Is freelance journalism still viable? Not for most of the reporters we spoke with. These are their key problems

Up to 25 reporters from 20 countries shared their struggles, painting a stark picture, with shrinking rates, second jobs and mental health issues
Illustration created by Alfredo Casasola.

Illustration created by Alfredo Casasola.

12th April 2024

“Is freelance journalism a hobby or a viable career choice?” That is the question I set myself to explore while observing the rapid shifts the news industry is currently experiencing: media outlets closing down, news startups flailing, revenue drying up, journalists getting sacked and artificial intelligence perhaps beginning to replace them.

While posing that question on my social channels, I received an overwhelming amount of responses from freelance journalists interested in sharing their own experiences. At the end of the day, I ended up hearing from 25 freelance journalists from 20 countries in every continent. I’ve grouped their concerns into four key themes. 

1. The rates are shrinking.

Colombian journalist Nubia Rojas has more than 18 years of experience working as a freelancer, mostly for international outlets. Like many of the journalists I spoke with, in addition to being a journalist, Rojas also works as a researcher, consultant and strategic communicator to make ends meet. 

“About 10 years ago, I noticed this trend where outlets do not want to pay you. They just sell you the idea that you are going to associate your name with the prestige of a big media house,” she says. “Many Colombian and international outlets have told me this.”

Rojas says paid opportunities are also shrinking. While freelance journalism rates are difficult to track across time, many of the journalists that spoke with expressed some dissatisfaction with rates offered, particularly as inflation rises and rates remain stagnant. 

Rates vary widely across countries, with some reporting offers from USD 0.60 cents a word to $600 for a 1,500 word piece. Journalists who have worked in the industry for decades, like Rojas, report that many publications offer the same rates that were commonplace a decade or more ago. 

Dhruti Shah is a freelance journalist based in London with over two decades of experience working for legacy and local media outlets. She decided to take the risk of going freelance two and a half years ago in order to pursue different opportunities. 

“The state of the freelance industry right now is a hot mess. The rates seem to be the same as they were maybe like a decade ago. They don't seem to be going up,” she says. “People seem to think that words are cheap. It doesn't seem to matter that you come with 20 plus years of experience.” 

A 2024 research survey by the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, in collaboration with the UK National Union of Journalists, found that median income for the primary-occupation freelance journalists surveyed sat at just £17,500, a figure below the minimum wage. The report, which was based on a non-representative sample of almost 500 journalists, also showed that 40% of journalists took on work without contracts and 93% of journalists have never received a payment from established international licensing agreements between publishers and online platforms.

Even when publications pay £500 for a 1,300 word piece, which Shah says is considered a good rate in the industry, there are extra expenses freelancers need to account for: taxes, healthcare, and sometimes even lawyers. “You have to have quite a lot of the pitch set up in the first place, so you're doing a lot of the legwork for free in the hope you get a commission,” she says. “It's a lot of time for very little reward.”

2. In an industry in turmoil, where do freelancers fit? 

One of the themes that kept coming up during my conversation is the continuing devaluation of journalism as a profession. For example, Rojas mentioned that she has received many offers to work for a byline or offers where she is unable to negotiate the rate because, as she puts it, outlets can find another journalist that is willing to work for a lower rate. 

“It pains me to say that [freelance] journalism is a hobby,” she says. “I would not like it to be, because it is not. It is a job and a profession. It sounds very harsh. But for many journalists, it is becoming a hobby, something we do just for love.”

In the last few months, there’s been a lot of chatter on the slow descent of journalism: from the business models that are now outdated to the role of AI in the news ecosystem. As the journalism job market continues to shrink, well-paid journalism jobs are harder to come by. 

Many of the journalists who shared their thoughts also pointed out that, in a year where a record number of staff journalists have been laid off, the market for freelance journalists is becoming increasingly saturated. 

Elyse Hauser, an American journalist starting out in the field, puts it best: “As a new freelance environmental journalist, I'm now competing for commissions against people with decades of experience. As publications tighten budgets, there’s less work to go around, and more competition for it.”

Priscila Carvalho is a Brazilian journalist with over a decade of experience. Four years ago, she was let go from her position at a legacy media outlet in the country, citing the country’s economic downturn. The same outlet immediately hired her as a freelancer covering the same beat she was doing before. 

At the end of the day, Carvalho says this arrangement is better for her mental health and income even though at the beginning she had mixed feelings about working for a company that fired her to then hire her on a freelance basis. 

“If you're just starting your career now, it’s a little bit more difficult, because you don’t have as much knowledge, you don’t know as many people, and so on. Since I’m almost 10 years into my career, it’s a little easier for me,” she says. “Today I can only freelance because I know a lot of people and I’m always looking for jobs as well”

Shah, the journalist from London, recounts a conversation with an outlet about a more steady freelance position where the role involved taking on way more than advertised. “It involves several other roles that would have, in past lives, been delineated as separate positions in themselves,” she explains. “You are expecting one person to do multiple roles because the resources have been pulled heavily, and this is going to cause issues around the output.” 

While Carvalho, the journalist from Brazil, is one of the few I spoke with that is able to make a full-time living from freelancing and is happy with the freedom this arrangement offers her, for journalists like Rojas and Shah who also have decades of experience and bylines under their belt, freelancing full-time is a challenge, which is why they have to supplement their income with other endeavours. 

“I honestly believed things would be easier because my writing was so well rated and well respected,” Shah says. “I believed that I had worked hard enough, that I had enough experience under my belt as a writer, as a producer, as an all round journalist. And yet the industry as it is now. The connections that I was relying on are also leaving, so how can you use the old model when the old model has never been set up for you? And we are in a world where there’s no money.”

