Freelance and Free time

The new media landscape is changing how we work

By Aleema Ali

It’s easy for some people to get a job, work a nine to five shift, get great benefits for not only them but their family as well, and have a solid retirement fund. For journalists, it doesn’t seem so cut and dry all the time.

Most live a fast-paced life that demands so much. Some enjoy the exciting adventures and benefits freelance offers, but some are forced into it because of unstable circumstances. Freelancing may be the new norm.

According to the Canadian Association of Journalists, members of the journalism community have been decreasing steadily since the highest number of journalists of 1,499 members in 2006 to 1,272 in 2011. This might have young journalists questioning if they chose the right feild, but freelancing may work in some people’s favour.

For Stacey LeeKong, a freelance/contract journalist currently writing for Flare magazine and another online content provider, freelance was not a choice. However, it may have been the best thing that happened to her. Stacey started at Chatelaine magazine and made her way through others such as Canadian Living and House & Home. The reason she freelances now is due to Canadian Living magazine restructuring that led to her being laid off.

She says freelancing has its benefits, like travelling and flexibility, but it has its downsides as well.

“I don’t like it, but not everyone feels that way,” she says.

When it comes to legal protection like in a union, she says there is none or very little of that. Also, the question of benefits and retirement comes into play.

“I’ve never not had benefits. I’ve had a full-time job since I graduated [in 2007 from Guelph-Humber]. I get no benefits from either company, whether its like health care, vacation or any of that,” LeeKong says.

However, she says there are ways to get around that. For many years, Stacey has contributed to an RRSP account in the case of an emergency.

“Journalism is notoriously unstable,” she says.

In terms of retirement, LeeKong has a very insightful perspective.

“No one starting out in journalism can expect to stay with a company for decades, so you’re really not going to be able to grow your pension plan at Rogers [for example] for a really long time because you’re likely not going to be at Rogers for a really long time,” she says.

LeeKong has been in the magazine business for about 10 years now, and freelancing has made her realize what she really wants from her field of work. She feels that you cannot take a job just to have a job, it must act as a stepping stone in getting to your ultimate goal.

“I’m sort of freelancing until the right opportunity comes along. Doing these freelance jobs gets me closer to where I eventually want to be than taking a full-time job that will give me benefits that isn’t quite right.”

For her, it would be an “evolution” to a leadership role in the future, since she has had many editorial positions in the past.

LeeKong has some solid advice for journalists far and wide.

“If you want to make any substantial jump in your salary, you can’t stay in one company. You really have to negotiate as best as you can when you’re starting. And do what you can outside of a company to sort of prepare for your retirement,” she says.

Stacey says things like producing video content or writing for different media platforms can make more money for a person than just staying in one place forever.

As for the future of journalism, Stacey is fully aware of where the market is going.

“The likelihood of getting a full-time job reduces as companies are sort of shrinking their workforces and asking their staffers to do more with less. You have to look out for yourself, more than having a company look out for you.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if journalists didn’t have to worry about being forced to freelance or be on a contract? Some don’t realize how unstable journalism is and stay under the impression they can apply for a job and be set. This can be the case, but Stacey makes a good point in saying if journalists stay in one place, it may not always benefit them in the ways they imagined.

Sheila Walsh, Humber College’s radio broadcasting program coordinator and part-time CHUM FM announcer, agrees and advises her students to work on branding themselves and be open to all possibilities.

Walsh says people really only see freelancers who announce more than produce or host. At most, a freelancer could do a weekend show part-time, which is what she does right now.

“I’m a casual slash freelance fill-in at CHUM FM. I used to work there full-time and basically I have an arrangement with them that when they need me I go in for a week or two and I get paid per shift,” she explains.

In radio, they also use freelancers as fill-ins if someone is sick or on vacation, but not to the full extent.

“I’ll use CFRB for an example, News Talk 10-10. So, they would have their regular full- time and they would have a few [freelancers] on retainer so that if one was sick or needed some vacation, they would bring you to make a couple of switches here and there but they’d actually bring somebody in to work that shift for that person,” she says.

Walsh says building up a reputation for yourself is a great way to get your foot in the door in the broadcast world, or any platform for that matter. Networking and creating your own brand and digital property isn’t easy but it does definitely pay off, and it pays well she says. She agrees that having a full-time job can hold you back from creating a name for yourself as well sometimes.

To say freelancing is the new norm in broadcast could be an understatement. Walsh says she thinks that’s where the industry is headed. More and more people are building their brand and creating personalities. They come with their own blog, social media, or channels nowadays, which makes them 10 times more valuable.

“This gives you a little bit of negotiation power. If they’re hiring somebody out of school who has 10,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram and you are your established company, all of a sudden, you’re more attractive to somebody. Because with hiring you comes 10,000 additional viewers or listeners,” Walsh says.

However, when handing in an invoice to whomever you’re writing or announcing for, said person has 90 days to pay them, which could have repercussions, according to Walsh. She says “your rent is due every month, and your bills are due every month, this could affect your bills and personal life.”

