Why making a living as a freelance journalist is so difficult

Simon Owens
Jun 17, 2019 · 5 min read
Source: Pexels (Creative Commons)

In 2014, I quit my full-time, salaried job and struck out on my own as a freelance consultant. Since then, I’ve developed a variety of services I offer clients, but I’d categorize my everyday work under two main buckets.

The first bucket I refer to simply as “corporate work,” and it comprises anything I do on behalf of companies and institutions. This includes stuff like writing white papers, ghostwriting op-eds, writing case studies, and other forms of content marketing (if you’re curious about the services I offer, go here). This is how I make the vast majority of my income.

Just about everything else I do falls under the rubric of “journalism.” This is the technology and media coverage that carries my byline. And while I do have some freelance arrangements — for instance, I’m contracted to write three pieces a month for the trade publication What’s New In Publishing — most of the journalistic content I create generates no direct income. I’m talking about my weekly podcast, my newsletter, and the articles I write for Medium.

It’s not that I don’t have the experience or connections to write for traditional media. I started my career as a newspaper reporter, later worked as an editor at US News & World Report, and I’ve freelanced for publications that include Scientific American, New York magazine, PBS, and The Atlantic.

But what I’ve found over the years is that the dynamic between editors and freelancers is one that requires the freelancer to put in a lot of effort without much payoff, especially in an era when publishers are paying a lot less for online-only stories.

Case in point: over the last six months or so, I’ve been approached by editors from three separate publications that I greatly admire. In each of these cases, the editor wrote something to the effect of, “I really like your stuff. You should pitch me story ideas.”

Every time this happens I’m immensely flattered. It’s gratifying to read a publication on a sometimes daily basis and then be invited to contribute to that same outlet. But every time I’ve tried to work with these editors, I eventually reached a point where I decided that continuing the relationship simply wasn’t worth the time I was putting into it.

First of all, just because an editor invites you to pitch them doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed work. It just simply means you have a leg up over the poor saps who are sending in cold pitches. You could pitch an editor constantly without stirring up any interest. In fact, I’ve found that editors often don’t even feel obligated to respond to your pitch emails unless they decide to greenlight a story idea.

And generating new story ideas takes no small amount of effort. I write about technology and media, and I spend up to two hours a day staying on top of my beat by reading trade publications and interacting with potential sources. Even then, I’m lucky if I come up with one or two original story ideas per week.

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Generating the idea is only the beginning. You then have to convert that idea into a readable pitch that adequately conveys to the editor the narrative you want to tell. When preparing to write this piece, I went back and looked at a pitch I sent to an editor a few months ago. It contained ideas for three stories, and the entire email added up to over 600 words, which is only a few hundred words short of a full article. In that particular case, the editor didn’t even both responding to my pitch, and mind you, this was an editor I’d worked with on previous articles.

All that extra work would be worth it if publications were paying the $1-per-word rate that used to be standard at print magazines, but while those freelance gigs still do exist, the vast majority of story assignments will be for web-only pieces, and those often pay only a few hundred dollars per article.

So to recap: to land an assignment that pays a few hundred dollars, you have to constantly generate new story ideas, craft pitches that often go unanswered, write the article, and then subject yourself to an unknown number of revisions, for which you’re not paid anything extra. It doesn’t take long for the initial gratification of being invited to write for a prestigious publication to wear off.

Because of this, I’ve found it more lucrative in the long run to publish content to my own channels, even if they don’t generate direct revenue. When I publish a piece of content on a platform I control, I receive 100% of the benefit when that content gets shared. You’ll notice that this article contains a call to action to sign up for my newsletter and links to my client services page. So much of my corporate work has come from leads generated through my journalism.

Is it possible to make a living as a freelance journalist? Sure. Some writers have the connections and backgrounds to secure those $1-a-word print gigs. Others convince publications to put them under contracts that guarantee them a minimum amount of work. Some possess the hustle to cobble together enough low-paying web gigs to pay the rent.

But the romantic notion of a freelance journalist who floats between various cushy magazine gigs is mostly a myth. I don’t know if there ever was a golden age for freelance journalists, but we’re certainly not in it.

That’s OK with me. The corporate work pays the bills, and I enjoy being able to practice journalism on my own terms. I get to choose which topics I cover, and if I’m being honest, I think most editors are overrated anyway.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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