What I learned in a year of being a freelance journalist
Hi, I am Frazer and I have been a freelance journalist since graduating from the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism in 2019. During this time, I’ve worked with ITV News, BBC Radio 2, The Daily Mail, and The Sun. As I am currently considering my next career move, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on my year as a freelancer and perhaps offer some tips for those interested in freelancing.
What kind of freelancer was I?
First up, it’s worth noting that I was a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) freelancer, rather than fully self-employed. This could be considered “soft freelance” as it’s a lot more straightforward (initially at least) than being fully self-employed. This made many things, such as taxes, simpler. However, for people looking to get into freelancing long term, being self-employed may be more rewarding as there are a lot of benefits to be gained, such as being able to claim tax back on purchases such as phones, clothes, and laptops as business expenses.
Now, one of the main benefits of going freelance fresh out of university for me has been the ability to work with some of the biggest names in the business, building up a strong network of contacts across the media industry, and generally wedge my foot in the metaphorical door. If I had opted to go full-time or for a staff job, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with as many national news outlets for maybe 4 or 5 years at best.
Another benefit has been to work on a variety of stories across several in a myriad of different styles across several roles. So far, I have covered the 2019 General election, investigations into human trafficking rings, inquests, health tourism, IVF treatment, Coronavirus, Brexit, the discovery of a potentially habitable planet, and many many more. I have worked on these stories as an assistant news editor, producer, assistant producer, call handler, reporter, video editor, runner, and picture logger. This helped me discover what I enjoy and what I want from my career going forward.
It’s also worth pointing out that the reason I felt so confident going freelance was the safety net of deciding to live at home for the first year out of uni. This alleviated a lot of the pressure that the feast or famine nature of being freelance brings.
Networking and other freelancers: friend or foe?
One of the things I’d like to stress the importance of and dispel some misconceptions around would be networking. Networking as a freelancer is crucial. Good networking helped land me some great gigs without the hassle of applications or the dreaded job interview.
First up is networking as a whole. My first tip is to be genuine and sincere. Everything you’ve heard about ‘fake it till you make it’ is a big fat lie. Believe it or not, people can tell when you are being superficial, so just be yourself. My second tip is to shoot your shot. I had the opportunity to work for the BBC because I gave my CV to a producer doing a guest lecture. Furthermore, I got my foot in the door at ITV by emailing the head of home news, who I met for a coffee 8 months earlier, and offering myself up for work.
Journalism is a cutthroat industry with a lot of competition. Many feel that they should be ruthless and view it as dog eat dog, and treat fellow freelancers as competition. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth. Fellow freelancers are your friends, and you should do all you can to help a fellow freelancer.
Personally, viewing fellow freelancers as colleagues and not competition has helped me a great deal. In February this year, I had an interview for a staff job at ITV. As part of the interview, there was a short quiz and a couple of scenarios. A freelancer I worked with was up for the same job and had their interview a week after mine. They asked me what to expect, and I gave them the rundown on the tasks, and I didn’t think anything of it for a couple of months.
Come April, and work was slow due to the Coronavirus, I received a heads up that some work was coming up on ITV’s newly formed coronavirus unit. The freelancer I helped with the interview a couple of months earlier put me forward to work on the team and in some instances even shared some of their shifts with me. This was a godsend. The work offered netted me over £2000 at a time when work for freelancers was becoming incredibly scarce and serves as a constant reminder to collaborate rather than compete.
Personal anecdotes aside, your fellow freelancers can help in many different ways. You can ask them about their rates and what they charge for their services so that you don’t sell yourself short. They can open up their network to you, giving you the inside track on the editor at your dream company, or a killer source for your next story. They are also plenty of forums, groups, and communities for freelancers where you can get feedback on your pitching, pricing, and tax advice. Freelancing is tough at the best times. I remember feeling isolated and alone at times while freelancing, so it’s reassuring to know that when you feel like it’s just you against the world, your “competition” is rooting for you and are there to offer you a helping hand.
