Melissa Noel was sitting at her desk at work in 2015. She had just pitched a story about New York City’s Nigerian community and their protests of Boko Haram, a terrorist group that kidnapped hundreds of school girls, but it wasn’t something she said her editors “picked up right away” or were interested in pursuing.
“That frustrated me because I knew that this would become a bigger story, so I had to keep at it,” Noel said.
She pitched the story to another outlet and it was accepted — an experience, she said, that made her reevaluate the kind of storytelling she wanted to do.
“It sparked something in me,” Noel said. “I’d been saying for a long time that I wanted to cover stories of the African diaspora, specifically focusing on the Caribbean region, but I didn’t know how to make that a thing, since there were few, if any, Caribbean correspondents at major news outlets. I didn’t know how to create this role for myself or if it was even something I could do.”
Noel’s one of many reporters who’ve turned to freelance journalism in recent years — a trend that has only been accelerated by a changing media landscape, the pandemic and the mass layoffs both have incurred. Freelance journalism has become a staple, particularly for writers, editors, photographers and videographers from minoritized backgrounds who are seeking flexibility, creative freedom and entrance to spaces they’ve often been denied.
“It’s very clear to us that people who have disabilities or [if] they’re a person of color or they come from any kind of marginalized background, those folks are more likely to engage in freelance and to seek full-time freelance work and do exclusively that,” Evan Kleekamp, development director of the organization Study Hall, said in describing findings from recent focus groups the network has conducted. “That was really clear in the focus groups because basically women of color were our largest audience.”
Study Hall, which provides resources and builds community among those working in media, grew three times larger since March 2020 and now boasts 6,000 members, according to Kleekamp.
Even as more people turn to freelance, however, how to succeed at it can be mystifying. From sending pitches to setting a rate to paying taxes, the process of publishing a freelance story can be rife with confusion — particularly for journalists who’ve recently made the shift from staff to freelance and entry-level reporters whose first experiences in the industry are freelance. Journalism schools aren’t necessarily filling the gap, either. As Meira Gebel wrote in a recent Insider opinion piece, many journalism schools “ignore freelancing as an option,” instead opting to teach students to “idealize the importance of the craft” over the “realities of the industry.”
Clayton Gutzmore’s start in freelance journalism began after he graduated from college and couldn’t find a full-time journalism position.
“We need to talk more about the practicality of it [freelancing] … about how the internet allows us to put part of our destiny in our own hands,” Gutzmore said. “Job security is fantastic, but the moment the job doesn’t see the value in you and lets you go, you become stuck and freelancing can be a way to become unstuck.”
Knowing your value
Stephanie Bernaba, a Rhode Island-based writer and photographer who turned to freelancing after the birth of her children, says she had to learn over time to “set boundaries” when it came to taking on new projects.
“Not everybody pays well or even sufficiently, so even if you’re really enticed by a story, you have to weigh whether it’ll be worthwhile for you to do it,” Bernaba said. “People don’t understand how much work it takes. The 30-40 minutes you might spend talking to sources don’t always end up in the final project, but you should still figure them in when setting your rate.”
Tools like Study Hall, Who Pays Writers?, Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week newsletter, Tim Herrera’s Freelancing with Tim newsletter, the Society of Professional Journalists’ freelance community and The Writers’ Co-op are all useful resources to find opportunities and manage the business aspect of freelancing.
Wudan Yan, a Seattle-based independent journalist and co-host of The Writers’ Co-op, a podcast she hosts with Jenni Gritters, suggests “envisioning your ideal career,” including work schedule, client lists and pay. Diversifying your income by doing content writing or copyediting are also options, she said.
“When people take on other work, they don’t know what their work is valued at, but that’s where Jenni and I really break the mold and say, ‘What money do you need to live?’ ‘What are your rates?’ and ‘Can the publication pay your rates?’ rather than us trying to be a peg to fit into journalism’s hole,” Yan said. “Make work support the life you want to live, rather than work in order to live.”
“If you can’t negotiate, you’re going to have a difficult time being a freelancer,” Ellen Chang, a Houston-based writer, added. “Always negotiate your rate, whether you want a flat free, per word, or hourly fee.”
Chang also stressed the importance of reading your contracts carefully and making sure they don’t preclude you from working with other outlets.
Making a sustainable business out of freelancing is challenging, but not impossible, and can allow journalists to carve out niches and tell impactful stories.
“Freelancing has taught me a lot about myself, in particular that I’m an entrepreneur and that I have to continuously see myself as that,” Noel said. “As a business, I’m continuously learning, growing, updating … and it’s taught me that I don’t necessarily have to take the path that we’re typically told to take in the industry.”