Chris Sutcliffe: It’s no exaggeration to say that the newspaper industry in the UK relies on freelancers. In November last year, the NUJ’s General Secretary Michelle Stannistreet reiterated that the proportion of freelancers in our industry is greater than at any time on record. And according to data from the Office of National Statistics, the number of self-employed journalists in the UK rose sharply from 18,000 in 2015 to 34,000 in 2016.
The National Council for the Training of Journalists also put out a report right at the end of 2016, in which the author Mark Spilsbury noted that the proportion of journalists who categorise themselves as being freelance increased from 25 to 35%.
Given everything that has happened in the industry over the last couple of years, it is extremely likely that those trends have continued. As a result, the journalism industry has one of the highest proportions of freelance workers to full time staffers of any sector.
There are many many positive reasons journalists choose to go freelance and you’re going to hear some of them this episode. However, one of the reasons for that increase is the sheer scale of redundancies made by the journalism industry over the past few years, and the number of permanent roles that have been created failing to compensate for that. So if you work in the media, or have ever even dipped into Media Voices, you’ll know that barely a week goes by without us having to report on more job losses.
The NCTJ report states that 42% of respondents to a question on negative reasons for going freelance said that there were no permanent jobs available, and a further 5% attributed it to redundancy specifically.
Anna Codrea-Rado is the founder of FJ&Co a platform for freelance journalists which gives them the tools resources and community support they need to make a sustainable self employed living. Her own path to freelancing was as the result of redundancy. But she does note that she knew at least one thing about freelance journalism going in.
Anna Codrea-Rado: I started freelancing as a result of redundancy, but I was already thinking about doing it anyway. So I did go into freelancing with my eyes fairly open that it would be challenging, particularly on the pay side of things, mainly getting paid fairly and on time.
And particularly in journalism, where there’s this quirk around payment on publication, obviously journalists suffer late payments just as much as any other type of freelancer, but it’s on top of that, the problem is that you typically can’t invoice for your work until after a piece has been published.
The knock on effect of that is just that it makes being able to manage your cash flow really tricky. And you just never know when money is coming in.
Just before we started recording this episode, I was actually looking at my finances, and it’s a regular problem that you have two columns; you can see what you’ve billed, and the work you’ve agreed to. But then on the other side is actually what’s in your bank account, what you’ve actually been paid. And often there’s a really big gap between that.
Chris: Issues around payment were a recurring element of every single interview I did for this episode. It’s just one of those things that everybody knows is a quirk or a foible of being a freelance journalist: this idea that you have to struggle and you have to really fight to get paid.
Most of the people I spoke to were owed a couple of thousand pounds at any one time, that they then have to chase instead of actually doing the meat and potatoes work that got them paid, at least in theory, in the first place.
Jenny Stallard is the founder of Freelance Feels, a podcast and blog dedicated to exploring the mental health aspects of being a freelance journalist. She notes that wherever possible, she would always advise people to have a financial buffer before they start freelance journalism.
Jenny Stallard: It’s very easy to say, and it’s advice everybody gives, and I would say this advice as well: if you can get some kind of buffer in place before you go freelance, that’s the key.
For me, I’ll be very honest, because one of my USPs is trying to be honest; mine is a big overdraft. When I had a staff job, the bank let me have a nice big overdraft because I had a decent salary. And now I use that as my buffer sometimes if I haven’t got anything savings-wise.
But if you can at least get what you might consider a month’s worth of money in an account, because I really feel that it’s not having money so much that’s the baseline of having better mental health as a freelancer, but it’s not worrying about money.
Chris: According to a 2017 report by the NCTJ, freelance journalists typically earn around £20,000 a year from journalism, and around one third are believed to be in receipt of state benefits. And as a result of those redundancies and just the realities of freelance financing, not everybody can afford to get into or stay in freelance journalism if they’re made redundant.
Unfortunately, that then tends to exacerbate some of the issues that we see in journalism as a whole. It’s still an elite and rarified industry characterised by a lack of diversity and an extremely London-centric mindset. And unfortunately, the desirable nature of the industry as a whole means that too often, people feel the pressure to work for free.
Anna Codrea-Rado: That attitude just filters all the way through, and it’s especially acute for freelancers, who then get really nervous when they’re asking to be compensated; all they’re asking for is to be compensated fairly. People who are in a position in their career like where I am, the problem with me telling young journalists not to work for free, is that then it puts the onus on them to try and change the broken system that they didn’t break.
