Freelancing has become a popular career that allows journalists the flexibility to choose what type of content they create and which media publications they can sell their work to. However, freelancing comes with challenges as it requires journalists to be able to plan and manage their finances as freelance journalists do not receive fixed incomes.
Freelancers work irregular hours and take on more job opportunities as they never know when their next job opportunity will be. Despite these challenges, freelance journalism can offer opportunities that mainstream media does not. We spoke to freelance journalists about how they manage their workflow and finances.
Carien du Plessis had been working for media publications for 12 years when she decided to make the shift to freelance journalism in 2015. Du Plessis, a South African freelancer who primarily reports on Africa, foreign policy and politics says: “freelancing offers me the opportunity to pursue the beat that I want to pursue and to say no or yes to the stories I want or don’t want to do. It also allows you to work with different editors and get to know them better, and do different kinds of work as well (research, special projects, etc) that you wouldn’t necessarily do as a full-time reporter. It also allows you more freedom to travel, as there are no bosses to refuse permission”.
Albane Thirouard, a freelance journalist based in Kenya, says that freelancing offers her freedom and flexibility as it allows her to work with different mediums and platforms such as print, online, and radio and also offers her the ability to report on a broad range of ideas, “If there is a topic I find interesting I can pitch it”.
“Freelancing takes you out of your comfort zone,” says Sipha Kema, South African freelance journalist for DW News and freelance producer for Carte Blanche. “You need to be able to think in different ways and you need to be versatile in the way that you tell your stories and the way that you do your research because what works for one publication/country will not work for another and you need to able to adapt to different audiences and that is how you learn to tell stories in a broader context.”
Kema, says that freelancing offers the opportunity to report for international publications which means as a journalist you can reach a wider audience, and as a freelancer, you learn more because you work with different publications on a variety of topics.
Money and time: how to balance the two
Thirouard says managing finances is one of the most difficult aspects of freelancing since freelance journalists are responsible for their travel costs and other expenses associated with reporting. She says when she first started freelancing she only worked on one story at a time but it meant she would spend a week without working on a story. Thirouard says journalists need to be working on a few stories at the same time, whilst pitching new stories to publications. Thirouard advises journalists to save in advance, “always have one month’s worth of savings to pay for your expenses, I keep a detailed excel spreadsheet where I put all the stories that I have sold and how much I make in a month”.
Thirouard says that it takes time to build momentum as a freelancer and recommends that journalists save diligently because they may not get a job immediately or sell a story in the first couple of months.
“Make sure you have got a few months’ salaries saved up to give you peace of mind and to prevent you from taking jobs that might exploit you with low pay, just because you’re hard up for the money. Learn how to work with your money well – some months you’ll have more money than others,” says Du Plessis, whose advice was emphasised by the other freelancers.
Thirouard adds that even though freelancing offers flexibility it is a full-time job that requires her to at times work seven days a week. “… It is difficult to find a good balance because you are always chasing the money” and that at times she finds it difficult to say no to a job opportunity but says it is necessary for freelancers to prioritise rest and take some time off.
Kema says freelancers need to be financially savvy because not knowing how to correctly manage finances can kill one’s freelancing career and suggests that freelancers treat their careers as a business.
“Do the maths,” says Andrew Arinaitwe, Ugandan freelancer for The Continent. Arinaitwe says when pitching a story think about the expenses it will require to do the story. “… Is it necessary to go into the field or is it easier to do phone calls at home?” he asks. Arinaitwe advises that journalists have a good contact list of local reporters who can “solve 90% of your journalism problems and save you lots of expenses as these local reporters can get you what you would have spent time trying to get”. He also suggests that freelancers learn other skills such as photography and video filming which “can go a long way to getting paid more. Sometimes you can do both photography and writing and get paid for both separately instead of using a photographer”.
Thirouard says that freelancers should diversify media collaboration and should not rely on one media publication as it is not sustainable and anything can happen and you can lose that stream of income that you relied on every month. Interestingly, she says that journalists should not “hesitate to sell the same story but just find different angles with different media publications from different countries”. For example, if traveling for a story, pitch it to two different publications but have a different angle.
