Why journalists are leaving their full-time media jobs to go freelance - Poynter (2022)

My decision to go out on my own began as many do — with a seed.

I had felt for a while that my journalism career was being dictated by external forces. In five years at daily newspapers, I repeatedly fought for raises and responsibility tweaks only to be told to wait. That direction kept me in eternal limbo, drained by the feeling that if I just stayed long enough or just worked hard enough, something might change.

I eventually realized that it wouldn’t. Like many newspaper journalists, I was weary after a boom-and-bust cycle of trumpeting out new hires only to follow them with pay cuts and layoffs.

Yet I couldn’t find a palatable escape. Even the thought of applying for other journalism jobs filled me with dread. It is an industry problem. I wasn’t convinced that anywhere else would be better.

What I wanted was to be empowered mentally and financially. What I wanted was to pitch stories that mattered to me and to — get this — actually write them. What I wanted was to work for editors that had time for me, that wanted to discuss story ideas and finesse my work to make it as good as it could possibly be. What I wanted was to grow and to expand, not to shrink to fill whatever professional space I was lucky enough to be given.

It was stumbling upon Jenni Gritters’ Medium article that first made me think there was another way. The headline begged to be clicked — “How I made $120,000 in my first year as a freelance writer.” The number alone made my eyes pop out like a cartoon character. That was nearly three times my salary. I didn’t even know six figures and the word writer fit in the same sentence.

After a coaching session with Gritters, who co-leads freelance writer podcast and group The Writers’ Co-op, my path began to look clearer. I started to envision a different kind of world, one where I chose the assignments I took on and the money I made. I made important mindset shifts — I would not be freelancing but, instead, starting my own writing business. I had to take myself seriously as not just a writer but a professional.

The first month was scary. I struggled with how to announce my transition, because I didn’t have a lot of examples to follow. I waited almost a month after leaving my job to note the change publicly because I was terrified. Who was I without my title? How dare I tell the world that I was enough of a writer and journalist on my own with no news organization backing me up?

I’m now nine months along this journey. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I try not to hawk freelancing like an eager salesperson, because I realize that my experience is not necessarily a reflection of everyone’s. But I do think there’s a myth that needs to be debunked, that freelancing is a tenuous career path that yields half the money for double the time. That mantra keeps too many people in unfulfilling jobs that make them wildly unhappy or, worse yet, numb. This is a viable alternative.

First, it really is possible to make more money — Gritters wasn’t exaggerating. I earned more in six months on my own than in the entirety of last year at a full-time job. And I’m on track to more than double my total income this year.

I’ve seen that the main limiter of my aspirations is me. I’ve written for publications not even on my radar because I assumed they were far out of my league, and I’ve pitched dream stories only to have them accepted. (Reader, this does not happen all the time.)

By going out on my own, I’ve come into my own. I’ve started to realize who I am and who I want to be as a writer and a professional. I have a better sense of my strengths and weaknesses. And I feel stimulated by my work because there is always a glimmering sense of possibility.

(Video) 7 things I’ve learned about journalism in 7 years of being a journalist

I wake up and wonder: What could happen today?

* * *

I’m not the only person who decided to make a big life change — professional or otherwise — in 2020.

20% of Americans are considering freelancing, according to surveys by freelance site Upwork between June and July of 2021. More than 50% of those surveyed who planned to quit said they would consider freelancing. A large percentage said the ability to work remotely or flexibly would be a factor.

Even before the pandemic, self-employed people made up more than a third of the U.S. labor force — 35%, according to a 2019 study from Upwork and the Freelancers Union. 57 million Americans freelanced that year, an increase from 53 million in 2014. But only 60% of those 57 million said they started freelancing by choice.

In perhaps the least surprising finding, age plays a role in willingness to freelance. Roughly 53% of Gen Z workers and 40% of millennial workers said they had freelanced versus only 29% of baby boomers.

And for those who choose to freelance and stay, many of them are happy. 51% of freelancers said no amount of money would cause them to take a traditional job.