I worked for free when I was starting out, because that’s what I thought you had to do. And I sort of knew that probably wasn’t a good thing. But I weighed it up and I thought, well, how else am I going to get clips? So I did it anyway.
I think things are different now, though, because if I were to go back – obviously, hindsight is 2020 – but I write my own newsletter, and when I first started writing my newsletter a couple of years ago, I did all of that for free. That newsletter serves as part of my portfolio. Not to mention the newsletter actually now brings in some revenue as well. So there are other ways to write ‘for free’, but actually that serve you a bit better.
Nonetheless, I think it’s really important to just think really carefully about whether or not you should accept an opportunity to write for free.
Chris: And despite the demonstrable increase in the demand for freelancers, too often freelance rates have not increased. One respondent to the NCTJ survey said that rates have not increased in the 15 years they’ve been working.
Nicola Slawson is a freelance journalist and the campaign’s manager for PressPad UK, an organisation which aims to diversify the media. Here she explains her own experiences with pay rates.
Nicola Slawson: I think obviously, the biggest one for me is always the rates, they haven’t gone up. So people get paid more each year usually, they might get small pay rise, or they may may get a large one. But freelance rates just don’t go up.
The Guardian, for example, I think the rates have been the same for, I don’t know how long, at least 10 years if not longer. But obviously that’s difficult because the cost of living has gone up.
And that’s why it’s impossible really to do investigations as a freelancer. I found it really difficult because I did want to try and do some investigations, because I do quite a lot of reported features, and you can get the same rate for doing a reported feature as you do for doing just a quick phone interview.
Chris: And arguably that reduced the impetus for people to dedicate time and resources to doing the investigative journalism pieces that the industry desperately needs has led to another crisis within journalism, where there are fewer people doing the necessary work to hold the powerful to account.
Marie Le Conte is a freelance journalist, and she’s also the author of the book ‘Haven’t You Heard?’ Here, she elaborates on that point, but explains why she’s actually quite optimistic about rates of pay for freelancers.
Marie Le Conte: I wish that editors and publications recognise the fact that obviously reporting takes a lot longer than opinion. But also because there’s reporting and reporting, there can be reporting in that, you know, I’m writing from my desk, but I’m doing three phone calls, or reporting that involves actually going to places, even God forbid outside London sometimes, and going out to meet people outside the city you’re working in.
It basically just has to be a constant balance of basically like some bits of work subsidising other bits of work effectively. So I’ve definitely written quite a lot of stuff that was badly paid for what it was, and clearly deserved more and my rates would be higher, etc, etc.
However, there were things I was very interested in and things that did quite well in the end because clearly, I was interested so I wrote something that hopefully was quite good and engaging.
So writing that and making that bet is a) good because it’s working on something you find interesting, but b) may well attract actually other editors who may read this, read that and think, ‘Okay, well that’s the one I want to commission.’
Chris: It is obvious and readily apparent that it’s possible to make a good living from freelancing. For those just starting out however, there is a desperate need for more information about what fair rates are, and how to chase down late payments.
Anna Codrea-Rado: The other problem is that when we operate in silence, we have no idea what is fair and what’s not fair. I’ve had a couple of people who have pointed out to me in the past that I’ve been really under charging for things. And I would have never known that had they not said, especially when you’re starting out, especially when you’re branching out into a new area.
So whereas maybe I know what the going rate is for a feature, I might not know what the going rate is when I get invited to speak on a panel. Or when I get asked to do a piece of commercial writing, or content marketing, or whatever it might be.
It’s really helpful to be able to have those conversations and effectively to salary share amongst people that you feel comfortable doing so with, or share your rates.
Chris: As a result of those money issues, a lot of freelancers take on other roles outside of journalism, whether that’s ghostwriting or copywriting.
Sian Meades-Williams is the founder of the Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter. She explains that, while it’s much more acceptable these days for people to have side jobs outside of their main freelancing occupation, she’s a little bit unsure that it’s necessarily a good thing for the industry.
Sian Meades-Williams: I think the reasons for [the growth in side jobs] are quite worrying. I’m wary of side gigs. I used to be quite excited by them. But the side hustle is often just a sign that nobody’s making enough money. We monetise our hobbies, and we don’t do anything just for the joy of it.
I make sure that I keep up with ballet classes, all of my hobbies, I try really hard to make sure they’re not me in front of a computer screen. And just doing something because it’s fun, not because I can tell a story about it, but because I want to give something a go, has drastically changed how I freelance and how much happier I am.
Chris: Outside of money management, there were several other skill sets though that freelancers need. Unfortunately, the perception is that many J-schools and many journalism courses simply do not do enough to prepare people for the likely reality that they will end up as a freelancer at some point in their career. From admin tasks like filing tax returns and chasing down late payments, being aware of your rights, to specific skills like networking and pitching, the perception is that you can only learn some of these skills once you’ve been pitched into the deep end. And effectively freelancing is all deep end.
Nicola Slawson: I got a lot out of going to City University. I did my MA there, and it was paid for by the Scott Trust Bursary. I have spoken to people from City and said, I’d love to come back and do a session on freelancing, because a lot of the students you teach will either be freelance in the beginning while they’re waiting for application.
They may as well make the most of it, because some people said they were freelance and they didn’t actually do anything. And some people said they were freelance and actually were pitching loads, and then they got a job. And then other people will want to go freelance.
Loads of my peers on my course have come to me and asked for advice about going freelance after being in positions for a year or two. The MA didn’t really focus on that at all.
Chris: Anna too believes that there is a need for more formal education in how to be a freelance journalist.
Anna Codrea-Rado: I think there’s a huge need for that. I don’t understand why universities and schools don’t have a freelancing booth at their careers fairs. I’ve actually had heated conversations with my undergraduate university, because I’ve been invited up a number of times to go and talk to current students.
And I would love to, except they don’t want me to talk in a freelance capacity, they want me to talk as a journalist capacity especially because I have worked in-house at national titles and have written for international titles. So that looks all really prestigious.
But I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about the realities of freelancing. And I want to tell the students that there is this thing called self employment and actually, it may suit some of you. It is hard, but it might be something that people may want to consider because I had never considered it until quite far into my career.
Chris: And undoubtedly, there is a need for more information about exactly what the rights of freelancers are. According to the NUJ last year, 9 in 10 freelance journalists missing out on holiday pay could be entitled to it, for instance.
Dr. Paul Lashmar is head of the Department of Journalism at City University London. He believes that many of the skills that they teach across the existing journalism modules do prepare people in part for a freelance career.
Dr. Paul Lashmar: Perhaps the first thing I should say is that I spent 14 years of my life where I was either full or partly a freelancer, so I’m very familiar with the problem space in freelancing, as are many of members of my staff who have freelanced for considerable periods of time, and so in some cases continue to do so. Some of our part time staff members are freelance and a lot of our visiting lecturers are also freelancing.
So we have a lot of experience between us about freelancing, how you go about it, the problems of it, the strains of living every day wondering where your income is going to come from. We are aware of that.
And indeed, you’re right. The announcement this week that the BBC is going to lose 450 jobs is a tremendous blow. It makes journalism look like an even more uncertain occupation.
But what I see where I am, is that the world is changing in a number of ways and freelancing is certainly part of that. So what we seek to do very much is to make sure that people who come to us to be trained as journalists, if they do what we say and they have the capability that they will leave with a full skill set in the area that they’ve chosen, whether they’re a magazine, newspaper, interactive, financial journalism, and also, investigative journalism, broadcast, TV, all these sectors we cover, and they go out with a complete working kit, they can do it.
Plus, of course, these are MA courses. So we need to challenge people at an intellectual level. For instance, I run the ethics course, which is a vital part of journalism. So we challenge our students to develop their critical thinking, as well as their ability to write a good intro, or be able to do a piece to camera. So we work on a lot of different levels.
Chris: However, given the very real possibility that many of their graduates will either go into or be forced into part or full time freelancing, Dr. Lashmar does say that they’re looking to introduce more freelance specific modules or courses in the near future.
Dr. Paul Lashmar: I took over in August. And I’ve had a big review of everything we’re doing. And I opened it up to the staff, we’re in a discussion at the moment. Now universities don’t move that fast, but we are looking at a number of areas.
For instance, we’re putting a lot more resources into data journalism, which whether you’re a freelancer or staff member, there are lots of jobs if you’re a good data journalism exponent. So we’ve just hired a major player in this and we’re putting a lot of emphasis.
We’re also looking at investigative journalism and its relationship with the NGO sector because there are a lot of investigative journalists out there now working in places like Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, they’ve got investigative journalists. So we’re thinking, can we work with them to develop, they use quite a lot of freelancers as well.
So we are constantly aware of this, and we know it’s a dynamic. But we are reviewing in the course of this year, whether we ought to make it more core in actual the courses; we don’t actually have a ‘how to be a freelance’ module. But we may proceed, we might decide to do that.
