financially and emotionally stressful it was for me to break into a field that seemed so opaque at the time with anyone — not my partner, not my friends, and certainly not my family. I operated completely on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy: nobody ever broached me about money, so I never broached the topic on my own volition. Even though I never made a fuss about my finances, I still held my breath with horror every time I logged into my bank account to check how much money I had.
When I realized San Francisco wasn’t the place I needed to be, I started looking for opportunities back in New York.
In July 2014 — after my checkings account plummeted to a dangerous low and I started putting everything on my credit card — I moved back to New York for a salaried full-time tutoring job that offered me the most money I’ve seen to date in my adult life. From a financial perspective, everything made sense: I’d be receiving a biweekly paycheck that would remove the stress of a continually dwindling bank account. Since my tutoring job wouldn’t start after kids got out of school in the afternoon, I had my mornings completely free to try out freelancing in whatever capacity I wanted.
When I wasn’t tutoring, I slowly but surely started building my portfolio. With the reassurance of a regular paycheck, freelancing no longer felt so haphazard and erratic. I got more comfortable with pitching. Many of my pitches were still rejected, but not selling a story didn’t mean that I wouldn’t be able to pay rent or enjoy an evening out with friends. When I wasn’t working, I had the chance to meet other writers and editors, many of whom have been very kind in offering support and advice on how to build a freelance career.
By the time I was feeling burnt out and unhappy with tutoring, it was January 2015, otherwise known as internship application season.
That winter, Nature Medicine offered me an internship. I was excited to dedicate more time to writing in-depth stories that would reach a broader audience. However, I recall frowning when I was told that interns were paid $10/hour.
So, I negotiated.
Unsure if this was a move that would be anywhere near acceptable for an internship, I wrote to my editor, “I was wondering whether a very modest pay increase to $12.50/hr might be possible for the position. When I first moved to NY last July, I made cost of living calculations based on my current salaried position. While I am confident I can make some financial adjustments, I think an extra $100/ week would help a great deal.”
My editor — whom I love dearly and is largely responsible for whipping my writing into shape — wrote back, and said she’d have to check with HR.
The next day, HR approved my negotiated pay and I took the internship. Accepting this internship was one of the best professional decisions I’ve made, but I still had a handful of side-hustles: I tutored on Sundays and took on copywriting or fact-checking assignments whenever possible. I had my eye on moving abroad, as well. I wanted to live somewhere that I’d have a low overhead, but in also an area of the world that I found interesting. So after my internship at Nature Medicine ended, I had a one way ticket booked to Bangkok. Living in Thailand for four months allowed to build my portfolio with stories few others had ever reported before, and set me up well for future international reporting endeavors.
The rest of this story continues to be written experientially, day by day. I still don’t think I’ve “made it,” but I finally feel like I’ve broken in these shoes that initially felt imposter-ish.
The high “cost of entry” into journalism isn’t a farce, but I’ve found that this ceiling is not insurmountable. It’s incredibly difficult to get started if you don’t know people, and it doesn’t help that the most media-centric cities for young journalists to make connections are also quite expensive to live in. Journalism wasn’t an impossible nut to crack for me because I quickly learned I needed to be practical about money, so I got creative on how I could make that happen.
It would be negligent if I didn’t mention the ways in which I am admittedly privileged. Besides the fact that I didn’t pay rent in San Francisco for three months, I don’t have student loans. Being a first-generation Chinese American means that my immigrant parents weren’t the most supportive of my career transition, but they cared deeply about my education and put me through college. Ph.D. programs in the sciences give students a stipend and typically cover their tuition, so I didn’t lose any money when I was in graduate school. Moreover, maybe that time I spent honing my scientific literacy has paid off, since I’m able to take on more technical writing assignments that I wouldn’t be able to without this type of expertise.
I think about how things might have played out if I knew I should have at least six months of savings before attempting to launch my freelance career in earnest. But even if I knew what I did now about the finances of freelance journalism, would I do anything differently? Maybe I would have just stayed in graduate school since saving money on a student stipend while living in New York City is nearly impossible. Perhaps, I would have quit, anyway, and found a much higher full-time paying job in a completely different field and never finagled my way into journalism. In many ways, I’m glad I naively jumped in without really considering the finances. For one thing, it saved me time and money that I didn’t have to spend on a degree. Journalism probably won’t make me rich, but that had never been my goal; I feel lucky enough to have crafted a path that I find challenging, fulfilling, and invigorating.
Wudan Yan is a journalist living in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter.