These days, layoffs in journalism are regular news. Journalists find themselves the targets of budget cuts as publications routinely cut work budgets, pay, schedules, head counts or go under altogether.
Journalists exit their newsroom jobs for other reasons, too, like former full-time staffer, Noreen Seebacher did. She had started at a print newspaper where she won multiple awards for breaking news, but the work didn’t suit her growing family.
“I wasn’t laid off,” says Seebacher, whose decision to freelance came after the birth of her second child. “The company would not agree to let me work part time, so I quit.”
Welcome to the agile economy.
Journalists’ work is becoming a permanent part of the gig economy. They are part of the marketplace shift that a Randstad US survey found 70% of employees agree will make a majority of the workforce “agile employees.” They’ll be contractors, consultants, temporary workers, or freelancers.
In fact, 68% of respondents said freelancing fits their lifestyle; 63% believe agile work better prepares them for the workforce of the future; and 58% believe agile work is more lucrative. The changing workforce has many journalists wondering if they’re better off as agile workers.
Seebacher, who now lives in Beaufort, SC, agrees saying, “Freelancing enabled me to relocate with ease when my spouse got a new job and, later, to relocate to any area of the country where I wanted to live — no approval required.”
Can lifelong newsroom journalists succeed as freelancers?
The answer is “yes” with the right support and attitude. You learned to hustle to succeed as a journalist; it’s a competitive industry where only top writers flourish. You’re already used to putting in work, often hours longer than you would in a standard 9-to-5 job, to become a respected journalist.
That means you have the potential to succeed as a freelancer without having to ask, “What gig should I choose?” Your journalism news-gathering skill set includes researching, sourcing, interviewing, pitching to and negotiating with editors, writing on deadline, and networking with industry professionals and other journalists.
If you’ve been in the industry for a while, you’ve had to constantly learn new skills to stay competitive. Those are transferable skills set you up to attract well-paying clients as the two writers interviewed here have.
Transitioning can be easier than you think.
Tom Mangan, who lives with his wife in Winston-Salem, NC, left the newspaper industry in summer 2009 after a decade at the San Jose Mercury News. A copy editor and page designer for 25 years who had done little paid writing, he got offered a 20% pay cut or a small buyout, which he accepted.
“When I took the buyout, I collected unemployment for four days,” he says. “I started getting project offers that paid much better than unemployment, so I stopped filing and started hustling.” Prior to that, the writing Mangan did was for a blog he had launched in 1996.
But Mangan used the skills he gained navigating a newsroom to learn to run a freelance enterprise. If you’ve been a full-time journalist, you can too if you don’t simply “make the best of a bad situation” but “make a whole new situation,” he says.
Here are five keys to making your new freelance enterprise work:
1. Change your working professional mindset.
Just as the media industry isn’t staying the same, you can’t maintain the same “I need to keep a job” thinking and succeed as a freelancer. You’ve heard this before, but job security is history. Today, you have more security with a variety of clients than you do with one: a single employer determining your economic future.
Seebacher has maintained her freelance business over 20 years and concurs that agile work is safer than attempting to hold a job. Initially, she supplemented her freelance work with W2 jobs, but found W2 work less reliable.
“Downsizing, cutbacks and inexperienced managers (who make capricious decisions) make all jobs — 1099 and W2–temporary,” she explains. “At least with 1099 income, you can diversify to protect yourself.”
Mangan had a similar experience after leaving his job but learned the hard way how insecure working for someone else was. “I had another full-time gig within a couple months, but that job went south after about 15 months, and I had nothing lined up — not a single client,” he recalls. As his household’s sole breadwinner, he then knew he had to make freelancing work.
“My freelance business has ebbed and flowed over time,” admits the Seebacher, who gets most of her work by word of mouth. “But it’s always there, a safety net when whatever job I had at the time fell through.”
