How do you make a living as a freelance journalist

Pay for freelance journalism is atrociously low pay. But I think the problem goes deeper than stingy bosses, etc…

I think that journalism is one of those jobs, like tending bar, that you don’t really have to know much in order to be able to do well. You need to be able to write the inverted pyramid, and you need to be able to ask questions and keep coming back until you get some answers.

So the college graduates are always going to be competing against non-J-school grads for jobs. I myself was a math major and only graduated from college because I was the eldest in a (poor, starving) immigrant family and couldn’t let everybody down. Otherwise, I would have gone into newspaper work right out of high school — and, given how persistent I am, I would have probably done as well if not better as I did with a degree. In fact, I know folks who haven’t graduated from college who did extremely well.

Journalism is a trade. You get better at it the more you practice it, but there’s really no body of knowledge associated with it, as there is with engineering, or medicine, or law, or any other profession. And I think the pay reflects that.

Then, you combine it with the fact that a lot of people want to be journalists — or, at least, journalism majors. It’s an easy major compared to most others (not much math or science, nothing to memorize, no big books to read, no languages to learn). And the job itself is pretty easy, since you’re just talking to people then writing it down in a very minimalistic, formulaic way. Finally, for others, it’s a step towards a career as a writer (I personally, planned to become Hemingway). So there will always be more people than jobs, again driving down the wages.

Another reason for low wages — part-time freelancers. In the National Writers Union, the average income of its members (ie., those writers who cared enough to join a professional organization) was $4,000 a year. In effect, people are writing magazine and newspaper articles as a hobby, or just to see their names in print. How can you possibly compete against someone willing to do the work for free?

I don’t know what to do about it. There are plenty of obvious answers, of course — you can seek out niches where difficult knowledge is required, such as economics writing or science writing or business writing.

You can start your own publication, and get on the profitable side of the supply-and-demand curve.

You can join the National Writers Union, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Newspaper Guild, or another organization and lobby for higher wages. Or go around to high schools and talk folks out of becoming journalists.

You can supplement your reporting income with books or speaking fees, or teaching. (Many journalists do this.)

And you can downgrade your lifestyle. My husband and I are moving to China to write about the economy there, and we’re going to have to radically change the way we live — instead of a house, a small apartment. Instead of cars, subway rides. Which, actually, sounds a lot like moving to New York. 🙂

On the plus side, those of us who have fought our way to our journalism jobs know what it’s like to work hard to go after something you want. I’ve found that, when competing against folks who’ve had things handed to them, I come out ahead a good proportion of the time. I’ve learned to do my research, to follow through, to be persistent, and to schmooze harder than other folks. I think that’s why the folks who make fortunes (as opposed to those who inherit and spend them) often came from working-class or immigrant backgrounds.

When I worked in Russia, covering the post-Soviet civil wars for Reuters, I often came across correspondents living the good life. They basically hung out with each other, had a lot of parties, went skiing, hopped over to Europe on a regular basis. I hung out with local journalists, only went up into the mountains with guerilla fighters — not skiiers — learned the local languages because I couldn’t afford to hire translators when I was just starting out (and then later, I didn’t need to), instead of hiring drivers and cars I would hitch rides with soldiers — on tanks, boats, armored personnel carriers, even one ride in the cargo hold of a military plane. Instead of staying in hotel rooms, I would stay with locals — friends of friends, local journalists, or local police officials, politicians, or military units.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t filing the rehashed press releases that everyone else was.

I see the fact that I can live for weeks on tea and bread as a competitive advantage. That I can talk on an equal level to a soldier or local businessman, without patronizing him. That I have no problem crashing on a couch, or pallet, or on a greatcoat in a trench, or sleeping with bedbugs.

Hopefully, I won’t have to do that in China, especially now that I’m bringing my kids with me. But if I do, no big deal, and my kids can learn to deal the same way I did. You turn on the light, jerk back the blanket, swipe the little suckers onto the floor and wack them with a slipper. The next morning, you fumigate, and go away for a couple of days to let everything air out.

— Maria