Newsroom layoffs have become an evergreen storyline in the media industry today. More than 16,000 newsroom jobs in the U.S. were slashed in 2020, across local newsrooms and media giants alike.
Whether by choice or increasingly out of necessity, it is clear that more and more journalists are turning to freelancing.
I was intimidated when I began to freelance: I had no idea where to look, or even how to begin. Let alone how to navigate the — thankfully deteriorating — stigma around freelancing, and develop an understanding of how to make a sustainable living out of it.
With the right tools, mindset and approach, not only can you survive as a freelance journalist — you can thrive. In some cases, you might actually fare better financially than you would with a staff job.
I compiled tips from some prolific career freelancers, and from my own experience as a freelance reporter.
Shift your mindset and language
Freelancing is not for everyone. Freelancing does require constant hustling. This said, you can have more control over your editorial choices, and develop a unique, independent image and standard.
The best mindset shift I made was to stop viewing freelancing as temporary. If you view it as such, or as a step down or a gap in your resume, that’s what it will be, and that’s how you’ll treat it.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t apply for full-time opportunities. Still apply for openings that fit within your natural career progression — you are ultimately a stronger candidate if you approach the job from that direction.
I also stopped using the phrase, “outlets I freelance for.” I refer to these outlets as my clients. This has placed more control in my hands, while also building self-confidence.
Pay and consistency
Pay rates are important, but consistency is even moreso. Having regular clients provides me with some stability, while also allowing me to pitch and write more ambitious articles.
Cultivate a relationship with an outlet through which you can receive a more reliable amount of work. I call this my “anchor gig.” This doesn’t have to pay great, but it allows you a base you can build off. My “anchor gig” is literally working as an anchor for a nationally syndicated program called Business Brief on behalf of a startup.
"I find I always feel most comfortable and most financially stable when I have at least one or two places that I write for that are going to give me regular work. Sometimes that means taking a gig that doesn't pay really well but you are going to get a lot of work from them,” said New Orleans-based writer, Thor Benson. “Having that foundation is important, and then you try to get as much work on top of that as you can. Some months you get a lot of work and some months you don't.”
For some freelancers, their main client can change month to month or quarter to quarter. “Right now I have a stable of clients who I can go back to for work, who pay my rates, who give me interesting projects. Who my staple client is changes month by month and quarter by quarter,” said Seattle-based journalist Wudan Yan.
From here, I organize my clients using a tier system. “Tier two” outlets are ones I can rely on for fairly regular work — maybe a piece or two monthly, each. I have about half a dozen outlets that fit this description.
On “tier three” are outlets that might sometimes take my pitches, but not consistently. And “tier four” are the reach outlets —publications I’d love to have a byline in, even just once.
As you freelance more, consider developing your expertise in certain beats. This can make you a go-to writer that outlets proactively turn to when in need of a story on a topic. There are a lot of solid political reporters out there, but not as many who cover housing, for instance. There are many business reporters covering corporate corruption, but not as many covering the troubled teen industry.
Independent revenue streams
Establishing independent revenue streams provides you even more control over your situation.
Yan’s independent revenue streams have been a successful and sustainable part of her professional career. She co-hosts the podcast, The Writers’ Co-op, with Jenni Gritters, intended for freelance creatives, while also running a career coaching business. “I have really become my own anchor client because Jenni and I make revenue through the Writers’ Co-op, and I make revenue through my private coaching business,” said Yan.
Many writers today use Substack for newsletters, while others have chosen to use platforms like Revue, Ghost and Patreon. For some of my broadcasting work, I use a platform called Happs, through which viewers can pay subscriptions to streamers directly.
"I love the security of having a project that is 100% under my control. No one can fire me from my newsletter, no one can lay me off from my newsletter that is going to be there no matter what, and I built that from the ground up myself," said writer Britany Robinson of her One More Question Newsletter.
You will likely experience slow periods when commissions are limited. While not universal, freelance budgets are most limited at the end of a quarter, especially during the holidays and early in the new year. This is a good time to put together projects, like a newsletter, that will bring in some profit long-term. During my most recent slow period I put together evergreen content for two newsletters I run.
Freelancing is not for everyone, but it can be a rewarding alternative to a newsroom staff job. If you’re savvy and know how to hustle, you can flourish.
As one of my mentors, former CNN Tech Correspondent and the founder of Dot Dot Dot Media Laurie Segall, once told me: “[Journalism] isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not something you phone in. If you are obsessed with this kind of work you are doing the right thing.”
For freelancers, this sentiment is amplified.
Andy Hirschfeld is a New York City-based reporter focusing on cost of living issues. He writes for publications including Al Jazeera English, Observer, OZY, Salon, CNBC and many others. He’s also the anchor for the nationally syndicated business news program Business Brief.