Chris: The understandable difficulty for journalism courses is that the media landscape changes so rapidly. The business focus of a newspaper one year might not be the business focus the next year, and the skill sets that journalists require are changing all the time. Here’s Sian again explaining why she’s unsure that a single MA could ever take into account everything that a freelancer needs to know.
Sian Meades-Williams: I think typically, I didn’t do a journalism MA, my MA was actually in English Literature, it was Modern Contemporary Literature at Westminster. So that didn’t give me any of the skills I needed.
I learned interviewing off the cuff, most of my experience was in digital. And I remember that the first few pictures I did for magazines was incredibly difficult. The first experience I had working on magazines was very hard for me. And I think everybody’s experience is different.
I don’t know that there is an MA that will give you every single experience you possibly need, because I feel like our media landscape just changes so quickly now, But I also love that, I love how many journalists I know who didn’t go to university, or if they did go to university, they didn’t study journalism.
And I’m not saying that you don’t need an education in journalism. I think there are other ways around it. And it is such a practical vocation, that you can learn it, it’s something that you can learn through experience rather than having to sit there in a classroom and learn.
I’m always really worried about sitting in the classroom and learning something as practical as journalism. To me, that sounds like sitting in a classroom and learning how to paint. If you’re not getting your hands dirty, if you’re not trying, then you can’t do it.
Chris: And the practical aspects of freelance journalism is something that Marie is also very keen to stress.
Marie Le Conte: I would say that to be a good freelancer is the same rule is if you want to be a really good journalist, is that you have to read a lot. And I think being able to know, to have an idea and kind of instinctively go, actually, I think that would fit in that publication, that publication, just comes from reading all those publications, having a really good grasp of basically what places publish.
Hopefully, if you’re a journalist, you do have an interest in journalism as well, you’ve got your own patch. And so you’re probably quite likely to read stuff in that patch, hopefully, because, if not, I’m not really sure what you’re doing!
So I think it’s not necessarily experience as much as just reading and being aware of the market you’re operating in.
Chris: Regardless of how you get into freelance journalism, the reality is that issues like loneliness and anxiety can hit at any point. One of the things that all our interviewees were keen to stress is that you have to keep a close eye on your work life balance, and its effect on your mental health.
Sian Meades-Williams: So you’ve asked me to stay really, really positive about freelancing. I started freelance writing jobs because I had a really terrible six months of freelancing. I think it was the worst I’d ever had. I was in the middle of my MA, and I had to postpone my second year for six months, because I just couldn’t scrape together the fees. I was paying paying for my MA myself, it was thousands of pounds, and I could not make that fight, that money work.
And then obviously, by the time I’d started my MA, everything was fine, all of the work started coming in, and I was still finding dozens of jobs that I couldn’t do anything with anymore. I was still sending them to friends.
The biggest challenge I think when you’re job hunting is that soul destroying thing of checking the same jobs boards over and over again. So you don’t just look in the morning, you don’t just do it one day, you look three or four times a day because there is nothing else to do. One of the hardest things to do freelancer is sifting out all of the rubbish.
Chris: It’s an aspect of freelance life I think everyone has struggled with at some point or other. The first six months that I freelanced were the worst of my life. And I’m still dealing with some of the repercussions of that financially and in terms of my mental health. And it wasn’t until much later that I sought out some help from a GP around some of the anxiety issues that I felt as a result.
Here Jenny explains the realities of mental health for freelancers and the physiological effects that has on the body.
Jenny Stallard: Very much loneliness and isolation. I think. There’s a sort of glee when you go freelance that you imagine yourself in; cool coffee shops and hotels are really nice working space. And that is achievable. But it’s almost like on day one, you expect all of that to be in place, and perhaps come to you more than you look for it.
I also think – and this is something that came up last night at an event I was at – that someone was talking about the hustle and the marketing side of things, and getting yourself out there and pitching for work all the time. And that’s very, very challenging. Because you can’t have a coasting day so much when you freelance, because you’ve got to always be thinking about, well, what am I doing in June if July, I want to go away, for example.
So I’d also say getting stressed and overwhelmed with the idea of being everything. A lot of my podcast guests talk about being the every person, so you’re everything from the post person to the accountant to the cleaner to the social media person, to the marketer to everything else. That sort of overwhelm of every job is yours as well, I think is something we perhaps don’t expect when we start out as freelancing because we’re so busy thinking about what our freelance is, we don’t think about all the other things we’re going to have to do for ourselves as well as a business.
For freelancers, it can often manifest in how we fuel our bodies. We don’t often take time, even though we’re at home and we have the whole kitchen at our disposal, we probably just make a can of soup, or we forget to have lunch.
