As a longtime member and past president of the DC Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, I attend the AAJA annual convention whenever possible to reconnect with former colleagues and hear new ideas. A convention, held shortly after I started my freelance journalism practice, sticks in my memory. I ran into an old friend between sessions, and she asked me where I worked. “I work freelance,” I explained with a smile. Her face fell and she held out an arm for support. “I’m so sorry,” she replied.
This reaction is not unusual. For many salaried journalists who have never met a successful freelance journalist, “freelance” sounds like code for the unemployed. Quite often, people assume that anyone who works freelance shouldn’t be able to hack it into a newsroom or secretly look for a “real” job. As a full-time freelance journalist since 2008, I actively affirm my choice of this career every November 7 — the anniversary of the Newhouse News Service’s Washington bureau closing and losing my job as national correspondent. I earn more now than ever when I was employed in a newsroom, have control of my schedule, and write on topics as varied as children and trauma, the science of racial bias, disability justice movement, why human skulls are shrinking, and what psychology tells us how to bridge political or identity divides.
Many freelancers I know became freelancers due to layoff, consolidation, or a toxic writing environment that drove them out of a media organization. This is especially true for journalists of color, women, people with child or elderly care responsibilities, journalists with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ journalists, and other marginalized groups. Unfortunately, these groups are also less likely to have sufficient access to credit or financial reserves to support themselves as entry-level freelancers until they earn enough income to match their newsroom salaries. . Time and time again I have seen talented colleagues quit journalism after a few months of freelancing because the start-up phase is so difficult.
This dynamic poses an existential threat to a healthy and diverse journalistic ecosystem. American society is increasingly polarized by political parties and other facets of identity. Yet the people who can authentically tell stories that build empathy for other perspectives and lived experiences – diverse journalists – are underrepresented in newsrooms and among journalism decision makers. Our industry has struggled with a lack of racial and gender diversity for decades, especially among newsroom leaders. Since 2001, even as 40% of newsrooms have gained racial diversity, an additional 16% have lost it, according to the American Society of News Editors’ Diversity Survey. Women made progress in 32% of newsrooms but lost ground in 21%, ASNE found. This two steps forward, one step back situation becomes more serious in the context of the pandemic, which has disproportionately harmed communities of color, cost women jobs and led to increased burnout among journalists.
The turnover of journalism will only continue. Newsroom jobs have fallen 26% since 2008 and are expected to grow just 6% by 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the other hand, freelancing is booming. Across all industries, self-employed grew 34% in 2021, led by Gen Z and Millennials and women, according to a report by MBO Partners. At the same time, the explosion of tools for reaching audiences directly, from Substack and Patreon to social media, provides individual journalists with an abundance of platforms to create and distribute our work. Increasingly, journalists want to work on a freelance or part-time basis, whether for reasons of mental health, child and elder care, disability or for the independence it promises.
Freelancing is the future, but only if freelance journalists have a path to financial success. News organizations should treat freelancers as a valuable addition to their writers, editors and producers, compensating us fairly for the value we provide and investing resources in recruiting and managing their freelance contributors. Many news outlets rely entirely on freelancers to publish, and others use freelancers to cover geographies or topics that are important but don’t warrant a staff position. Unfortunately, many freelance journalists report being underpaid, exploited, ghosted by editors and asked to do extra work beyond the scope of their assignments.
The other part of a healthy freelance ecosystem includes self-education, community, and the tools that support freelance activity. That’s why my colleague Chandra Thomas Whitfield and I co-founded The Center for Independent Journalists, to share with other freelancers of color the strategies, technologies and mutual support that have allowed us both to thrive in as freelance journalists for over a decade. CIJ’s mission is to provide financial and emotional sustainability for freelancers, with a focus on journalists of color and other marginalized groups. We’re bringing this community together at CIJ’s inaugural Independent Conference on March 11-12 for two full days of learning, networking with and among publishers, and connecting.
We are here, committed to independent careers, and I argue that we are crucial to the future of journalism itself. In the media, the only certain thing is change. As a freelance journalist who receives income from a dozen news organizations, I’m sure I can make a good living doing important work, regardless of the turnover in journalism or who controls the newsrooms. Together with CIJ, we hope to extend that safety to tens of thousands of talented freelance journalists who have unique stories to tell and talents to contribute.