For those in the media industry, freelancing is often either a siren call or a safety net. Sometimes, it can be both.

East Bay, California-based audio producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong continually found herself lured back to freelancing. She took full-time jobs only when she needed, as she put it, “someone else to pay my insurance and a steady check.”

“I am someone who really likes being freelance,” she said. “It makes me really happy.”

There are so many aspects of freelancing that work for her. She loves doing her taxes, so much so that she calculates across three systems to find the best return. She understands how to set her own schedule. She enjoys the expansiveness.

But it took COVID-19 — literally — for Gyimah-Brempong, 35, to step away from her most recent full-time job. She had worked for three years as a producer for a public radio station. When she contracted COVID-19 before it was a prominent disease in the U.S. and then spent the following summer nauseous for months at a time, she hit her breaking point. The stress of the job was no longer worth the sickness. So she quit.

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“The lack of opportunity and high turnover of women of color made it clear that I wasn’t going to grow in my career unless I left the station, and the microaggressions and lack of respect from management were the other incentives,” Gyimah-Brempong said. “Ultimately, I was like if I were to die tomorrow, is this how I want the end of my life to look? And it wasn’t, so I made a change.”

Now firmly on the other side, Gyimah-Brempong offers audio production, editing and sensitivity listening for clients. In the past year, she’s reported her first feature, reported and hosted her first podcast episode, was a member of an editing fellowship cohort and is currently working on a narrative podcast.

Despite her history in public radio, she prefers to work with clients rather than on journalistic or donor-driven nonprofit pieces.

“I care about telling a clear and focused story,” she said. “I find that donor work is kind of, ‘Congratulate us for how great we are.’ And journalism is, ‘We have to look at both sides of this burning building.’ And client work is really, ‘We want a good product. Can you make this good product for us? Cool, go make it.’”

With each client, Gyimah-Brempong has a sweet spot in mind — a long-term contract, which is standard for audio production. Rather than work on one-off pieces, she prefers projects that offer consistency and a clear-cut schedule and payment structure.

Her success proves that part of being a freelancer is intentionality. If something isn’t working, the only person who can change it is you. That’s why knowing when to say no is just as important as knowing when to say yes.

Gyimah-Brempong recalls advice from an old boss: Figure out why you’re taking your next job. She keeps that in mind as she considers each project.

“Go into this thing knowing what you’re getting out of it and making sure it’s enough,” she said.

Others, like Tampa-based photojournalist Octavio Jones, took the leap to permanently freelance because of external circumstances. As a full-time staffer at the Tampa Bay Times, he had prepared to go independent. Rounds of layoffs and the turmoil of the industry left him wondering when he would be next.

Jones got the phone call on an early March 2020 day, shortly before COVID-19 would take over the world. His time was up.

“I wasn’t angry. My time there was the best. I thoroughly enjoyed being at the Tampa Bay Times. I really loved my job. It was the best thing,” Jones said. “If it weren’t for those 10 years being at the Times, I don’t think I would be able to be where I am when it comes to freelance.”

At first, Jones wasn’t sure which direction his career would go. It took months before another call jogged him back into place. It was his former editor at the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times (also my most recent full-time employer), asking him to cover a protest in Tampa following George Floyd’s murder by police.

(Video) What Reporters Should Do Before and After a Layoff

“When he called me and said, ‘I think I might need you,’ I didn’t even think twice about it,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

He got enough material for the day and thought he was finished. But a colleague soon called. There was another protest at a local university, he said. Jones hesitated until he learned that part of a major road was shut down. He was struck by the massive scale of the protest. That’s when the realization hit.

“It’s not over for me as a photojournalist,” he said.

If anything, Jones has experienced a renaissance. He’s photographed for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Reuters, Getty Images, GQ and Elle, among many others. He called me from Haiti for this story, where he documented the aftereffects of the earthquake for NPR.

