January 7, 2022

I love when my former students land journalism jobs.

There’s nothing like the external validation of full-time employment to prove a journalism degree’s worth.

At least, that’s what I used to think.

Last summer, a friend told me a former student declined an entry-level editing job at her magazine. I barreled through the first four stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression — in what seemed like an instant. I didn’t make it to the last stage — acceptance — until that student, whom I had recommended for the job, emailed me.

“I’ve had a couple decent job interviews at a few places, but all of them felt like positions that would overwork me, stifle my creative flow and unfortunately underpay,” she told me.

She’s chosen to begin her journalism career as a freelancer instead.

To understand why young people with journalism degrees want to freelance, I interviewed six young journalism school graduates who are freelancing in lieu of looking for full-time employment. Two are former students. Four responded to a source call on the Study Hall listserv. Their reasons include creative freedom, flexibility and the belief that freelancing is better for their careers — and their mental health.

Young freelance journalists are a community.

To someone just starting out in the tumultuous journalism industry, freelancing does not seem as comparatively risky as it did when journalism careers had more established paths. And freelancing is certainly less lonely these days.

A whole industry helping people freelance is thriving online and outside of academia. The podcast “The Writers’ Co-Op” breaks down the process and offers scores of resources. Newsletters like Freelancing with Tim and Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week are inexpensive and informative. (Tim Herrera, the founder of the former, even offers a 50% off student discount, welcoming members for $3 a month or $30 a year, far less than most textbooks.)

It was a student who told me about the massive freelancer network Study Hall, which I joined last year. With more than 7,000 members, the network has seen consistent growth since its launch in 2015, said editorial operations director Rachel Kincaid. In addition to a Slack chat, editor databases and an active listserv, it offers a weekly “Opportunities” newsletter with freelance calls, as well as information about fellowships, internships and jobs.

The advice requests I get from graduates who want to freelance now rival the asks for job references. This spring, I’ll teach the first freelance writing class at Kent State’s School of Media and Journalism. It filled so fast we had to add more seats.

Freelancing offers more creative freedom and flexibility — and not much less stability — than today’s entry-level journalism jobs.

“I’m happy that I don’t work somewhere where I have to write three articles a day,” said Sara Harrison, who graduated from UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2019. “I’m happy that I get to write stories that I’m proud of and that I think add something to the world and are not just social media aggregates.”

After graduation, Harrison got a 9-month fellowship at Wired on the science and business desk. After that, she secured contract assignments with the magazine that helped launch her career as a freelancer.

Diana Kruzman started freelancing while pursuing a joint master’s degree in journalism and Near Eastern studies at New York University. A professor encouraged her to apply for grants while she was also looking for a job.

After graduating in spring 2021, Kruzman accepted the grants and turned down the job offers. She now writes about the environment, religion and urbanism from Columbus, Ohio.

“I like what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m getting to work on things I enjoy, and, financially, because of the grants, I’ve been able to be OK. And so, for the foreseeable future, at least the next couple of months, I’m still freelancing.”

For students with specific journalistic ambitions outside of hard news, freelancing may be the shortest path to publishing the work they want to write.

“When I looked at the people who are writing the pieces that I like to read and the media that I like to consume, they were all freelancers,” said Ile-Ife Okantah, who graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from my school this summer. She’s working a part-time, paid journalism internship while writing cultural criticism and entertainment stories.

“The pandemic really showed me that I produce my best work when I can create my own schedule, and I can prioritize my mental health and prioritize the way that I work versus how I was taught that I am supposed to work,” she said. “The work is better. What I’m producing really shows that.”

The entrepreneurship movement in J-schools has led to more journalism graduates freelancing.

The ranks of freelancers have grown in recent years. Record numbers of Americans are quitting their jobs, and the value of remote work has more workers considering becoming freelancers. As traditional jobs in journalism have disappeared — and existing, entry-level ones seem like a grind — it’s not surprising graduates are choosing to freelance.

