When feast turns to famine for a freelance journalist it's the rudeness which smarts - Press Gazette

When feast turns to famine for a freelance journalist it's the rudeness which smarts

This week marked World Mental Health day. Here journalist Jim Butler writes candidly about the toll taken when feast turns to famine for a freelance.

Tick tock, tick tock… time’s unremitting onward march can be excruciating. I sit here, surrounded by the collateral damage of nearly 20 years working in the media — magazines strewn everywhere and long-forgotten (and never listened to) CDs sent by long-forgotten PR companies piled precariously — and time, the inexorable passing of time, is a constant reminder that my life, my professional life at least, has ground to a shuddering halt.

The lot of a freelance journalist isn’t meant to be easy. Especially a jobbing, non-name, freelance journalist such as myself. You’re always chasing. Chasing work, chasing money, chasing recognition. Chasing, chasing, chasing. I can handle the rejection — that’s entry-level stuff — but the accompanying rudeness, the lack of replies from former colleagues, smarts.

Feast and famine, they often say. Apart from one month (earlier this year, ironically enough), I’ve never known the feast. Today, after nearly three months of meagre work and one regular well-paid job being abruptly pulled from under me, I am beginning to familiarise myself with the famine.

Time, time, time… I’m reminded of that Steve Miller song, Fly Like An Eagle: ‘Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping… into the future’. Yes, Steve ‘The Joker’ Miller.

But this is no joke – ok, maybe gallows humour. Time has slipped into the future that I hoped would never come. The dread is real.

When the plug was pulled on my aforementioned job in the summer, alongside a few other bits and pieces ending — websites closing; new editors bringing in their people… the commonplace experience of a writer in 2017 (don’t do it, kids!) — I knew I had around two-to-three months’ financial grace. Surely, I’d be able to secure something in that time? Time. Time. Time.

“Something will come up, surely,” said my wife, trying to lift my spirits when the call came. “It always has before.” Well-meaning friends repeated this mantra.

All I could think of was: ‘But what if it doesn’t?’ I only had to be unlucky once. Yes, work has magically appeared at the 11th hour before and I’ve managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But penury, as I’m finding, is both a resistant and unfortunately persistent fucker.

So, in modern parlance, we are where we are. Or, more specifically, I am where I am. Emails have been fired off; LinkedIn has proven to be as much use as a battered air conditioner in hell. I’ve been promised work, but to date, nothing has materialised.

Fellow hacks have generously passed on contacts, but again, nothing.

Meanwhile, all around me are magazines I used to work for but have now shuffled off to that great media graveyard (possibly my office) in the sky: Jockey Slut, Observer Music Monthly, The Face, Jack… My once glorious (joke) past poking me in the ribs.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I know I’m not going to find it on Facebook, the BBC’s Sport website or the Guardian, with their constant financial favours to ask of me. But still I look. My Fantasy Football team should be doing a hell of a lot better than it is, I do know that.

And then there’s the not-so-small matter of my family. Three children. A mortgage. The bills. The credit cards. I’m not naturally given to optimism, but I try and keep it together in front of the kids.

Sometimes Captain Cheerful decides to take the morning off though. Like yesterday. The eldest refused to acknowledge where his reading record was. I knew where it was. He knew where it was. I lost it. (As an aside, it’s said marriage, divorce and moving house are among the most stressful things an adult can experience. Getting two recalcitrant children out of the house and off to school in the morning is up there.)

This is not who I want to be. I need help. With Mental Health Day reminders popping up all over social media yesterday, I wonder whether I’m depressed. I don’t think I am. I don’t have the wherewithal or the capacity to commit to it.

I hear myself telling my eldest to be determined when he plays football. And when he listens and takes heed it plays dividends, as ten goals in four matches this season attest. I need to take my own advice. Perhaps. Hopefully, an old friend who is now a performance coach can kick me into shape.

And still time proceeds. Can I make it to 65 and pay off this mortgage? Can I make it to Christmas (now there’s a cheery thought)? Of course, there is no point that we finally reach, where we can sit back, light a Cuban and reflect upon cracking it — or in this case making it, breathlessly.

The only end game is just that. The end game. And even though in my darkest thoughts I know that thanks to life insurance I’m worth more — financially speaking — to my family dead than alive, I’m not going there.

So, will time be a friend? Maybe I’m being over dramatic? Self-indulgent. Get up, boy. Dust yourself down and go get a job. No one owes you a living. I know all of this. I’m not asking for pity. Just understanding. And possibly a break.

Tick tock, tick tock…

Jim Butler is a freelance journalist and copywriter. He has written about music, sport, popular culture and men’s obsessions for the likes of The Guardian, Virgin Media, BT Sport, Observer Music Monthly, ShortList and many other publications. He began his journalism career as deputy editor of much-missed dance music magazine, Jockey Slut. He is available for commissions and can be contacted by email: jim.butler29@gmail.com.


12 thoughts on “When feast turns to famine for a freelance journalist it's the rudeness which smarts”

  1. hi jim…wiping away the tears after reading your piece in the press gazette, I offer you my 10 tips for a freelance career that lasts decades, as mine did.
    1) Have a partner who works.
    2) Keep a tight rein on expenses—no splurging when a big payment arrives. Steady as she goes.
    3) Drink and carouse sparingly if at all.
    4) Abandon hope. Hope is your biggest enemy. Every minute of your working day (and night) should be focused on realistic chance-taking. I had a weekly quota of expected income—no going to bed on the seventh day without fulfilling my quota. Every professional word I wrote was cold-bloodedly assessed for its income-producing probability. If it was a regular column, 100 per cent of the guaranteed payment went toward the quota. If it was a long-shot query letter, maybe 5 percent of the possible monetary return.
    5) Have many bosses. I used to review pop concerts for the Mail and records for Cosmopolitan and interview movie personalities for the Guardian, Observer, Honey and many others. When I went out of favor at one, I ramped up work at another.
    6) Work for other currencies than sterling. Dollar income came in so fast I eventually moved to the dollar zone.
    7) Have several specialties. Besides showbiz, I made myself an expert on the oil industry and wrote for many trade publications in that field.
    8) Think small. Avoid projects that you love so much you’ll accept bottom-dollar. Don’t do more than your editor expects. Big spec projects are right out.
    9) Live in the right decade. The 70s, when I started, were as wide open as today is tough.
    10) Have a full-time employment possibility in your back pocket, because you never know.

  2. One of the good alternatives for freelancers during a “freelance famine” is to let the world know your are available for media training. Good, experienced journos are worth their weight in gold in this area. Law enforcement is one of the best clients for this type of work because its a never ending cycle. Cops get promoted.New cops take their place and they too, must undergo various levels of media training. At the trainee level most Police academies might have a basic ‘how to deal with the media’ course. Make the approaches, you could start with half a day as a guest speaker with a class of recruits. Hopefully with a bit of luck and perseverance that would lead to more work. At higher levels, the police commanders in charge of major incidents, including counter-terrorism need more specialised media training. Build up an arsenal of stories that went horribly wrong for the law enforcement agencies..then use them to show how it could have been done much better. A good way to ensure you’ll be invited back is to make your brand of media training memorable and funny. Don’t be afraid to inject humour into it. Target, Police, big business execs, Fire, Ambulance…and, and I think this is desperately need. Organisations that have evolved to represent the countries that refugees and asylum seekers come from. Their leaders should be trained to be ‘first responders’ as well. A lot of media reporting is biased against these people and the have no voice with which to fight back…give them a voice.

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