“Make sure you deliver good quality copy and that you do it on deadline, and that you deliver the kind or quality of stories that the editor won’t be able to get from someone else or from their staff members. Have a unique selling point. It also helps to have built up good relations with editors in the industry. I worked for a number of publications before going freelance, so I’ve known and worked with many people before,” says Du Plessis. Fostering and maintaining relationships is very important for freelancers because these relationships provide work opportunities.
Downfalls with freelancing
“Taking time off is more difficult to negotiate, and sometimes it’s difficult to find buyers for a story that you really want to do. Having to finance my own travel is also extra stress, and doing my tax returns is a nightmare. Some freelancers have complained about non-payment by publications but this has only happened to me once, and I’ve never written for them again,” says Du Plessis.
Thirouard says freelancing can be lonely especially working from home and not seeing or talking to anyone. She says she misses talking to people about her stories. Thirouard mainly works with editors in France who don’t necessarily know or understand Kenya that well and don’t have the perspective to have an interesting discussion on her story ideas. “In the beginning it was difficult but now I surround myself with other freelance journalists and we meet up regularly and I can discuss stories with them,” says Thirouard.
Kema emphasised the importance of surrounding oneself with other freelancers to create a network and a contact list of people who can help and recommend job opportunities. Even though freelancing can be lonely, Kema encourages journalists to socialise professionally when out on the field. “Your contact base and network should be people that you are able to share job opportunities with – how you get work is through recommendation – you need to get your name out there and introduce yourself,” she says.
Arinaitwe also encourages journalists to collaborate with other freelance journalists to brainstorm ideas and “sometimes you can run out of ideas but when you share opportunities with other journalists you can easily achieve what could have been difficult as an individual”.
Arinaitwe says freelance journalists do not receive as much support compared to journalists who are associated with or work full-time for a media publication. “Uganda does not have organisations that recognise freelancing but has organisations that speak on behalf of journalists in the legacy media”. He says unless journalists are registered with the Foreign Press Association Africa – they receive some sense of belonging.
“Local media news agencies will hardly pay for work by a freelance journalist and would prefer to get an in-house journalist to execute such tasks if need be. The only organisations willing to pay are international media publications,” says Arinaitwe. He warns freelancers to be careful of the media publications they pitch to and knowing how long publications take to pay for completed work is helpful.
Kema says people or media organisations at times take advantage of freelancers because they know that freelancers don’t receive consistent income. She says that people assume that freelancers are available for free work and will suggest giving a freelancer exposure instead of paying them.
Freelancing in Ethiopia
Bileh Adem, a freelance journalist from Ethiopia, paints a concerning image of freelancing in Ethiopia and the media industry. Adem says that freelancing in Ethiopia is difficult not just in media. “… We are behind in terms of technological advances and the constant threat of internet shutdowns means you lose contact with the outside world and the would-be employer is cut off.” He says Ethiopia does not have a valid online payment system and the media industry as a whole in Ethiopia is in “very bad shape” – most of the media houses are either controlled by the government or funded by it and independent media find it difficult to thrive in this environment. Adem says media in Ethiopia is controlled and censored and being a journalist in Ethiopia is very difficult and “if you are from a disenfranchised nation [ethnic group] it becomes more difficult”. He says that journalists face harassment, threats of physical violence, prosecution and jail. Most recently Adem’s social media accounts were hacked and “I knew that this was motivated by my writings of the Ethiopian state and its treatment of the disenfranchised nations”. Adem was previously the deputy editor of a major publication in Ethiopia but decided to move into freelancing because “working for a media organisation puts limitations on your work which forces competent journalist to pursue freelancing so they will have the freedom to pursue any story without being censored or controlled due to budget and resources”.
Adem says that in order to be a successful freelance journalist one needs many connections or contacts with editors of major publications and to constantly work on one’s reputation. He says that it is important to work on stories that matter to you.
Freelancing has its challenges but it offers journalists wider access to audiences and story ideas. It is important for journalists to manage their finances and time and ask themselves if they have the time and the ability to do more work. Most importantly freelancers need to find and create a support structure because freelancing can be lonely and freelancing is based on recommendations thus creating and maintaining relationships with people within the media industry is necessary to be a successful freelancer.
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