Freelance journalism isn’t all it’s sometimes cracked up to be. When I couldn’t connect to the internet this morning, for no apparent reason, my lack of easy access to intelligent, onsite, free IT support, taken for granted by anyone who has a nine-to-five, got me thinking about all the bad things about the self-employed life.
You get none of the benefits like paid holidays and pensions that employed people take for granted. You also have to mess about with book-keeping and doing annual accounts: after a few years you get the hang of this but for the many journos who, like me, are simply crap at administration and arithmetic, it’s a constant chore. It could get worse too: for tax reasons, journalists who work on a contract basis are being increasingly asked by employers to become limited companies, and this could affect me soon too, as I’m in the running for a couple of contract positions. Being limited involves even more admin.
Then there’s trying to get paid. I’ve only just received a tip-off fee I was promised from a national newspaper a year ago. The time I had to spend chasing this up over the course of months was far disproportionate to the measly £100 involved, and it was only when I got the NUJ involved that the paper’s finance department finally creaked into action and coughed up.
There is also the constant struggle to find enough work. A report out this week reckons something like a quarter of all freelance journalists are struggling to find enough work. Swathes of redundancies in the media mean more competition from other journalists driven out from their cosy corporate lives into the freelance wilderness. Then there’s always a glut of would-be writers willing to work for peanuts, increasingly from other English-speaking countries, notably India, where many people can write English reasonably well, albeit not idiomatically. Plus the far lower cost of living means they can work for sums most British journalists wouldn’t stack shelves for.
And there are plenty of publishers willing to take advantage of this situation. I’m referring not to conventional print media publishers, many of whom understand the desirability of employing qualified, experienced native speakers if they want a quality product that readers will buy. I’m talking about the growing number of online publications whose sole aim in life appears to be to fill pages with search-engine-optimised text. They’re known as content mills – this is a phrase I’d never come across until recently, which shows either that it’s a fairly new trend or that I don’t get out much. Possibly the latter.
The owners of these mills don’t especially care what the text says, or how well it’s written. They just want text. Cheap text. Even better, free text. Sometimes the work offered is ethically dubious, notably requests to rewrite (plagiarise) existing articles from elsewhere on the internet, or to write university students’ essays for them. The mills have the nerve to ask writers to work for nothing, or next to nothing, on the basis that it will give them “exposure”. If you have had work published, the theory goes, you will find it easier to get paid work in future. The logic is hugely arguable, since being published on a rubbish website with low editorial standards, dubious ethical standards and little content worth reading is hardly a recommendation.
You only have to spend some time on the writers’ and journalists’ forums on LinkedIn to see how rife these so-called opportunities are and to see how many people are eagerly and naively applying for them, only for the inevitable disappointment when they realise the work pays less than the minimum wage per hour.
Not all is doom and gloom as a freelance, of course, or no-one would ever do it. You can’t beat the variety – I get asked to do all manner of things… interviews with business people, proof-reading chick-lit, writing web copy, editing staff newsletters… I have friends who happily mix a bit of journalism in with other things that bring them a bit of income, such as charity fund-raising, teaching English, and singing.
It’s all about adaptability, as I found yesterday when I went up to London to attend a journalists’ and PRs’ networking event. I’ve been to these things before and they’ve proved quite useful. Even if you don’t meet anyone who can put work your way, you usually meet someone who you can have an interesting chat with about non-work related stuff – last time it was politics and song-writing, the time before that genealogy and IT. So I was full of good intentions to rock up there at opening time (6.30pm), have my free drink, work the room and come away with lots of business cards.
Things went a bit awry though, when I popped in to a friend’s office in Mayfair at about 4pm with a view to us going for a quick cup of tea before I headed off to the Strand for the networking. I’m not sure how, but the nice pot of Earl Grey I’d had in mind turned into a bottle of Merlot. My friend Jayne argued very convincingly that the Merlot was a far better idea, and that it would be best all round if I forgot about the Earl Grey. I found I agreed with her and we spent a very nice evening under the heaters outside a crowded pub talking to random strangers. I realised at some point, well into the second bottle of Merlot, that I’d missed the networking event and that in any case it would be best if I took myself home to bed, but as J pointed out, I’d still had some networking of a kind.
The only problem with that logic is that it gave me this morning a somewhat pallid complexion and a rather jaded view of the world – to coin a phrase I heard only today for the first time, it was a “hump day” – to which the computer’s decision to bugger me about and not connect to the internet just added further misery. Never mind – tomorrow I have a meeting with a proper creative writer, who actually produces novels and stuff, as opposed to pissed-off bloggy rants against the world. There might be some proof-reading work to come from it, or there might not – either way it will be nice to talk about the creative process.
And the internet has come back on, so things are looking up.