The shift may also stem from the entrepreneurial journalism movement in academia. In 2007, Arizona State University professor Dan Gillmor encouraged journalism students “to invent your own jobs.” Many schools now offer courses and specializations in entrepreneurial journalism. Leading educators in this area say teaching students entrepreneurship means encouraging a risk mindset, instilling business skills and helping students learn how to pitch, brand and promote.

But there appears to be a disconnect between what some of us are teaching students about entrepreneurship and what they want to learn. While gearing instruction to help the industry innovate is important, students want the practical skills necessary to start their own freelancing businesses on their own terms.

Frustration with J-schools’ failings here lit up Twitter a few months ago after Columbia Journalism School graduate Meira Gebel said she’d pitched a story on the topic — and was turned down by “all the major media publications” (including Poynter). Her story was later published in Business Insider.

“I felt as if the journalism school that taught me to idealize the importance of the craft had failed to teach me the realities of the industry,” she wrote. One of her sources told her, “Freelancing is the new entry-level job.”

Freelancing can be a good move at any career stage — even before graduation and while working full time.

It’s a mistake, however, to think of freelancing as an alternative to a full-time job, said Elizabeth Mays, a lecturer at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University who wrote a chapter on freelancing in the collaborative (and excellent) open textbook “Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship.” She said freelancing is a flexible option for people at all career stages.

“While you’re in school, it could be helping you build a portfolio of clips in the area you want to be in,” she said. “It can also be a great job if later in your career, you’re in transition.”

Like Mays, I’ve also freelanced at different times in my life (including now). I covered local meetings for a newspaper while I was in journalism school. Then I freelanced full-time in between graduate school and my first magazine job, back when some editors still wanted snail-mailed queries. The market was big enough then to support writers who wanted to focus on news and feature writing. For most writers today, that’s no longer the case.

Writers often switch between writing branded content and journalism, ad copy and features. Building a specialty is the goal now, not racking up news clips.

“Go the branded journalism route if you want to have some type of really supportive thing and then pursue what you want off to the side,” recommended Colin Hanner, who graduated with a journalism degree from Ohio University in 2015. He worked several full-time jobs, including at a small newspaper, a satire publication and in branded content for a tech company, before going freelance in April. He’s been able to balance feature stories and branded content while writing screenplays.

Professors should encourage their students to develop their individual areas of expertise, said Jeremy Caplan, director of teaching and learning at City University of New York’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. The more distinctive they can be in the marketplace, the more valuable they’ll be to consumers and employers. He said there are multiple benefits to starting out working for yourself.

“One is that you develop your skill at creating a product or service,” he said. “You also refine your technical skills of writing, of editing, of polishing, of distribution, of marketing your own work. And you empower yourself as someone who has agency to say something of significance. You develop a skill that then allows you to have more agency in how your career unfolds.”

When I wrote a book on medical students a decade ago, the dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine told me medical schools can’t teach their students everything they need to know to become doctors. Medical science is changing too fast for that.

Instead, medical educators teach students “how to think like a doctor.”

J-schools can’t teach their students everything they need to know to be journalists either. The field is too vast, the specialties multiplying. But we can teach them to think like journalists — and introduce them to the tools and skills on which they’ll need to build.

Today that means teaching them to think like entrepreneurs who get excited about adapting their skills and knowledge to emerging tools, platforms and audiences. But it also means teaching them how to write pitches and business plans and how to manage their time and finances. Jeff Inman, associate professor of journalism at Drake University, has been teaching a freelance writing class for 15 years. He said his lesson on taxes is the one his students ask him for again years later.

A few months after my former student turned down the editing job, I called her for an update on her freelancing. “It’s been good so far,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been able to be in control of myself as a writer … creating work that I’m passionate about and the people I’m working with enjoy and are publishing.”

But she’s still learning things about the business side of being a freelancer.

She said she could have used a course on the subject.

Want more information? Here are 6 tips from former journalism students who have chosen to freelance, along with advice from professors and freelancing experts who are filling the information gap. 

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Jacqueline Marino is a professor of journalism at Kent State University where she teaches writing, ethics and the business of journalism. Her academic work on…
Jacqueline Marino

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