Press Gazette, 2 August 2007
Steady income, generous expenses, lively office and free pens – you won’t get any of these when you go freelance. So what’s the attraction? Monica Porter, a freelance for seven years, reveals
In the mid-Nineties, when I was a full-time feature writer on a high-octane national daily, I once produced a list of the pros and cons of my demanding job. There were a lot of pros, from the steady income and generous expenses, to the delights of sharing an office with legendary Fleet Street characters during their ‘last hurrah’, and the free supply of notebooks and pens from the stationery cupboard. Best of all, when a big story broke, I enjoyed the thrill of being in what felt like the hub of the universe.
There was only one item under ‘cons’, and it read something like this: ‘By the end of the week I feel battered and brutalised by ruthless office politics, my ego crushed, emotionally wrung out, physically shattered, and I just want to lie down in a dark room and weep.’
Now, after seven years of working as a freelance contributor to a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, I can compile a fairly authoritative pros-and-cons list on freelancing. Curiously, it’s the mirror image of that other list from years ago – i.e. long on cons and short on pros.
Most of the cons, I suppose, are predictable. No paid holidays, no company car or health insurance, no pension. You’re on your own, baby. And as for the annual pay rise – what a sick joke that is to the freelancer! No publication I know has ever willingly raised its fees to contributors. Outrageously, they sometimes even try to lower them – usually because of a drop in advertising revenues, as if this was your fault.
You can’t rely on being given assignments. You must generate your own story ideas and pitch them to editors, all of whom are stretched for time and not all of whom are very pleasant. This relentless pitching from the ‘outside’ can be wearing. Sometimes you really have to grit your teeth before picking up the phone. As for emails, when a commissioning editor gets up to 100 of them a day, it’s no wonder you can sometimes wait a fortnight for a reply…that is if your email hasn’t been swept away, unseen and unread, by the cyber-deluge.
Chasing up unpaid invoices is a good game for those slow days. It might take a month, two months or three to be paid for a piece of work. Who can tell? Not the crazy, mixed-up accounts departments of our media organisations, that’s for sure. The record for me was 10 months.
The worst thing is that it’s quite lonely in your ivory tower, without the camaraderie of office life. When all’s said and done, we journos are a gregarious bunch. Sure, most of your colleagues would stab you in the back without hesitation and gleefully pinch your byline, but you do feel part of a team and that has its rewards. You’re all in the same boat together. Griping about editorial injustices with other writers is oddly reassuring.
So much for the cons. Here’s the pro (yup, there’s really only one). Journalism is a cut-throat business, full of rivalry and dirty tricks, favouritism, nepotism and cliquey-ness. It’s also notoriously precarious. If you stay on your toes and hold your own in this tough arena, earning a decent living as a ‘sole trader’ with no powerful organisation or dynasty behind you and nothing in your armoury but your wits, talent and skills, I think you can be justifiably proud.
And every once in a while, when you write something that really smacks them between the eyeballs, boy does it feel good.