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August 17, 2023

Is freelance journalism becoming unviable?

Poor rates, unreliable payment and publications closing: is being a freelance journalist basically a hobby?

By Ralph Jones

It’s not exactly coal mining, but freelance journalism is difficult. In the words of an anonymous wit: “Journalism: the pay sucks and the hours are long. But at the end of the day, everybody hates you.”

While our old friend the internet has blessed us with more platforms to publish journalism than ever before, it has also made the reality of freelancing increasingly perilous. Rates are often pitiful, and the well-paying titles once thought of as reliable are falling like cliff faces into the sea. In 2023, is being a ‘freelance journalist’ basically a hobby?

I’ve been a freelance journalist since (appropriately enough) the magazine at which I was a staff writer, Shortlist, couldn’t make enough money to survive. I haven’t done the exact sums but since 2019 I’ve earned around 85% of my income from freelance journalism. (The rest has been a book, comedy and tiny pieces of commercial writing.) I’ve earned between £16,000 and £39,000 per year.

I’ve written for places like The Guardian, Sunday Times Magazine and GQ, but recently, despite working on pieces for these titles, I was in such an extreme ‘famine’ period that I needed to take on two weekly days of commercial writing in order to ensure my two daughters don’t eat cornflakes for dinner.

I am extremely privileged to have a safety net of a middle-class family and a partner whose NHS career means this safety net is even thicker. I own a house thanks to these two things because banks often consider freelances essentially to be babies who eat money.

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But for those who don’t have these advantages, is freelancing looking less and less viable? And is it fair that freelances might require a safety net in the first place?

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Freelance journalism is ‘the hardest thing in the world, and it’s unsustainable’

“I have zero idea how anyone manages to sustain [a] 100% freelance writing career,” says Tom Banham. “It just seems insane to me.”

Banham used to be digital features editor at Esquire and is now on contract with a commercial client. He will often freelance for months at a time, relishing the freedom until the cold hard reality sets in and he has to stop to look for another contract: “It’s the hardest thing in the world, and it’s unsustainable.”

Max Olesker, who writes journalism and comedy, says: “Word rates have remained frozen – at best! – whilst the number of outlets commissioning regularly has decreased, and the chance to write deeply-reported features appears to be vanishing.” 

Banham points out that paying your bills with journalism in 2023 will most likely involve a lot of “garbage work” – SEO roundups and pieces on trending news – and not a lot of leaving the office to pursue stories.

He, like many, feels as though he might as well put his writing skills to good use in the commercial copywriting world because the work is similar, but the pay is so much better. He’s written for a milk brand, a peanut brand and an online therapist, among other things. His day rate for this work is four times his journalism rate. “Money work is money work, and then journalism work is almost like a hobby in a lot of instances.”

As freelances know, writing isn’t the tiring part. What’s tiring is that in order to do the writing you’ve got to do the pitching, the chasing, the dodging out-of-offices, the haggling, the compromising, the invoicing, the self-promotion, the work at weekends, the chasing, the chasing, the chasing.

“You’re sort of caught in that exhausting space of having to be constantly creative and think of new pitches and new ways to illuminate art, which is draining as hell when you don’t have bigger commercial projects that pay good backing it up,” says one freelance, who says he chose to sell cannabis a few years ago when his commissions dried up.

“You’re stupid not to do some copywriting – it’s so much better paid,” says Rich Pelley. He makes around 30% of his income this way, 60% with The Guardian and 10% by gardening for one family with a big house. “That is the future, isn’t it, I think – copywriting and freelance journalism.”

One notorious benefit is that commercial clients often pay the day you’ve invoiced them. Pelley recently had to take a publication to the small claims court after six months. I publicly shamed one title after they hadn’t paid me for five months.

Stone skimming championships to underwear modelling: The varied life of a freelance journalist

So, it might seem doom and gloom, but the potential loss of full-time freelance journalists is tragic because a) it means the industry will continue to get more middle-class and b) it’s such an endlessly fascinating career.

Amelia Tait wants to acknowledge that while it’s not easy, she would never want to put anyone off. She makes roughly 95% of her income from freelance journalism and grew up without the connections or money that help many people. She concedes it must currently be harder for specialist journalists to make a living but believes that perhaps more freelances should be honest – not just about making all their income from it, but also about how much fun the profession is.

I agree. If I weren’t a freelance journalist, I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to a stone skimming championship, interview A-listers, dye my hair grey, try to become an underwear model or visit a religious festival where men jump over newborn babies.

It’s a mad, vital profession that needs to be protected, and the more transparent we are about our personal circumstances, the better for everyone.

At the moment, this means acknowledging that it’s difficult (but not impossible) to do while raising a family or trying to buy property. Banham likens it to a Mayan pyramid where at certain stages of life there are huge cliffs where the numbers of people drop off.

Clearly, it isn’t a great advertisement for a career: ‘Don’t do it if you want to have a family.’ But this is fast becoming the reality. And, if publications keep under-paying freelances – and then taking six months to cough up the money anyway – they will find themselves stranded with only the ones who don’t have to worry about money at all.

This will be the worst possible outcome. Journalism needs freelances and would be foolish to lose them.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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