An alternative freelance narrative

Challenging the idea that self-employment is inferior to in-house positions

In July it will be two years since the Friday I got a call from HR telling me not to come back to work on Monday.

Getting made redundant back in 2017 was the single best thing to happen to my career. My only regret is not having come to freelancing sooner. For me, freelancing is my job for life. 

So when I read a piece by freelance writer Jacob Silverman on The New Republic titled “Down and Out in the Gig Economy” last week about the sorry state of freelance journalism, it really disheartened me. Even though I came to freelancing as a result of redundancy, it was something I'd secretly dreamed about doing for a long time before it happened. What held me back was fear; I'd bought into the horror stories that freelancing was a mug's game. 

It's not panned out that way at all for me. Quite the opposite, in fact; both my professional and personal lives are a lot richer for being freelance. I make good money, have wonderful freelance "colleagues" and my wellbeing (both physical and mental) is in the best shape it’s ever been. 

Before I go on, I want to make it really clear that I'm not questioning or doubting Silverman's experience. There are plenty of downsides to self-employment and I’m sure there are lots of people who don’t have a great time of it. Freelancing really isn't right for everyone.

But as someone who read pieces similar to that essay before going freelance and was turned off from it, only to later discover it did in fact really work for me, I feel compelled to give another side to the story. So I spoke to some fellow freelancers to hear about their experiences of self-employment and to offer a narrative that freelancing isn’t an inferior choice to salaried employment. 

"While I'd never deny or negate the systematic problems with freelancing (and I have so much respect for people who tirelessly try to change the system every day), I feel as though the narrative around freelancing skews overwhelmingly negative," Amelia Tait, told me. She was on staff for a number of years at the News Statesmen and was the features editor at Shortlist before she went freelance less than a year ago. Since then she's written magazine features for Wired, was the first to debunk the Momo story and is often talking smart about internet culture on the news.

Amelia told me that freelancing has vastly improved her mental health and proved more lucrative than a staff role. "As well as the big upsides (visiting new places, writing for new outlets), there are hundreds of small, brilliant things about freelancing (doing my laundry any day but a Saturday, making doctors appointments whenever I like)," she said. "Working from home and at my own pace also means that my anxiety is at an all-time low."

I wanted to talk to Amelia for this piece because she became a good friend of mine and trusted confidant, entirely because of freelancing. We met last year at a meetup for freelancers and stayed pals. I say this to illustrate something I personally find deeply enriching about freelancing – picking your colleagues. When you're self-employed, it's not just the clients you get to choose but also your professional peers. And I don't know if it's the particular community of freelancers that I'm part of (hello, everyone reading this!) or that there's a general sense of togetherness out there at the moment, but I find the freelance community to be kind, collegiate and deeply generous.  Which is perhaps the reason I felt so strongly that I needed to write this defence of it.  

***

In his essay, Silverman revealed his fee for it. I cannot applaud him enough for doing that, sharing rates among freelancers is so healthy and for someone to do it publicly is deeply admirable. 

He said he was paid $1000 for the essay and described it as "generous in these straitened times." The thing is though, in the freelance world, a rate is as generous as the worker makes it.

You can look at a fee of $1000 for a 2,500 essay in a number of different ways. One is to see it as 40 cents per word, a far cry from the $1-2 per word range some of the elite glossy magazines pay. Another is to look at it based on the time it took to produce. If you can write an essay of that length in two full working days, that equates to a day rate of $500. (What I've just written here is around the 2,000-mark and it took me less than half a day). 

I don't know how long it took Silverman to write his piece (and of course you have to factor in edits) but I bring this up because I think there's a skewed perception among many freelancers when it comes to their pay. It's a complicated issue that goes beyond rates simply not being high enough and has a lot to do with how freelancer pay is set in the first place. 

Being paid per word, or even per article, warps your idea of what your time is worth. A few months ago I did an extremely nerdy exercise in which I tracked how long I was spending on assignments in order to work out how that equates to a day rate. What that experiment revealed is that freelance journalism is terribly under paid, but that corporate work is very lucrative. My highest rate, earned with a piece of branded content, was ten times higher than my lowest, which was for a piece of journalism for a major international publication.

I wasn't surprised to find this because it confirmed some previous "data analysis" I'd conducted on the issue. Last year I polled my writer friends on Twitter about what rates they typically get for a freelance feature for a digital outlet and how many they can write in a week. I did a calculation off the back of the figures that came back in and it averaged out to be £20,000 a year. The London living wage is £19,890. I would hedge my bets that it's a similar situation in the US, if not possibly worse after you factor in needing to pay for your own healthcare. 

Silverman writes, "Given the rock-bottom rates on offer, few writers actually support themselves with full-time freelancing". He's on the money when he says that only a select few can make freelance journalism work on its own. I do not deny this is a huge problem and one that needs addressing urgently. Pay and the treatment of freelancers is why I started the #FairPayForFreelancers campaign.

