EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last piece of a multi-part series on freelance journalism. The idea for these posts came from an instructor who was adopting the News Reporting and Writing and said she would love to see a section or discussion on freelancing in there somewhere. When my editor mentioned this to me, I promised I’d work on it for the blog.
Part one, along with a good introduction to three freelancers who were nice enough to help me understand their business (Charles Choi, Tony Rehagen and Nick White) is here. Part two can be found here.
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The idea of walking the red carpet with celebrities, traveling to exotic places and cutting your own path through journalism can be an alluring idea when compared to pounding out cops briefs at the Beaver County Tidbit. The idea of sweating out paychecks, trying to track your own expenses and hounding people for work can also seem daunting when compared to the steady work of a staff job.
What is it that makes freelance an appealing option? I asked the three folks what they thought about the best and the worst elements of freelancing and their answers are below:
THE GOOD STUFF
Freedom tops the list: Of the best aspects discussed in freelancing, all three folks noted that freedom to do whatever they wanted when they wanted was the biggest plus (“The benefits are freedom, which is far and away the best one,” Nick White said.)
“I get a great deal of freedom over my time. I don’t have to commute to work, I don’t have to change into work clothes, I get to watch TV when I work, I can go on vacations when I want… and the fact that I can use my phone as a modem means that I can work in a mobile manner if I want,” Charles Choi said.
It’s not just the freedom to do the jobs, but also the freedom of being able to say “no” to certain things and to live beyond the 9-to-5 grind.
“I have a flexible schedule that enables me to spend time with my family,” Tony Rehagen said. “No boring administrative meetings or HR seminars. For the most part, in addition to a few money gigs, I do what I want for whom I want, on my terms. And best of all, from a professional standpoint, I get to work with a host of different editors, many of whom can help me get better in a multitude of ways.”
Variety is the spice of life: As Rehagen noted earlier, he has a wide array of curiosities and he can dig into them all as a freelancer. He also gets to work with multiple editors, which helps him develop his skill set.
“From a professional standpoint, I get to work with a host of different editors, many of whom can help me get better in a multitude of ways,” he said.
Even within a niche, Choi said, you can get a variety of experiences and avoid things you don’t like.
“I get to write many different stories for many different clients,” he said. “I like that variety. And while I almost never turn down work, if I think a story would be boring or a pain in the butt, I get to turn it down. If I dislike an editor, I hopefully have other avenues I can turn to.”
Choi noted he has gone on assignments in multiple fields, visited all seven continents and gotten some incredible life experiences while writing science stories. The variety of the work keeps him engaged, he said, and allows him to enjoy his work and his life.
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF:
Unsteady cash flow: The freedom you receive comes at the price of not being tied to a steady paycheck. Unlike a staff job, you can turn down a job if don’t like the editor or the idea. However, that staff job means you get paid no matter how much you write or don’t write in a given pay period. This was the number one thing the freelancers noted as a drawback to their jobs.
“There are of course drawbacks to freelance life,” Choi said. “First and most obviously, you do not get paid if you do not work. You have to constantly hunt for good new story ideas and pitch them before your competition. Not everyone is good at such enterprise reporting, and it can be exhausting, and even if you are good at such enterprise reporting, sometimes there are no story ideas to be had. Freelancers often go through feast and famine stages, and learn to write as many stories as they can so they have money to cover slow periods.”
Accounting 101: If you ever sat through a business course and thought, “Why do I need this? I’m going into journalism!” well, here’s your answer. As a freelancer, you are essentially your own business. You have to keep track of income and expenses, document certain things for tax purposes, pay your own insurance and more.
“The drawbacks are there’s no guaranteed salary or income, no medical benefits, and you have to become much more than a journalist,” Rehagen said. “You have to be your own business. That means accountant, agent and IT person. Some days are spent entirely chasing down invoices and paychecks. But the benefits, in my opinion, are more than worth it.”
If you think keeping an eye on your bills now can be worrisome or perplexing, it gets far more detailed and complex as a freelancer, Choi said.
“First, I make more money than I think I would as a staffer,” he said. “This is offset by how I had to cover business expenses such as health insurance, but as of this writing, many expenses were tax-deductible, and many were expenses I’d have to pay anyhow (e.g. Internet access), so I get to use these business expenses to lower what I pay in taxes. As a freelancer, you quickly learn to keep receipts for everything, to itemize your expenses, and usually to hire a good accountant to help you save money on your taxes. Hiring an accountant for your taxes is in itself a tax-deductible expense.”
With recent changes to the tax code and the variable nature of freelance work, the ability to be detail-oriented in a numerically driven area can be a bit concerning and is one thing to keep in mind when planning life as a freelancer.
Isolation and fear: As an entrepreneur and a single-employee business, you are your entire workforce. Even though every journalist writes with an editor, regardless of if the journalist is a freelancer or a staffer, freelancers are on an island of their own making. This can be great for people who don’t like dealing with the daily grind of meetings and annoying colleagues, but it can also limit your contact with other like-minded people to help you get better at your job.
“Staffers may get more chances at mentorship and at cultivating their stories and their careers,” Choi said. “It was very lonely for me as a freelancer sometimes, although joining journalist associations and kvetching with other journalists helped ease that loneliness.”
White said one of the drawbacks he found is the fear that being a “good freelancer” can become more of a curse than a blessing when it comes to how managers in the field see him.
“Another drawback possibility is that if you freelance exclusively for too long, say maybe five years or more, companies will begin to view you exclusively as a freelancer, and not a qualified candidate for a regular job, should you want to switch to that path, and thus are treated to likewise peripheral status,” he said.
Even more, he said, some outlets tend to treat freelancers unfairly and use them to generate ideas for staffers rather than paying for the freelancers to do the work.
“Unfortunately, some editors are unethical, take your idea for free, and cut you out of the equation,” he said. “It can be heartbreaking for a creative person to have ideas stolen, particularly when the leverage is endemically on the side of the editors and publications. Creative property can be extremely easy to steal and is essentially vulnerable to the goodwill of the outlet.”
Given all the pros and cons associated with the field, I asked the three folks to give me the “if you had any advice, what would it be” answer for you all who might want to get into the field of freelancing. Here is what they wanted you to know:
Nick White: “The freelance life primarily can be marked by a lot of uncertainty. It is like being given the keys to your own business except there are a finite number of high level buyers. So, it is about walking a tightrope to carve out a regularity scheme that is financially sustainable. It may not float on its own in the long term, but it can be worth taking a chance on to buy freedom while you leverage the flexibility to do other big projects, like books or even just a regular day job.”
Charles Choi: “I would tell a new graduate that freelance life could be a lot of work and could present challenges, but that it could pay more than a staff job, offer an extraordinary amount of freedom and comfort, and could offer prestigious bylines. I would say that it was not for the faint of heart and required a lot of individual initiative, but that it could make you the kind of journalist that could succeed well in both staff and freelance life.”
Tony Rehagen: “First I would caution that as a 22-year-old, the field would be exceedingly more difficult than the job I now have. First and foremost, they wouldn’t have had the time to establish the reputation, clips, and most importantly the connections I rely upon every day to make my living. And honestly, it’s hard to get better as a freelancer because you’re not working closely with many, if any, of these editors. My real growth came from the mentorship of staff-job bosses and colleagues with whom I worked day in/day out. Second, most of them wouldn’t be married—which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but, personally, as a father of two, I wouldn’t be able to do this if my wife didn’t have a corporate job with good health insurance. A stupid reality of living and working in this country that is going to get much more difficult before it gets easier. Just something to think about.
“But if you do take the plunge—Godspeed. And find a good accountant to do your taxes.”