In a nod to today’s shaky business environment at many media outlets, a new graduate program aims to teach its students how to survive as a journalist in a gig economy.
The University of Colorado Boulder is creating a master of arts in journalism practice that’s designed to give journalists practical advice for succeeding as a one-person business.
Trust me on this: It’s needed.
I’ve been freelancing since 2002, and I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for almost 13 years. Often, I’ve felt like the stepchild kept under the stairs of the journalism world: tolerated but not exactly welcome, which was especially true during the Great Recession when hundreds of jobs were sheared from newspapers. At one party during the crux of it, a staffer at a local paper refused to shake my hand and spat at me that I was taking jobs from “real” reporters.
I can’t imagine that happening now. Today, freelancers make up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, and 63 percent of freelancers say perceptions of freelancing have become more positive according to a 2016 report on freelancing from Upwork and the Freelancers Union. Attitudes about freelancers within journalism has shifted, too, as journalists who previously worked within the old legacy system embraced what was, at least to them, the brave new world of being a hired gun. This, coupled with the rise of social media (and more shearing of jobs) has turned journalists from just being a byline into brands, whether they stick with fulltime gigs or not.
This reality has pushed through to journalism schools, too, in a few ways: freelancing skills are now taught in classes other than magazine writing; some schools offer stand-alone seminars and workshops on freelancing; and others are teaching entrepreneurial journalism outright.
“We’re in a changing media landscape where these great big companies are not employing our graduates at the same rate they were in the ’80s and ’90s, and a lot of people are coming in and making their own kind of brand,” said Dr. Jennifer Greer, president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and both professor and associate provost at the University of Alabama.
Programs are starting to address how to train those kinds of writers, whether they plan to freelance for a little while before finding the right job, part time while doing something else or, forever. “How do you raise money to do the type of things that are important to you as a journalist and important to your audience?” she added.
When Dr. Andrew Mendelson, associate dean and professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, joined CUNY after being at the Temple University Klein College of Media and Mass Communication 2 1/2 years ago (disclosure: Mendelson hired me to teach a one-credit freelancing course at Temple that is no longer offered), he said that freelancing had already been part of both regular coursework, including in a required course on pitching and working with editors, and standalone workshops the school already taught. He does expect at least one course on freelancing to be added in the near future.
“That’s an acknowledgment of the changing sort of nature of journalism jobs has been a big part of the program before I got here,” he said of CUNY’s approach to teaching freelancing and entrepreneurial journalism. “It’s really recognizing that students have to be able to not only write good stories but also ideas they can sell to editors before that, and recognize that’s part of the normal work flow of journalism now.”
The Rochester Institute of Technology launched its journalism program in 2009, which Dr. Andrea Hickerson, director of the school of communication, said allowed them to start from a position of the journalism world already being in chaos. “All along, our attitude has been we assumed that our students would not go to work for legacy organizations and probably would be freelancers,” she said. “We wanted to train them so they could be a functional small business.”
That’s why their curriculum requires that they take courses at the school’s college of business. “One is digital entrepreneurship where they learn personal marketing of their personal brand,” she said. Another is in managing a small business. Freelancing is part of journalism courses, too, with lessons on pitching, building a digital portfolio and packaging content regularly taught within the program.
Journalism chair Dr. Elizabeth Skewes explained how the program at the University of Colorado Boulder will work. It’s scheduled to launch next fall (pending approval, which Skewes said they should have later this month) and will be a one-year, online course. (Disclosure: Skewes has asked me to teach a remote class in the program.)
It will focus on entrepreneurial journalism, and have courses on writing, production, journalism funding models, coding, contract negotiation, copyright, and what she said is “essentially how to be in the journalism world in the gig economy.” She said it will also benefit journalists who don’t expect to stay at one organization for their careers, too, even if they hope to not transition to freelancing.
“Market models are changing. Even if you work for a publication or a news organization it’s an economy where you become more of a brand where people recognize you for what you bring to it rather than just be a reporter for The New York Times. You have to have your own identity,” she said.
The goal of the program in a world where journalists can’t just be a fly on the wall anymore, she said, is to give them what they need to work within this new job environment, whether they work within a legacy system or strike out on their own — “to give people more information about how they can be the masters of their own destiny.”
Five Things To Consider If You Want to Freelance
1. It’s more about running a small business than writing. You can be the greatest journalist in the world, but if you are too timid to ask a publication why they haven’t paid you yet, or you can’t fire a client who is so so nice to you but still hasn’t paid you at all, you’re going to have a rough go of it. And if you get into freelancing and realize you don’t have these skills, that’s okay! But it may not be the right way to approach journalism for you.
2. Don’t take advice from those who quit. The “I tried freelancing for three months and it’s awful” piece is so common it feels like its own genre by now. It’s not a bad thing to see these points of view, but if you want to make this work, seek out freelancers who have turned this into a fulfilling, well paying career. If you don’t have such a freelancer in your life, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and Freelance Success are good places to start. They’ve both been vital to my own freelance success.
3. It's a flexible job, but you need to set boundaries. I don’t work on a traditional schedule, but I have my routine, and it forces me to sit down and do things I may not want to do, like following up on late payments, write pitches, set up phone calls. Also: Everyone will ask you to pick them up from the airport. Learning to say no is hard but necessary.
4. Remember, you can make money doing this. It takes a lot of hard work, and understanding the ins and out of the business that is freelancing, like contract negotiations and, yes, collections, but I know plenty of freelancers who have been doing this for decades and, year in and year out, make six figures.
5. Don’t write for free. Ever. You’re worth a lot more than that, no matter where you are in your freelancing career.