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June 4, 2020updated 07 Nov 2023 7:15am

The rise of the freelance journalist: Tough times and lockdown prompt boom in online networks

By John Crowley

May is traditionally seen as the month of merriment.

For journalists who were furloughed or made redundant it gave the sector a daily drip-feed of depressing industry news. BuzzFeed News, Quartz and Vice announced job losses and the axe will surely fall again as summer arrives.

New beginnings, however, are often born from painful endings. Through necessity rather than choice, freelancers have the distinction of being one of journalism’s few growth sectors. The new entrants set foot into a crowded arena looking for advice on pitching stories, job opportunities and, that old perennial, chasing money owed.

For so long the poor woman/man of the journalism profession, this cohort is now beginning to mobilise and get vocal. Support groups, reader-funded newsletters and podcasts have sprung up to adjust to the ‘new abnormal’ -with more established support networks seeing their ranks swell with followers.

The rise of the freelancer, in a sector that is desperately seeking to reinvent itself, will be a feature of the industry post-lockdown just as much as critical debates around distributed working and automation.

Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson set up the Freelancing for Journalists podcast in March, a service which “will guide you through everything you need to know about working for yourself”.

A book, which was conceived before the podcast, is due in July.

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“We wrote the book and then coronavirus happened, so we did some bonus podcast episodes as we were going into lockdown,” Canter explains during a lunch break on a news shift.

“But it’s not just furloughed journalists coming to us, the biggest interest we have seen is from students and graduates who realise there is no job market to currently go into.

“They are coming to us more than ever. There are a lot of students who thought ‘I was going to have a career in journalism’ and are now worried that there aren’t going to be so many staff jobs there now.”

Advice for freelance journalists: Virtual networks are booming

Anna Codrea-Rado is one of the best-known freelances in the UK. Having started a newsletter about losing her job and “striking out on her own” in 2017, The Professional Freelancer is now scoured by thousands looking for tips and insights.

“I think freelancers are finding comfort and support in each other right now,” she says. “I’m seeing lots of micro-communities popping up and examples of freelancers supporting each other, be that financially or emotionally.”

Codrea-Rado is keen to break down “misconceptions” that freelancers see each other as competition. “My experience is that it’s a very collegiate and generous community. Freelancers are leaning on each other to get through this crisis but unfortunately, the industry is lagging behind in showing much support for them.”

Together with Tiffany Philippou, she also hosts the weekly podcast Is This Working? which has recently provided solace for creatives in lockdown, insights into work culture and advice on how to develop a side hustle.

Society of Freelance Journalists (SFJ) is a Slack group which has gained 400 members since freelancer Laura Oliver conceived of the idea in March. Each day permanent and freelance job opportunities are posted by a four-strong voluntary admin team (full disclosure: I am one of them).

“By sharing work opportunities, holding special online events and, perhaps most importantly, offering a space where people can just enjoy a friendly chat with each other, we hope that we can all collectively pull through and help each other,” says Caroline Harrap, one of the group’s admins.

Last week the Slack group brought in two experts – personal finance journalist Annie Thorpe and a chartered accountant Nicola Deverson – to speak to their community. Some 18 questions were answered during a live, hour-long Q&A.

“We were blown away by the response that we received,” says Harrap. “There is clearly a great need for more help and advice for freelance journalists – and we will be holding more of these events in the coming weeks.”

There are well-established leading figures in the sector.

Sian Meades-Williams’ Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter, which contains a list of freelance gigs each Thursday, is essential reading.

Meades-Williams and Codrea-Rado are holding a masterclass on 16 June on the fast-growing space around profitable newsletters and how to connect to new audiences.

Journo Resources, launched by founding director and editor-in-chief Jem Collins, has excellent advice around what to charge, pitching guidelines and invoicing and account templates as well as its own weekly newsletter supported by reader contributions.

Facebook has several support groups including No.1 Freelance Media Women and JournoAnswers, set up by journalism lecturer Susan Grossman.

Abigail Edge, also an admin on SFJ, has seen “huge interest” in her courses around professional development which range from getting started to pitch clinics and travel writing.

“Lockdown gave people a chance to reassess what is important to them, and for many that was a change of career, less time commuting, and more flexible working hours,” Edge says.

“Pitch clinics are always popular, but I’m also seeing a lot of freelancers doing what I’ve nicknamed the ‘pandemic pivot’. Right now, the freelance market is talent heavy and light on jobs, so people want to learn how to diversify their income and build a more stable and resilient business.

“I’m a big believer in blending creativity with business skills, which I think are overlooked on a lot of freelancing courses.”

According to the Office for National Statistics’ Annual Population Survey, there were some 32,000 freelance journalists in the UK in 2019. The figure stood at 21,000 nearly a decade ago in 2010.

Alison Culliford, from the Paris NUJ branch, gives a perspective from across the Channel: “Many freelancers are struggling because of Covid-19 and the branch has been helping members with their claims for state aid designed to keep self-employed workers afloat.”

The surge in freelancers, however, has not been met by funding from bodies who’ve tended to direct financial help to newsrooms rather than individuals.

One of the exceptions to this rule has been the European Journalism Centre, a non-profit institute based in the Netherlands, which will be announcing both the news organisations and freelance journalists receiving funding through its Engagement and Innovation Funds this week.

Of course, fear stalks the sector that further cuts are just beyond the horizon. The BBC last week was said to be looking to making savings on local news with the regional current affairs show Inside Out described as being under threat. Hundreds of BBC freelancers have raised fears their status means they can’t access government aid on the self-employed income support scheme.

Codrea-Rado, who has campaigned against “low, slow and no pay” for freelancers, says: “The main reason I started my newsletter three years ago, after a redundancy, is that when I first went freelance, I couldn’t find any resources to help me along the way.

“When the pandemic hit, I pivoted the content to focus solely on publishing posts that would help freelancers get through this crisis. Besides the practical reasons, however, I think lots of people just want to be part of a community.

“My subscribers get just as much out of the comments made by fellow freelancers in the online discussions as they do from the posts I write.”

Some 1,500 people have signed up to Codrea-Rado’s free version of her newsletter (there is also a reader-funded option) since the start of March.

She puts the rise in sign-ups “largely down to the fact there aren’t that many places to turn to for resources about how to make a sustainable career out of freelancing and that’s all the more important right now”.

She goes on: “Freelance journalists are worried about everything right now. Most of the fears come back to money, so I’m hearing things like: ‘The publication I used to write for has frozen its freelance budget; I’m owed overdue invoices; I got commissioned to write something and now the editor has stopped responding; I don’t qualify for any government support’.

“People are also struggling with their mental health. They can’t concentrate, they’re anxious and stressed.

“This is bad enough if you have a regular job, but the double-whammy for freelancers is the pressure to constantly be hustling because you don’t know where your next pay cheque is coming from.”

John Crowley is a London-based editor and consultant who has more than two decades of experience working for local, national and international news titles including The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Irish Post.

PROMOTED MESSAGE: Press Gazette sister company Progressive Content is offering freelances new sources of work and a 30-day payment guarantee via its virtual newsroom platform Content Cloud

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