A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Weighing up the cost of life as a freelancer

Freelancing, despite erratic pay and low rates, is still a feasible path for prospective journalists who are not afraid of rejection, according to a panel of media professionals.

Words by Ronelle Richards
Storify by Hugh McMaster

“Don’t ever let a rejection define you,” said full time freelancer Amy Gray, advice which was backed by a former editor-in-chief of Private Media, Sophie Black, who nonetheless cautioned that freelancing required “a thick skin”.

Junkee editor Steph Harmon said she received almost 20 story pitches a day and writers needed to understand how the editorial process worked.

“Don’t just sit there,” she urged. “You have to be pro-active, as well, and say to them: ‘Please get back to me’, and if they don’t, then move on.”

Gray said she took a lot of time to find the best home for her work.

“Don’t just sit there, you have to be pro-active as well and say to them: ‘please get back to me,’ and if they don’t, then move on.”  — Junkee editor Steph Harmon

“You’ve got to get pretty smart about where you pitch. For me, there’s a bit of a formula.”

This involved writing two big pieces a month for publications such as The Monthly or The Saturday Paper, or for a mainstream newspaper, and following up with “bite-sized” articles, such as short opinion pieces.

But Gray said this strategy could be upended when payments were delayed, such as when Fairfax changed its payments system and she was forced to wait 12 weeks for her money.

Gray, who was taking part in a New News workshop on freelancing at the Wheeler Centre, said making a viable plan was like “freaking Tetris”.

“You have your end-of-the-month goal – unfortunately — and I’m trying to get to that end goal where I need to pay my rent, or whatever, and then I suck it up and go and do a little contract,” she said.

However, Gray said this was made even tougher as the money paid for freelance articles had been halved in recent years, with almost no publications willing to pay an agreed rate per word.

“I’ve been talking to a whole lot of other writers and it’s just a little bit better than it has been . . . I say yes to everything.”  — New Matilda national affairs correspondent Ben Eltham

The panellists were unaware of any publications currently paying at the rate of 93 cents a word, as recommended by the journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, but New Matilda’s national affairs correspondent, Ben Eltham, said it was not all bad news.

“I’ve been talking to a whole lot of other writers and it’s just a little bit better than it has been,” he said.

His advice to journalists was not to underestimate the importance of building a relationship with different editors, and to be flexible.

“I say yes to everything,” he added.

Gillian Terzis, who edits the quarterly magazine The Lifted Brow, also advised freelancers, particularly women, to not put themselves down when pitching to an editor.

“Strike a balance between being confident and being open to collaboration.” — The Lifted Brow editor Gillian Terzis

“Strike a balance between being confident and being open to collaboration.”

But what about the issue of aspiring journalists writing for free in order to get a foothold in the industry?

Junkee’s Harmon, who is a member of the Pay the Writers group, said journalists needed to weigh up what being paid meant to them, and not to feel bad about writing gratis.

“There are different ways you can get paid for your work,” she said. “It might be feedback. It might be mentoring. Just keep that in mind.”

But Harmon was adamant on one rule for freelancers. “Don’t ever write for a publication if you’re not getting edited and not getting feedback.”

[<a href=”//storify.com/hughmcmaster/this-freelancing-life” target=”_blank”>View the story “This Freelancing Life” on Storify</a>]

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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