Breaking Barriers: Surviving Freelancing in Canada

As technology is shaping the way people consume and share information, a new generation of journalists is coming into the workforce, bringing with them a more diverse and inclusive mindset, which some say is a stark contrast to the makeup of the traditional newsroom. This new generation also faces challenges that their predecessors did not.

Photo by Sveta Soloveva

By Ashly July

For journalists belonging to traditionally marginalized communities, it can be intimidating trying to overcome some of the barriers.

As they witness massive layoffs at many well established companies, many young journalists lack job security as short-term contract work takes the place of full-time positions.

This spring the Ryerson Review of Journalism (RRJ) hosted the Breaking Barriers Conference in support of the latest print edition of the magazine, and addressed challenges facing young journalists. The event brought together a mix of seasoned industry vets, as well as recent grads, to speak about how their own challenges.

Panelist and Ryerson grad Al Donato, who writes mostly about diversity, equity and culture speaks about why events like this are important to the community of future journalists. “Ryerson is really a community hub for journalists. There are a lot of events especially panels. You wouldn’t get this anywhere else.”

The event featured panels on Women in Photojournalism and Freelancing, as well as a keynote address by Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of the Governor General’s Award nominated “Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone).

For journalists like Donato who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, the traditional newsroom is not always a place they say they feel comfortable.

“Newsrooms are so white. Newsrooms are so siloed. You must be this specific type of person in order to be a journalist. Where are my broke journalists of colour? Where are my journalists that are coming from underserved neighbourhoods? There’s a good reason we’re not in these newsrooms. It’s because they make it physically impossible to join them.”

According to Statistics Canada one in five Canadians is a visible minority. According to CBC’s Inclusion and Diversity plan as of December 31, 2014 about 8.3 per cent of their 6,739 employees identified as a visible minority.

Like many of their peers, despite the things that may deter young journalists, Donato has not given up hope and says as younger people infiltrate these spaces change will be inevitable.

“I’m hopeful for the people in journalism. The young people who are currently struggling to pay OSAP and who are just trying to get by. They actually give a sh*t about stories.”

Donato’s optimism is tempered with slight resentment of the old journalistic institutions.

“I am not so hopeful for larger corporations who have demonstrated that they don’t care about the wellbeing of their employees, who have cut jobs, who have given more resources to upper management, or who have completely disregarded journalists on the margins.

Social Media Editor Donato at The Daily Xtra says that in their experience when younger people get into positions of power they look out for other up and coming journalists.

“You see that especially when younger journalists manage to get into newsrooms and manage to hold positions of power they tend to not think ‘I have to fit in or assimilate to capitalist BS. I have to spread the wealth.’”

Because traditional newsrooms may take a while to fully adapt to the changing media landscape, and with trust in the mainstream media wavering, Donato encourages young people to start creating their own outlets; spaces for themselves, that are independent of the influence of the traditional system.

“We’re seeing this with young journalists for example The Broadsheet, which is for women and trans folks who want to get into the industry.

We’re seeing that with freelance unions. We’re seeing that with people organizing things like these where we’re gonna share the knowledge, share the wealth so we’re not just working isolated we’re actually community building, and I think that’s really important.”

Panelist and moderator of the Freelance Journalism panel Rebecca Rose, who has spent a lot of her time since graduating from Ryerson freelancing and advocating for the rights of underrepresented segments of the population, also spoke about why the Breaking Barriers conference is so essential.

“I think things have changed a lot in the world, and in Journalism since I graduated.  A lot has changed in that time. I think that it was more frowned upon back then to be someone who had an opinion, who had a bias. I think that’s more commonplace now and I’m happy about that. We acknowledge that everyone has bias some of us are just honest about it.”

Rose’s outlook on the industry’s future is similar to Donato’s acknowledging that there is much to be desired in the way journalists are treated overall.

“Am I hopeful?” It’s hard. I’m from Nova Scotia and we’ve got one independent paper there. And their staff have been on the strike for over a year on the picket lines. And their employers have been really brutal, and so that’s hard to see that being undermined.”

“There are layoffs all of the time but then, there are more creative outlets.”

At Press time The Chronicle Herald had bought over two dozen maritime newspapers.

Rose, who has also worked as an organizer for the Canadian Freelance Union, says working for yourself is a great option for young and seasoned journalists alike.

“Freelancing is it! The reason I believe in having a union for freelancers is that that’s the future of the workforce. We’re all gonna be freelancing. If we’re gonna have rights then we’re gonna have to unionize freelancers.”

Donato agrees saying, “I’m hopeful that freelancers and more underserved, underprivileged journalists can really break barriers in that regard.”

Dylan Freeman-Grist is a Journalism student at Ryerson and came to the Breaking Barriers event to gain insight and advice on how to navigate the journalism world post- graduation. Freeman-Grist says that all people interested in journalism should be aware of the hurdles that many face in pursuit of career success.

“I think all journalists whether you’re working in the industry, or want to work in the industry or if you’re just a fan of journalism, should keep in mind the barriers to practicing journalism.”

The fourth-year student says he is aware of the inherent advantages that come with his identity in society.

“I’m a straight CIS white man. Literally every advantage possible for me in the world. There’s not a ton of things that prevent me from being a journalist. Whereas people with different identities have total different experiences. They see the world of journalism and the entry to the world of journalism as sometimes much more difficult. There are barriers that they face that people like me don’t face.”

Freeman-Grist admits that even with all of his advantages it is still hard to break into the world of journalism, and says that race, religion and sexual orientation should have no impact on being able to thrive.   

“There need to be better opportunities for people to break into the industry regardless of what you look like.”

Much like Rose and Donato, despite all of the challenges facing young journalists today, Freeman-Grist is hopeful that this generation will be the catalyst for change in the industry.

   “We as a community, because I do think journalists are a tight-knit community, we are gonna rally together and figure out ways not only to keep doing journalism but ways to get rid of some of the other barriers. A lot of my friends bug me because I’m overly optimistic about journalism but I do think that with every struggle there’s opportunity.”

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