A lot of freelancers, it’s quite a cliche, but a lot of us are tea and coffee monsters, then come the biscuits, then come the cake. Then all it takes is for you to not have had the best day and suddenly perhaps your exercise intentions go out the window. And your physical body isn’t able to keep up with the stresses you’re going through because it’s not being fuelled and it’s not feeling physically okay enough to carry the mental things that you want it to carry.
Chris: In addition to the obvious financial stresses and some of the stresses that come from pitching and being rejected, often the lack of a clear roadmap and ideal path for freelance careers can be a real weight. However, Sian doesn’t believe that the lack of a prescribed path is necessarily a bad thing.
Sian Meades-Williams: I think that ideal path is something that we have been sold for our entire lives. So you get a job, you start at the bottom, and you work your way up the rungs of the ladder. And that’s the path that we’ve been given.
One of the best things about freelancing is that that path isn’t linear, you can sidestep, you can move, you can go back to something that you didn’t think was right for you. You can rework what it is that you thought you were good at, and you can do something else.
And I don’t think when I started freelancing, anyone could ever imagine that the best projects I did would be in an email. It’s a really unusual thing to have.
And I think you don’t know how the media landscape will look, you don’t know how your career will look, you don’t know how your life will look. And yet we try and plan for every eventuality. And it’s because we’ve been taught to do it, we’ve been taught to go from A to B to C, all the way through the alphabet, and that’s what a career looks like. And that’s not the case anymore.
Chris: It’s that freedom to concentrate on the work that we really want to do in spite of all those issues that makes freelance journalism such a draw for people.
Marie Le Conte: Basically, and I realise it’s easier said than done, but being freedlance is actually, the way you think about it is that, obviously, it’s got quite a lot of drawbacks. If I get ill, that’s basically on me, and I’m not going to get paid for however many days, or if you want to go on holiday I didn’t have paid holiday days, so I couldn’t go on holiday as much as I used to.
So there are quite a lot of set things, occasionally it just so happens that there is no news in my patch, that means I’ve got nothing to pitch for occasionally weeks at a time, which is a bit of a nightmare.
But when you take all those negative things, I think it’s kind of your duty as a freelancer to remind yourself quite frequently of the reasons why you’re doing it, and how you can compensate for that.
So for example, occasionally, see, I’ve not done it in a while, because it’s the winter, but I really enjoy when it’s sunny, either working from a terrace somewhere, which is the loveliest thing you can do. Or even occasionally, if let’s say I’m doing something, it’s normally when things are very, very good or very, very bad, so either if I’ve done tonnes of really well paid work during the month, or it’s a case of no one’s answering my emails, I have no ideas, I’m quite grumpy, there’s nothing going on, just taking the afternoon off.
Just deciding, you know what, it’s just a Tuesday and I’m going to have a nice lunch somewhere on a terrace or something, and then I’m going to go for a nice walk. Maybe go to the cinema at like 3pm on a Tuesday, just because I can and so I think you do have a duty to yourself to say, actually, I’m losing quite a lot by doing this. I’m going to make sure I make the best of it as well.
Chris: And as a result of the greater emphasis on the role of freelancers within the media industry, people are optimistic that even those trials and tribulations like late payments and having to pitch constantly to people who might not even necessarily understand your skill set, might be about to change.
Anna Codrea-Rado: I think it’s already happening. I already feel optimistic. I mean, I’ve started learning to, as a result of having to do this on a daily basis just as a freelancer I’ve started measuring little wins and small milestones.
So just the other day I saw that WIRED released a really detailed guide to pitching. And that might seem like a sort of non event. But to me that signals that WIRED are really open to working with freelancers, and they’ve prioritised it to an extent where they’ve gone around every single desk and every single desk editor and put together a really detailed guide because they actually want to work better with their freelancers.
From conversations I’ve had as a result of the campaign, I’ve realised that a lot of the problems stem from the fact that people who’ve never freelanced just have no idea what it’s like. And just by so many more freelancers being vocal, it has encouraged people who are commissioning them or who are working in house and who are working with them, just to change their own mindset.
Chris: While it’s not for everybody, there is a joy to being a freelance journalist, a joy to seeing your work in a variety of publications, that is unmatched anywhere else.
Sian Meades-Williams: I’ve gone through magazines, agencies, working for e-commerce websites, working for huge companies, working for small companies, having my own company. And I don’t think you get that freedom.
When you are in a staff job you might well move around, but your career trajectory is often very linear, even if you change roles or change publications. I’ve had the opportunity to do so really, really fun things.