In the last 10 years, the media landscape has changed so drastically that there’s no way I, at 13 years old, would have grasped what I was getting myself into in deciding that I wanted to be a journalist. In high school and college, I read about newspapers and magazines shrinking their staff numbers and ceasing to produce print versions of daily news, which scared me — but I didn’t really have the prescience as a teenager to know how it would affect my future career. At the same time, I witnessed the birth of online publications, the rise of Twitter as a real-time news source and general social media as the primary way people now get information about the world around them. I think it’s an exciting time to be in media, and even if given the chance, I would not tell my younger self to do anything different.
One of the changes I’ve noticed in the landscape is an increasing dependence on freelance writers to keep publications on pace with digital demand. While it’s been tough for me to find full-time editorial staff jobs because of it, it makes total sense that publications have taken this route based on business conditions. The Internet has made it easy to get information for free, so people spend no or less money on print versions of the same thing. Publications then have less money to spend on full-time permanent staff, and instead pay freelance writers a one-time fee to come up with content. The appeal of being a freelancer is that you can write for multiple publications and build a varied portfolio, instead of being tied down to one place. The downside is that you have to hustle to make a living out of it.
When I graduated from college, I wasn’t that into the idea of freelancing — mostly because I had no idea of how to get started and navigate pitching, and I didn’t really think that I had enough professional experience for people to take me seriously. Part of me also felt, in some stupid way, that it was a compromise to the entire career trajectory I had imagined for myself. I was good enough to join a real publication, damn it. I struggled through the summer trying to find an entry-level position and a hiring manager that realized my potential, and resented that a freelance culture was keeping me from starting my career in media.
The universe, in its wonderful way, snapped me back out of that really dumb viewpoint. While I was still in school, I had built a professional network of people that thought about me when they needed writing work done. My former boss offered a profile for an alumni magazine, and another colleague offered a short profile for a newsletter. My former coworker offered me a writing gig at her media company. My senior-year scholarship donor recommended me to write two profiles and start a technical writing gig at the university he works at. I realized that freelancing wasn’t a hindrance to my career, but an opportunity to make myself a more marketable writer and editor. It’s also a great way to make more professional contacts and open up avenues to even more opportunities. Plus, having different sets of eyes on my work helps me learn how to work with different kinds of editors. And I like that I always have some kind of work to complete, and that I get to do something I don’t do in my day job. So far, I’ve had a really good experience as a freelancer and I hope to keep it going.
My advice to any young journalist is to both build a strong student portfolio and a network of contacts that’ll make it easier for these opportunities to find you initially and help you branch out. If you can, find a day job that doesn’t get too much in the way of your writing and real career goals (or one that might be synergistic). I’m extremely lucky in that I have the privilege to focus more on getting and writing the clips rather than worrying about how much each one pays, and I acknowledge that that privilege affects my viewpoint drastically. But if you’re just out of college and trying to figure yourself and your life out, this approach to freelancing might be viable. In the next few months, I’m hoping to brainstorm story ideas and gain the courage to cold-pitch the publications I love reading, and catapult myself into more gigs.
Do you have any experience freelancing? Let’s talk about it in the comments.