2. Think like a business owner and brand yourself as one.
You’re running a small business — and it’s essential you have a business owner’s mindset and run your enterprise like one. It’s vital to distinguish yourself as more than a hobbyist, the first step to managing client expectations. Writers who don’t take this basic step can find themselves taken advantage of, especially as it relates to fees and contract terms.
Identify yourself as a small business, consider naming your business and forming an entity. Open a bank business account using the business tax ID you get from the IRS. Create a separate space in your house for your business and plan for personal and family obligations.
Cultivate your business development skills because they’ll be in constant use. Create an exceptional portfolio, conduct social media marketing, develop your pitching skills and learn to network your way to clients.
3. Treat freelancing like your full-time role.
Operating as a business requires a mentality shift, and often it’s as simple as understanding that freelancing is an occupation. You’re in business to generate revenue just as you went to the newsroom to earn a paycheck.
“You have to get up every work day and treat it like a work day,” states Seebacher, who doesn’t wear pajamas and slippers to work. “Get a shower, get dressed and fix yourself the way you might if you worked in an office… That helps with focus.”
Just as important, set a manageable schedule. Otherwise you’ll work nonstop, especially when you first start or want to fill gaps in your cash flow in the early years. Take time off, including vacations and sick time like you did when you worked for an employer.
Seebacher admits struggling with this, finding herself working long hours. “For me, the challenge is recognizing when the day is done,” she explains. If I just work another 30 minutes, then I think I’ll be ‘done.'”
On the flip side, don’t use your freelance flexibility as an excuse to procrastinate. That could cause you to miss deadlines, damaging client trust and costing revenue.
4. Up your content writing skills game.
In this agile economy, freelance journalism doesn’t generate as much money as it did a few decades ago. Willingness to use your journalism skills to become a content writer or copywriter in your journalism niche is essential. Also, learn how to use technology like content management systems (CMS), because clients might expect you to use platforms like WordPress or ClearVoice.
Develop the expected “standard” digital writing skills like SEO knowledge, storytelling skills and content engagement understanding. You must know what fails and what works in content marketing and deliver that consistently.
Says Seebacher, “Over time, as the news industry contracted, journalism morphed to content writing.” Mangan had the same experience as opportunities as news outlets dried up for him.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do journalism work, but it’s likely to become a sideline as rates for news writing decline. If you continue working in journalism, you don’t have to worry about the ethics of working both as a news writer and a brand content writer.
The latter is a communications marketing function, but most brands and news editors expect you’ll do both as a freelancer. They accept that as long as you maintain honesty and a journalist’s integrity when identifying the two writing genres.
However, for some digital brand storytelling, rates aren’t as high as they are for print journalism. That said, as a freelancer, you’re in a better position to negotiate strong fees and payment terms than as an employee.
Mangan has seen his rates increase over the years. “I started out averaging $35 an hour,“ he remembers. “Today it’s $85 an hour, with a few gigs paying north of $125 an hour.” Mangan now generates a six-figure revenue and has since his third year in business.
5. Network with other freelancers for sustainable success.
Most writers get their work from referrals, so networking with other freelancers can help you avoid cash flow problems. Join writers’ groups on social media and in your local community; attend writer events and conferences. Get coffee or work with other freelancers and share leads with them, especially outside your niche.
Follow each other on social media and support each other by commenting on and sharing content posts, but stay a professional. Ask for help with growing your freelance business and be generous with your help in return. Other writers who get to know you might offer referrals after you’ve developed trust and built a connection with them.
When Mangan committed entirely to freelancing, he used this strategy to build his business. “I started networking like crazy, telling everybody I knew that I was looking for writing or editing work,” he recalls. “I joined an online website packed with experienced freelance writers who provide crucial moral support and guidance.
For him, along with his wife’s unwavering support, this was a crucial part of getting work and growing a sustainable business as he entered his 50s. “In the past 10 years we’ve tripled our net worth, bought a new home and made the 20% down payment in cash, and created a strong financial foundation for retirement,” he explains.
Mangan assures newsroom journalists considering going freelance full-time they can succeed by telling them, “There’s definitely money to be made here.”