But working as a visual freelancer — especially coming off of a staff job — yields some unique obstacles. As a staff photojournalist, Jones’ equipment belonged to the Tampa Bay Times. When he was laid off, he had barely any gear — something that can cost as much as $10,000 to replenish. An initial non-journalism gig paid him just enough to invest in the tools necessary to stay in photojournalism.

That job was the first of many that have given Jones a financial lift. Working full-time at the newspaper, he said he struggled to make ends meet. Some weeks he borrowed money in a cash advance because he didn’t have enough to buy groceries.

“Even though I loved being at the daily paper, financially, I was struggling,” Jones said. “I was almost living paycheck to paycheck. That was a dark time. It was something I didn’t really enjoy.”

He’s now able to pay himself a decent wage every week. He has enough for bills and a profit margin to spare. And yet that income has to be doled out in increments, adjusted for the fact that assignments aren’t evenly spaced out and one month can return five figures while another might bring in only a couple thousand.

“You really have to stick to a budget,” he said. “A lot of your clients are going to have their own funding, yes, but you have to have that operating budget to be able to move.”

Would he return to a full-time role if the opportunity arose? He says he still considers that.

“Being an entrepreneur is a good feeling. It’s financial freedom — you know how much you are going to save,” he said. “It would be tough, but it depends on who it is. It would have to really be somewhere that I had always desired to work for.”

Dallas-based writer Claire Ballor had her own circuitous path to freelancing, one that took her to Florence, Italy, before returning to Texas. She spent most of her early career as a breaking news reporter at The Dallas Morning News before taking a real estate job at the nearby Dallas Business Journal.

(Video) Personal Branding for Freelance Journalists.

“I knew real estate was probably not a beat I’d cover forever,” she said. “But I’ve always been interested in freelancing. So I figured, ‘OK, this is a great job, I’m going to do this knowing that at some point I might leave and go into the freelancing world.’”

Ballor was also balancing another interest on top of her work — a deep affection for food. When the opportunity came up to attend a culinary program in Florence, she jumped. She didn’t know quite how it would affect her career at the time, but she wanted the opportunity to try.

“I love food and I love writing and other people have food writing careers, but I realized that I wasn’t pursuing that because I just wasn’t working at publications that had a need for that,” she said. “If you wait for a beat to open for you, it’s just often not going to happen.”

Living in Italy was restorative and educational. Ballor learned how to “set writing aside and just live.” She completely immersed herself in the world of food and came out a better writer for it.

The idea that a journalism career had to be linear was ingrained in her. She didn’t take lightly the decision to leave and eventually freelance. She worried that she would hurt her prospects by jumping ship.

“I had absolutely no idea how it would work out,” Ballor said. “I didn’t necessarily go into this thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to freelance for the rest of my life.’ I just knew at the time that I needed a change and it felt like, ‘Why not now?’”

Much of Ballor’s freelance journalism work is centered at The Dallas Morning News, her former employer. The consistency means she worries less about a regular paycheck — at least for now — because she knows she’ll always have some work. There, she’s carved out a niche for herself, the one she always wanted as a food reporter.

After more than a year and half as a freelancer, starting shortly before the beginning of COVID-19, Ballor misses the energy and buzz of a newsroom. Even if she does go back to a full-time journalism job, she knows she’ll never be the same because she freelanced.

“I’m open to going back to a newsroom, but my thinking will forever be changed by having freelanced,” she said. “If I could find an on-staff journalism job that would allow me to do the kind of important reporting and stories that I’d like to do in a way that I think is a little healthier than a lot of jobs can be in our industry, that would be the ideal.”

* * *

At a dinner party a few years ago, a family friend asked for my 5-year career goal.

The answer should have been easy. It’s a classic interview question, after all. I listed off a few high-profile outlets I hoped to be working at by then.

(Video) How Freelance Journalists Can Adapt During Coronavirus

He countered. But what do you want to be writing about? I was stumped. What did I want to be writing about? I had spent so much of my life framing my career goals in terms of prestige — work at this place to go to this place to reach this level, that I had never stopped to think how I actually wanted to fill all that time.

