Freelance Journalists Suffering in Second Wave of News Media Collapse
Rebecca Rosen Lum
Since slashing their staffs over the past several years, newsrooms have been filling in the gaps with freelancers. But a survey of Northern California independent journalists by Guild Freelancers suggests that remedy may not be available for much longer.
Many veteran journalists – the kind newsrooms can count on to turn over a story quickly – are leaving the field.
Most say they still love the news business and would love to keep reporting and editing. But falling freelance rates, coupled with skyrocketing costs for health insurance and other basic living expenses, are making continued careers in journalism feel increasingly unrealistic.
“For me, the freelance life is not sustainable,” said one respondent. “I need a job of some kind to support my journalism habit.”
GuildFreelancers, a unit of California Media Workers designed to support the self-employed, surveyed 116 independent writers and journalists throughout Northern California. While not a scientific sample, the responses offer a snapshot of a profession in flux, focusing on quality of life, the nature and pace of work, and the freelance marketplace. Respondents include writers, photographers, designers, filmmakers, authors, instructors and multi-media producers.
The results question whether society has yet felt the full impact of the past two years' savage journalism cuts.
Most survey respondents were veterans of print newsrooms with at least 20 years on the job, and were either laid off or took a buyout within the last two years. At first pleased with the flexibility and creative freedom freelancing offered, many are now feeling the heat as COBRA and unemployment benefits end, and are augmenting their earnings with work outside the field.
“Would I like to be a full-time journo and do what I love to do?” says one respondent. “Yes. Is that realistic now? No."
Cracked another, “Mothers: Don’t let your babies grow up to be freelancers.”
Most freelance journalists say they enjoy the flexibility and freedom of working independently, but struggle with feelings of isolation, an unsteady income, lack of health care, dated skills and a brutal market.
Many of those new to the game have to learn how to provide all the supports a news organization used to: health coverage, tech support, tax withholding, legal protection. Veteran freelancers appear more comfortable with the salesmanship and administrative tasks that go along with being self-employed.
An overwhelming majority say they treasure the greater latitude freelancing affords, but lament what can be a roller-coaster income. For nearly 75 percent, freelancing is their primary source of income.
It's not all bad: Fifteen percent say quality work is still rewarded with decent pay; slightly fewer say they have more places to pitch their work. Nearly a third agree with the statement, “My professional reputation helps me stand out more than ever.”
But 60 percent say freelance jobs pay less than they used to, and nearly half agree that freelance work is getting harder to find.
"A dollar a word was the gold standard for three decades (no cost-of-living raises, of course),” writes one respondent. “Then online publishing came into the mix and the bottom dropped out. I’ve been asked to write for as little as a dime per word. Hourly rates offered for copywriting and editing services have dropped as low as $10 an hour. Most online outlets won’t go over 50 cents per word. How can anyone make a living this way? I’ve been in the biz for 30 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”