If someone manages to become popular and really hone their announcing skills, there are certain rules freelancers have to follow. Non-compete clauses are put in place, meaning they cannot freelance for a competing station.

“You can’t fill in at CFRB and then go down to Talk 640, the competition, and fill in with them too,” Walsh uses as an example.

All-in-all, Walsh says it is very competitive and some stations can cut you in a second if they wanted to.

“The industry, all industries that are show-busy kind of media, can be volatile. And you can be tossed out because you’re a number and they need to make a cut,” she says. “Make your own opportunities.”

Long-time freelancer and award-winning content creator Jennifer Goldberg knows a thing or two about the industry as well. She came from companies like Yahoo, CBC and Reader’s Digest after graduating. The writer, who has been freelancing for over five years, now has her own custom content agency called Tavanberg which she considers to be one of her greatest professional achievements. Alongside writing for magazines like Flare and Today’s Parent she considers successes.

Goldberg says the first time she was given the opportunity to freelance was when a colleague of her’s from Reader’s Digest could not finish a project they had started and needed someone to take over. She jumped at the chance and didn’t regret it.

“It really resonated, the idea of working for myself, so I decided that that was what I was going to do,” she says.

Leaving Yahoo gave her the opportunity to explore the world of freelance and the benefits that came with it. Goldberg says she liked the independence, being able to connect with more senior people in a company and work directly with clients, something she could not accomplish with her full-time position at Yahoo.

“When you’re in a job there’s hierarchy and there’s politics. But when you work for yourself you have the ability to show people what you can do,” Goldberg says. “You really have to hone your skills.”

In journalism, journalists are taught different styles of writing for newspaper, magazine and broadcast and it can get frustrating trying to keep up with all of them. Goldberg, surprisingly, says she doesn’t. Having the experience writing for CBC and then switching to magazine, Goldberg says those demand two completely different styles of writing, but she knows what she’s doing.

“If you are working on several projects in a day, you do have to sort of wrench your brain into your different clients’ style-guides and remember ‘do they say this? Should I write in this tone?’ I like that part, I find that is challenging and that’s one of the things I do well,” she says.

Working for someone else has its blemishes. Although working for someone can be demeaning, Goldberg says starting off full-time somewhere isn’t so bad just to get people on their feet. She believes that a lot more people are turning towards entrepreneurship and that freelancing gives journalists the opportunity to work for themselves and call their own shots.

“It’s a huge benefit to get that experience of working for other people. I think its really invaluable. And quite honestly when you’re just starting out, if you can get a job, a permanent publishing job then that’s probably the best way to go.”

Freelancing was not what Goldberg had imagined she would be doing, or to what it would lead her to. Starting out at CBC, she thought she would be a reporter in a big newsroom, but it just wasn’t the right fit.

“With my move to the magazine world, I discovered a world of branded content and I liked the pace of magazine much more. And then I started really enjoying working with clients,” she says.

The writer learned a lot about herself throughout the course of her freelance experiences. She learned she could be self-sufficient and that she’s very good at it. As long as you can be a professional writer and generate content, there will always be work she says.

Christina Gonzales from the Bay St. Bull is the site’s managing online editor and freelances on the side as well. It’s interesting to know what employers look for in a writer/freelancer and Gonzales gives some insight. She says she writes for publications such as Toronto Life and Canadian Living along with having a superior position at the Bull. Her duties other than generating content, assigning stories and editing them, include hiring freelancers and interns.

“In terms of hiring freelancers, we basically hire based on who’s good. Its really about people who can have a lot of colour in their writing. There’s a lot of people that regurgitate facts,” Gonzales says. “Most of the time we hire freelancers who can create a story out of nowhere.”

Gonzales adds that the Bull looks for someone who can write “clean copy,” meaning someone who can write tightly with little to no mistakes. She says if its going to take them too long to edit, they may not give it the time of day.

There is also a probation period that freelancers have to undergo, just like any other job. Gonzales says they try out freelancers they have known or come across by letting them write up to five stories.

“If the first three to five stories don’t go well, then we’re going to cut our losses,” she explains.

Not only does Gonzales look for all these things in a writer, she looks for someone that can advise her as well.

“I personally, as a freelancer myself, would rather have editors who are hands-off, cause’ sometimes too much direction messes with the story. So, I just need freelancers to take the lead,” she says.

The only challenge she faces is when writers constantly follow-up and want to know when their stories will be published. Its one thing for them to email all the time, but once they start texting, it gets “super annoying” according to Gonzales.

Gonzales says what she does, in order for her writers to get paid a lot quicker, is she has them file their first drafts as soon as its done. This speeds up the process of her freelancers getting their cheques in a timely manner. The price of the article doesn’t change from first to last draft either, which is comforting to know.

“The prices are stated as per when you’re assigned the story,” she adds. “And it doesn’t change.”

Also, some places price things a little differently. For example, some larger publications price their articles at 50 cents to $1 a word according to Gonzales. Anywhere that pays $50 and lower per article “should not be the standard” she says. Others are based on how many subjects there are in a story, and they could pay up to or more than $100 per subject.

That doesn’t sound too shabby.

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