3. Sacrificing your mental health for your passion. 

Anne-Claire Genthialon, a former freelance journalist from France who wrote a book on her experiences, told me how she dreamed of being a journalist since she was a kid. She did journalism internships in high school, got into one of the best and oldest journalism schools in her home country, and entered the workforce with a short-term contract at a big daily newspaper in Paris. 

After six months, the newspaper told Genthialon they couldn’t offer her a full-time job and they hired her on a freelance basis. For six years, she worked for this newspaper hoping for a full-time contract that never came. This is what she calls ‘the passion trap.’ 

“The passion trap is this profession you really want and all the sacrifices you’re willing to make to be part of it,” she explains. “For a while, it will be great and you’ll be fulfilled by your job, but after a while you’ll realise that your work won’t love you back.”

Even though Genthialon wanted to stay in journalism, freelancing was becoming increasingly untenable as she was beginning to settle down in her 30s. “I realised I was underpaid and it was difficult to just live in a city like Paris, where I didn’t have enough to pay the rent. I began to feel depressed,” she says. “Capitalism was taking my inner-self.” 

While Genthialon eventually transitioned out of journalism into a more stable career in TV production, many people I spoke with have taken additional jobs in order to be able to make ends meet. 

Many freelance journalists take jobs in communications, copywriting, consultancy, and teaching. I heard from others who work as hairdressers, construction workers, and chefs. One of those people is Justin Mason, a freelance journalist from the United States who recently graduated with a master’s in journalism from a top school in the country. 

As I explained in this piece, it’s especially difficult for new graduates to get their foot in the door due to shrinking job opportunities, underpayment, and increased barriers of entry. 

Mason, who has been trying to make a living as a freelance journalist for over two years, is currently working full-time as a janitor at a local community college. 

“Most of the time, it's difficult to find the time and the energy after a full day at work to sit down and dig deep into a story and pitch to a bunch of outlets,” he says. “It kind of became clear to me at some point that the easiest way for me to break into the industry would be to quit my job and just freelance on my own dime for a period of time.”

Like Genthialon, Mason was a vocational journalist. “One of the big hurdles to doing anything about [social issues] is whether or not people have access to the information they need to make the decisions that are in their best interest,” he says. “I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the media, so I decided to dive into journalism.” 

However, quitting a full-time job to plunge into the fraught waters of freelancing is not a financial bet many can take. Even freelance journalists who have been able to make ends meet due to the work say their mental health suffers due to many issues – the financial instability, the uncertainty, the constant rejection and the never-ending hustle. 

One of those journalists is Nozha Khelalef from Algeria. “I have been able to make ends meet, but it was at the expense of my own mental health, sometimes because the workload gets crazier around the times when crises are happening; especially in our area, because I work for Middle East-based media,” she says. 

Due to the toll freelancing takes, Khelalef is looking for a salaried staff job at a publication. “I don't consider myself a freelancer because we are not free in any way,” she says. “We do exactly what anyone with a staff job does, but we don’t have the advantages that they have. We don’t have insurance. We don’t have weekends. We don’t have paid vacations. We don’t have paid sick leaves.” 

4. Freelance journalism as a community service. 

Many of the journalists I spoke with are unable to make a living from freelance journalism alone. Sarah Hannan, from Sri Lanka, has been a freelance journalist in her country since 2012. Her income from freelancing varies widely depending on how much work she can get that month. 

“If I take my journalism freelancing from whatever I earn, that’s only enough to maybe pay my internet or electricity bill,” she says. 

Hannan makes the bulk of her income working in PR consultancy. But when I asked her if she considered her journalism to be a hobby, she politely pushed back. 

“It's more of a community service,” she says. “I have the skills to tell the story of a person who doesn’t have a voice. As a journalist with a byline on a national paper, I have the ability to speak to authorities and get responses, which is why it has become more of a community service job than an actual job.”

This notion of doing journalism for their communities is one also mentioned by Ijasini Ijani, a freelance journalist in Nigeria. 

A medical radiographer by trade, Ijani started doing freelance journalism in 2022 because he felt the stories coming out of his region of Borno, a state in the North-East area of the country where jihadist organisation Boko Haram has had a presence for over a decade, do not encapsulate the reality of his community. “The best fee I got for my freelancing was $215 and that was a mega achievement,” he says. “I’m proud to say that I used that money to help build a classroom in my community.”

The Nigerian media landscape is not as affluent as the one in the West. So Ijani often collaborates with global media organisations hungry for news out of the country. While many of these jobs do provide some compensation, however, he says the coverage of some of these outlets is not great and working as a fixer often leaves him feeling “exploited.” 

“I'll be the one to go and do the interview, the recording and also sometimes even the social media videos because these areas are hard to reach and they can’t get access to them,” he says. “I end up seeing those reports and I'm not given credit for that. I was given $20 to $30 for several weeks of my life going to these locations.”

Ijani wishes these global media organisations invest in training and give opportunities to freelancers in countries like Nigeria, rather than simply rely on them for stories. 

“One thing the international media can do to help us is not even giving us more money but provide capacity, resources, and training,” he says. “I’d be happy to be a freelancer for the rest of my life. But how am I going to get the opportunity to pitch a story?”

Hannan, the journalist from Sri Lanka who works mostly for local media, says that newsrooms don’t provide enough funding or resources to go into the field and do work, so she has had to work as a fixer for foreign media just to have the opportunity to do more work. 

She also says that international grants are only available to offer a narrow vision of Sri Lankan problems. “For Sri Lanka, there are several grant schemes you can apply to, but those are mostly for environmental stories or maybe reconciliation stories,” she says. “There are deeper issues in my country such as the constant battle people face amid an unstable economy. There are many other segments of the population that need a voice.

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