Navigating Work as a Freelance Journalist

Written by on June 2, 2020

WURD Radio is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly.

By Michael Butler

I am a freelance journalist and content creator, and I find that every day is a different adventure. Some days may be more exciting than others, but my work is never boring. I write and report for various outlets, which requires diverse skills. Whether I am covering an event or doing a phone interview, every moment counts.

My journey has not been a linear one, but I am thankful for my path and everything that continues to happen. I was a nontraditional student and did a year of public service. I attended the Community College of Philadelphia and later transferred to Temple University, where I majored in Media Studies & Production.

During an internship as an undergraduate student, I wrote for a local weekly newspaper and had the opportunity to write as much as I wanted. But as I got closer to graduation, attended numerous career fairs and applied for long-term jobs, I found few professional opportunities to work in journalism. I ended up getting a job working on digital content for a local nonprofit.

In November 2018, when I left my day job after two and a half years to pursue full-time work as a freelance journalist, I had a lot of questions. But whether I had the talent to succeed as a journalist was not one of them. While I was working at my previous job, I wrote for a range of publications and earned numerous bylines, as well as the confidence to pursue a freelance journalism career.

Freelancing earns me enough money for my life needs, but it can be a grind. One of the unique things about entrepreneurship and working on your own is that you handle more responsibilities than you usually would. You are the human resources manager, editor, assistant and more, all in one. You also are required to maintain a certain level of discipline because everything is on you.

With a consistent paycheck from a day job, you have less accountability because of the structure that typically comes from a workplace. Whether that means you have a team you can rely upon or even a supervisor who pushes you to excel on slow days, working for a company offers a lot of safeguards that instantly vanish when you start working on your own. If something has to get done and it’s getting close to deadline, you have to stay up and get it done. There may be days when you’d like to be elsewhere, but you have various projects staring you in the face. It comes with the territory.

I manage money based on what I need each month. Having worked a day job where you get a direct deposit every two weeks regardless of what happens, the stark realization of freelance life is that some months may pay more than others. Yet there are certain non-negotiable things that must be paid, like rent. Focusing on things you need versus things you want immediately puts spending habits into perspective.

My ideal earning and entrepreneurship situation would be having a sustainable contract or retainer arrangement with one or more clients. I find that one of the biggest advantages of working as a freelancer is having control of my time and the flexibility to better manage my personal life. If I could work with a company or brand on a long-term contract that would still allow me that flexibility, it would be the perfect fit.

If I were to return to a full-time job, I would need an opportunity that challenges and fulfills me. I also would need understanding and flexibility from my employer. Having your paycheck be your biggest motivator can undermine any sense of fulfillment that your job can bring.

In order to feel secure in my livelihood and wellbeing, I would need a supportive environment with sustainable, measurable goals. One of the biggest advantages of doing freelance work is having peace of mind and a relatively high level of control over your environment.

When you’re a person of color in a professional environment, it is sometimes difficult to be yourself. Code switching is not merely an option, it’s a means of survival. Things that may be culturally relevant to you can quickly become debates among coworkers who have no sense of a culture outside of their own. When you’re working as a freelancer you have more agency in deciding what kind of people you work with and what kind of environment you work in. These factors make it easier to do your best work.

Freelance work can sometimes be viewed negatively, but being a self-starter and knowing how to get work done on your own are invaluable skills, particularly in a volatile media industry.


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