However freelancers are being paid properly not because they are freelancers, but because there are wider problems within the media industry. Broken business models, a lack of diverse voices, and poor leadership are just the tip of the iceberg. It would be naive to come to freelance journalism – which does not happen in a vacuum but is a cog in a cracked machine – and to expect it not to be a rocky road.   

I spoke to an old boss of mine, Emilie Friedlander who is now also a freelancer and still based in the States. Like me, she came to freelancing as a result of losing her job. "With all the layoffs that were happening at the publications my friends were working for, it felt like the right time to finally go for it," she told me.

"I didn’t want to get another job and then get let go again just a couple months later, and more importantly, I wanted to build a foundation of skills and professional contacts that would shield me against further upheaval to come."

What Emilie told me resonated with how I feel about freelancing as a journalist – it gives you greater agility to see the threats coming down the line and to dodge them. I've said this many times but it bears repeating, I feel more secure as a freelancer in the media business than I ever did in a staff job.

There's also a more positive – and indeed, professional – way to look at the situation. There's a business tenant out there called "multiple streams of revenue." It also applies to personal finance – it's known as diversifying your portfolio or spreading your risk; anyone who wants to be in good financial shape should be doing this, freelancer or otherwise. (And if it's good enough for Warren Buffett, it's good enough for me).

At its most basic level, it means don't put all your eggs in one basket. In practice, as a freelancer, this translates to having a few different ways you make money. This is not a new concept, but because in the last few years alternative revenue streams have emerged for writers and content creators that involve brand work, there's been a conflation that this is in some way dirty. It's not, it's smart business. 

Even some of the most prestigious journalists out there have a side hustle: Steve Coll, a New Yorker staff writer, is the dean of Columbia Journalism School. Sure, he might be doing that entirely for the love of teaching the craft to the next generation of bright young minds, but maybe the regular paycheque and a tenured position helps, too. 

Until I got my head around the idea that it's ok to do another work alongside my journalism, I too worried that what I was doing was, to use Silverman's phrase, a "monetised hobby."

It took a bit of soul-searching on my part to shift that mindset. I had to ask myself some tough questions like, "If the pay is so much better, and the work is a lot easier, why don't I just do branded content?" If I'm really honest with myself, the answer to that has a lot to do with my ego. I can calculate in my spreadsheets that writing for the New York Times doesn't pay as well as my branded content gigs, but boy do I love saying I write for profiles for the NYT at parties.  

My old boss Emilie also told me she asked herself some tough questions when she started freelancing. "That’s what’s sort of great about freelancing: It gives you clarity on the hardships in your life that are born out of circumstance (for example, working a particular role at a particular publication, with a specific set of coworkers and managers) and the hardships that you’re experiencing because of your own patterns."

She said that freelancing gives you the opportunity "to decide how you’re going to use every moment of your time, which projects you’re going to take on, and what the hell you actually want to be doing with your life." She added: "It was hard to even begin to think about those things when I was on staff, and I’m grateful that freelancing has basically forced me to come face to face with questions I was too afraid to address before."

***

About six months into freelancing, I read something that had a profound impact on how I've since navigated my self-employed career. 

Jen A. Miller has been a freelancer for 14 years, she's a regular contributor to the New York Times and writes their Running newsletter. Jen also writes a newsletter about freelancing, which I highly recommend subscribing to it, especially any of you US-based readers out there. (She's also teaching at this business of freelancing workshop in Colorado, which looks fantastic.) 

In January last year, she wrote a piece for Poynter titled "13 things I've Learned in 13 Years of Freelancing". It's one of those lists in which every single point is gold dust. She talks about knowing your worth, being collegiate with fellow freelancers, working smarter and catching a midday movie every now and again.

The common thread to everything she says in that piece is that to make freelancing work, you have to pour all your energy into treating it as a real business. I return to Jen's piece often, using it as a mini-mantra for my business of one. It helped me set my own values for my career and set me on this path to be the professional freelancer I hope to be.  

When I really think about it, The New Republic piece ultimately came undone for me because it doesn't speak to the values I hold for my own freelance business. In fact, there's one single sentence that cemented it all for me: "If I am to rant about the conditions of my pseudo-employment, I should not exempt The New Republic, a magazine for which I have written for seven-plus years and several ownership regimes without ever receiving a job offer." 

I don't write freelance pieces with the hope or expectation that I will secure a full-time job. Even from the publications I write for on a regular basis. I freelance because I want to pick and choose whom I write for, when and on what terms. I am a freelancer because I want to be self-employed, not because I'm trying to get a "real job". This is my real job, complete with its own set of challenges and rewards.

I worry that framing freelancing as some kind of waiting room for the actual career to start devalues freelancing as a career in its own right. In fact, I don't think it's even particularly helpful to compare in-house work and freelancing because they are two very different forms of work, both as valuable as each other but suited to very different types of people. 

Emilie put it very well when she told me that she wouldn't necessarily say that she enjoys the one existence more than the other.  She said: "But at this point in my career, and at this moment in time historically, I’d rather focus my efforts on the ways that freelance writers and editors can band together to bring about positive change in our situation than rely on a single employer to provide everything for me."