Perhaps that is where my freelancing journey really started. That was where I realized that a truly fulfilling career cannot be made up of titles. It must be made up of something bigger — a path led not by names but by meaning.

Correction: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong worked for a public radio station for three years.

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  • Freelancing is more than a pitch. It’s a business.

FAQs

Why do people quit journalism? ›

The journalists I spoke with had a multitude of reasons for leaving. Some couldn't support a family on their income, some were burned out and some just wanted something new. And while those pain paints are all too human, they're supported by industry data, too.

What is one of the benefits of becoming a freelance journalist? ›

Not everyone is a morning person, so the freedom to work when and where you want, at whatever volume you want, is undoubtedly one of the greatest benefits of being freelance.

What percentage of journalists are freelance? ›

52.1% of freelance journalists are women and 47.9% of freelance journalists are men.
...
Freelance Journalist Gender By Year.
YearMaleFemale
201648.26%51.74%
201749.05%50.95%
201852.55%47.45%
201948.55%51.45%
6 more rows
Sep 9, 2022

Are journalism jobs decreasing? ›

Employment of news analysts, reporters, and journalists is projected to decline 9 percent from 2021 to 2031. Despite declining employment, about 4,900 openings for news analysts, reporters, and journalists are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Is journalism a stressful job? ›

Journalists are under a lot of pressure. We work long, sometimes unpredictable hours. We cover stories and topics that can take a mental toll and are hard to leave behind at the office.

What can I do instead of journalism? ›

Jobs similar to journalism
  • Editor.
  • Marketing manager.
  • Public relations specialist / manager.
  • Market research analyst.
  • Writer/author.
  • Blogger.

How do freelance journalists make money? ›

They complete contract work, single pieces or regular assignments for newspapers, magazines, companies and other organizations. They often sell their services or work by the piece, by the hour or by the day—sometimes freelance journalists even sell their work by the word.

What is the major disadvantage of freelancing? ›

Freelancers don't get employee benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, or a 401(k) account. Self-employment income can be inconsistent and unpredictable. Getting clients as a new freelancer can be difficult. Freelancers are responsible for their business expenses out of pocket.

Are there freelance journalists? ›

Freelance journalism is exactly the same as described above in all but one respect – freelance journalists do not work for only one publication, they are self-employed.

How many hours a week do journalists work? ›

Most journalists work a full-time, 40-hour per week schedule. However, the schedule of a journalist may vary based on the needs of their assignment. Some journalists may need to work weekends, evenings and overtime to gather the information they need for a story.

How much money can you make doing freelance writing? ›

There is no “typical” pay rate for freelance writers. If you search for “How much do freelance writers make per hour?” you'll find a range that's so broad, it's barely useful. Payscale reports a pay range of $10.31 to $53.79 per hour for freelance writers.

Is a journalism degree worth it? ›

Contrary to popular belief, journalism is not a useless degree. It's not dying, either, although journalism majors have to choose concentrations and minors carefully to have more marketable resumes. The median annual wage for journalists is $63,230. The job growth rate for them within the decade is 6%.

Is journalism growing? ›

News Analyst, Reporter, and Journalist

While these are some of the first titles that come to mind when people think about job cuts in the field of journalism, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6% growth in job opportunities between 2020–2030, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.

What is the difference between journalist and reporter? ›

Reporters are a subset of journalists. Many journalists work as reporters, but not all reporters are journalists. In some forms of media, such as radio or TV, producers or research teams, rather than reporters, are responsible for fact-checking. Reporters play a specific role in the news industry.

What are the dangers of being a journalist? ›

Attacks, intimidation, and even murder. Journalists across the world face serious risks and threats every day, just for doing their jobs – reporting the news and bringing information to the public. Over the past decade, a journalist has been killed every four days on average.