The three F’s of Freelancing: Feast, Famine, and Flexibility
Not all cliches ring true, but this one in particular does; freelance is feast or famine (for me at least). You’ll go months swamped with more work than you can take on and offers from all angles, and then the next couple of months you’ll be scratching around snatching at whatever comes your way.
Feast is very obviously everybody’s favourite time to be freelance. Work is plenty and bountiful, and it feels like it’s never going to end. You’re constantly networking from being in the office all the time and can feel some real momentum building. The most important thing to bear in mind with these spells is to make the most of it. Take on those extra shifts, network to the max, do (almost) everything to put yourself in the good books of editors and hiring managers for when work begins to slow down. More importantly, keep track of everything coming in on a spreadsheet and make sure you put enough away to keep you going when things dry up.
Feast is also the best time to begin to push on and progress within a company, especially if you are working a long spell with them. Over the election, ITV booked me for 6-weeks straight, Monday to Friday, and all the weekends and overtime I wanted. I used this as an opportunity to put myself about and help out other teams and make an impression. This paid off as I was offered the opportunity to take on shifts as an assistant news editor, as well as working out in the field. I stayed on well beyond the initial 6-weeks.
Unfortunately, nothing good lasts forever. Famine is tough, mentally, financially, and professionally. It can feel like everything is grinding to a halt and can be draining. My experiences with Famine periods after a year of freelancing are hard to reflect on as Covid-19 has turned the world on its head, meaning I haven’t experienced a typical year.
That’s not to say that you won’t be working throughout a famine period. It varies from freelancer to freelancer, and a famine period can simply mean 2 days a week instead of your usual 4 or 5. I think the main thing to help you through famine periods is one solid gig you can rely on. This doesn’t necessarily have to be within your dream industry. I’ve pulled pints, laboured, cleaned, interned, and even run a small café in Norway to keep things ticking over. After all, you have to survive before you thrive. A reliable side gig can be the fuel you need to power your dreams when you can’t make money doing what you love. It’s also important to look after yourself mentally during these times. It’s not a reflection on you, it’s just the peaks and troughs of being freelance.
The final f, flexibility, is perhaps the most important. As a freelancer you’ll be expected to hit the ground running, and you may not get the same time to settle and grow into the job you would as a staff member. You have to be flexible with the type of work you’ll be expected to take on, and feel comfortable working in different roles and fitting into different teams. While it can be sink or swim at times it can be so rewarding for those who can go with the flow.
I loved this aspect of freelancing. The news industry is fast-paced, and being freelance puts you in the eye of the storm. The rush of working on different breaking stories and no one day feeling the same, is a huge plus to not just the news industry, but also to being freelance.
While being freelance can, in theory, give you the flexibility to work when you want, I’ve found it more likely that you instead have to be flexible to work whenever needed and be ready to take on a shift at a moment’s notice. I’ve finished shifts past midnight only to be asked if I can be outside the Prime Minister’s estate in Buckinghamshire at 5 in the morning.
Being Freelance means cancelling many a date, day out, party, and social gathering to chase a breaking story. This can make it hard to maintain a good work-life balance as plans you’ve had for weeks could be thrown into disarray by the lure of a juicy story.
Is Freelancing for me?
Freelancing has been excellent to help me get my foot in the door and opened up opportunities that wouldn’t haven’t been available if I’d opted for a staff job after graduating. However, going forward I feel it may be better for me, to find a full-time job that I can settle into and so that I can grow as a journalist.
Freelancing isn’t for everyone either. Many love the structure and security of the traditional 9-5. Yet, for the right person at the right time freelance can be one of the most rewarding forms of employment. I’d personally recommend freelancing either if you are starting and want to gain industry experience quickly and have a solid side gig to keep you afloat. Or, if you are already well established in your field with a strong portfolio and good professional connections.