Is journalism still a good career? ›

Journalism is a highly rewarding career option, but it is not without its challenges. It is an excellent career for many. But, to succeed, you need passion and skills for the news, current affairs, and media.

Why is journalism so hard? ›

Yes, it is hard being a Journalist. The role of a journalist is one of the hardest jobs going around. In a fast-paced environment, journalists have to deal with deadlines, demanding editors, and the pressure of coming up with headlines and stories. Up Next College Life Fun?

What can a person do with a journalism degree? ›

In addition to a journalism career, graduates can also pursue opportunities in public relations, publishing, and advertising. Journalism degrees can also prepare graduates for careers as copywriters, public relations specialists, technical writers, and social media planners.

How do you transition out of TV news? ›

Instead, a former TV news person could consider becoming a technical writer or a blogger if they are skilled at writing. Naturally, there'll be a learning curve for these as well, but the foundation is there. Another option might be to become a radio DJ or host a podcast.

What jobs can you get with a Jounalism degree? ›

Top 10 jobs for journalism grads
  • Content marketer. What you'd do: A journalism career will undoubtedly center around writing, and all industries need strong writers in many mediums. ...
  • Copywriter. ...
  • Corporate communications specialist. ...
  • Editor. ...
  • Grant writer. ...
  • Public relations specialist. ...
  • Reporter. ...
  • Social media specialist.

How do I become a successful freelance journalist? ›

To be successful as a freelance journalist you need to be able to generate great story ideas and write the perfect pitch, but you also need to know how to find new opportunities, negotiate rates, build up contacts and how to brand yourself.

Can anyone be a successful freelance journalist? ›

Newspapers and magazines often save money by working with freelancers instead of hiring in-house writers, and as such, you can have a successful career as a freelance reporter. You just need to learn how to become a freelance reporter and keep your clients happy. Take some time to work through these steps.

What is being a freelance journalist like? ›

When you are a freelance journalist you are essentially self-employed – your own boss – so you send your work to whichever publication you want to write for and you are paid for each piece of writing that they publish.

What are the advantages of being a freelancer? ›

Another benefit of freelancing is the ability to choose your workload. You can work as much or as little as you want, and you can choose projects that are meaningful to you. You get to focus on the work you love without the distractions of a full-time job like meetings, office politics, office distractions, etc.

Is it worth being a freelancer? ›

Freelancing Can Also Be Worth it While Job Searching

Freelancing also has big benefits if you're looking for a full-time job but want to work and earn money in the meantime! It shows employers that you're staying active and keeping your skills “fresh,” while also providing you with some side income.

Is it hard to be a freelancer? ›

Freelancing is not a ticket to an easy life. It comes with perks, but it also has pitfalls. Some people can handle these well while some can not. How hard freelancing is for you may depend on your personality, working style, and how well you tolerate uncertainty.

Which is better freelancing or full-time job? ›

Full-time employees have the security of an employment contract, a predictable working schedule, and a predictable income, that helps them to plan for the future by budgeting. Freelancers will not get paid for a single day that they don't work and often there will be no guarantee of next week's or next day's work.

Why freelance is better than a job? ›

Freelancing enables meaningful work

One of the greatest advantages of being a freelancer is deciding whom you want to work with. You can reach out to companies whose vision aligns with your own and get to work on a wide variety of exciting projects.

Why freelancing is the future? ›

Freedom and independence

This type of work allows a freelancer to establish their routines and working style. That may include schedule, pay rates, tools and more. As a result, people can decide how much time and effort they can dedicate to their work.

What is freelance in journalism? ›

Someone who does freelance work or who is, for example, a freelance journalist or photographer is not employed by one organization, but is paid for each piece of work they do by the organization they do it for. [...] [business]

Why freelance writing is important? ›

Learn to Market Your Own Business

Writing as a freelancer you will gain a lot of insight in making money by writing. This will further give you ideas to make up your own blog or spread ideas through your Website. You will meet or know about a lot of people who can help you kick start your own writing career.

What are the advantages of a free lance writer? ›

We've compiled their answers to give you these nine top benefits of freelance writing.
  • Great Way to Earn Flexible Money. ...
  • Work on a Diverse Range of Projects. ...
  • The Freedom to Work Where You Want. ...
  • Freelance Writing Offers Opportunities for Work/Life Balance. ...
  • You Can Build Your Writing Experience. ...
  • You Are Free to Say No to Work.
Mar 29, 2021

How do I market myself as a freelance writer? ›

How to Market Yourself as a Freelance Writer
  1. Choose a Freelance Writing Niche. ...
  2. Create a Freelance Writer's Website and Writing Portfolio. ...
  3. Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile. ...
  4. Start a Blog. ...
  5. Form an Online Presence. ...
  6. Create an Author Bio. ...
  7. Set Up a Google My Business Account. ...
  8. Start Networking.
Aug 3, 2020

What are the qualities of freelance journalist? ›

Freelancers have to:
  • find markets, contact editors and negotiate fees for their work.
  • motivate themselves to write regularly.
  • meet strict submission deadlines.
  • understand and pay appropriate tax contributions.
  • take care of the administration related to being self-employed.

Who can be a freelance journalist? ›

This article has been viewed 116,298 times. If you're an independent person who enjoys journalism but doesn't want to be restricted to a single publication, freelancing may be the career for you. As a freelance journalist, you'll have the freedom to work at your own pace and write about topics that interest you.

What is the difference between a journalist and a freelance journalist? ›

There's one big difference between freelance journalism and ordinary journalism and that's who you work for. When you are an ordinary journalist you will work for a company and receive a salary for your working week – much like any other job.

What is an example of a freelancer? ›

An example of a freelancer would be an independent journalist who reports on stories of their own choosing and then sells their work to the highest bidder. Another example is a web designer or an app developer who does one-time work for a client and then moves on to another client.

Is freelance writing a good career? ›

Freelance writers are in demand. Every industry has a demand for freelance writers, as individuals, businesses and big corporations are constantly producing new content. They need writers to help them out, and it's often freelance writers that get the job. So, freelance writing is a legitimate career.

Is it worth it to become a freelance writer? ›

Good reasons to be a freelance writer

You love writing with a passion. You are willing to write about topics that aren't your personal favorites. You're willing to aggressively market your services. You're game to learn new writing tools, types, and skills to keep up with market needs.

What is the beauty of online writing? ›

Online writing facilitates exchange of ideas by creating a platform where many people exchange information on various fields like engineering, medical fields etc. People learn different things and acquire new information, skills and knowledge. This creates an informed generation with vast knowledge on various fields.

What is the benefits of online writing? ›

The Benefits of Online Writing
  • You Learn a Lot Each Day. Learning is a continuous process. ...
  • Stable Jobs Available. Online writing has stable jobs once you handled a project for an impressed client. ...
  • Choose When to Work. ...
  • Work From Anywhere. ...
  • You Decide What You Earn.
Nov 17, 2021

Should I freelance or work for a company? ›

If you are highly self-motivated, like variety, like being your own boss, want to choose the projects you want to work on personally and if find the daily office life stressful, then freelancing is a better option for you. Also remember, choosing either of them will not bind you with it forever.

Where can I promote myself as a freelancer? ›

If you are looking to optimize the launch of your freelance career, the easiest and best way to market yourself is by using Upwork. When you create an Upwork profile, you can build your profile right there, providing all the key information that potential clients need to know about you.

How do you promote yourself as a social media writer? ›

  1. 10 Ways to Market Yourself as an Online Writer. ...
  2. Create your writer's website (or portfolio site) ...
  3. Write your own blog. ...
  4. Don't just be present on social media — engage, share, and network. ...
  5. Be overly useful in forums and online communities. ...
  6. Learn the basics of SEO. ...
  7. Perfect your pitch. ...
  8. Get guest blogging.
Nov 20, 2019

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