Words by Jo Stewart
I often say that being a freelance writer is like playing a game of snakes and ladders. You roll the dice every day hoping to land on a ladder, and sometimes you do. But there’s also a chance you’ll encounter a snake.
Recently, a well-known masthead offered me a word rate lower than what I’d been paid to write my first print feature more than 15 years ago. After calculating the hours required to complete the story (a complex, 2000-plus word feature requiring research and multiple interviews), I worked out that I’d earn more flipping burgers at a fast-food joint.
It’s incidents like this that push me to consider ditching freelancing for a stable salaried role. But with widescale redundancies now the new norm, those permanent in-house media roles aren’t the safe bet they once were, nor are they easy to come by.
Then I consider the incredible experiences freelancing has afforded me. I’ve interviewed influential artists, joined scientists conducting field work in remote environments and lived on a yacht while working as an embedded reporter on an Antarctic expedition.
From the outside, it’s a dream life. But as all freelancers know, the reality can be quite different.
For every rewarding experience, there’s also a laundry list of let downs, including late payment (a national newspaper once took 11 months to pay me), non-payment (two publications declared insolvency and never paid me), and scope creep (many outlets now require freelance writers to include social media copy or images for no extra payment).
Yet, despite frequently wondering if the juice is worth the squeeze, I keep arriving at the same conclusion: there are plenty of reasons to keep freelancing.
As founder and creative director of the biannual Freelance Festival, Launceston-based freelance digital media developer and educator Sue Bell (Women in Media’s Tasmania Convenor) believes that freelancing offers confident self-starters many benefits, with flexibility being a huge perk.
“I love that I create my work hours. It's really good for me because I've always disliked doing nine-to-five jobs and having to be in an office,”
Sue explains, adding that flexibility is particularly beneficial for parents.
Being open to new avenues of work was essential to building a viable freelance career.
“I’m always learning something new because I believe in life-long learning. If I can’t do something, I’ll research it so I can get the job done,” Sue explains, adding that upskilling sessions feature on the Freelance Festival agenda.
But as many freelancers know, finding new work can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the game. It’s important to remember that editors, publishers and art directors are always on the lookout for fresh ideas.
Jo Davy, Head of Content at Hardie Grant Media’s content agency Heads & Tales commissions work from a range of freelance professions, including writers, editors, proofreaders, photographers, animators and illustrators. She says that freelancers are essential to the business, which produces print magazines and online content for a range of industry organisations and cultural institutions, including Zoos Victoria, the Australian War Memorial and Art Gallery of New South Wales.
“We run a lean structure because the nature of agency work means that we're often on retainers. A lot of the work isn't guaranteed, so we may need to scale up or scale down quickly. Keeping things lean in terms of internal staff and relying on freelancers that we can trust is a model that works for us,” says Jo.
A good freelancer, she says, meets deadlines and follows the brief.
“A lot of work goes into the brief to ascertain exactly what we want to convey. It might not be what you envisage, but often there are many reasons why you might be asked to focus on a certain aspect,” says Jo. “Not reading the brief and filing something that you think is better is a bit of a bugbear.”
She encourages freelancers to be proactive and send tailored pitches to media companies they’d like to work with.
“There's nothing wrong with sending a follow-up email if you haven't heard back from them in a couple of days,” Jo says.
At a macro level, support to help media freelancers earn a decent living is on the increase.
Globally, there are piecemeal efforts to legislate change. In 2017, New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act took effect. Established to provide protections for freelance workers (including the right to receive timely and full payment) the law set a new standard and delivered results. For example, media company L’Officiel was recently ordered to pay more than US$275,000 to freelancers who didn’t receive timely payment for their work.
Closer to home, the MEAA (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance) campaigns in support of freelancers fighting for better treatment.
“MEAA members who are freelancers in the media industry are campaigning for the quality jobs that quality journalism demands. Unlike in-house employees, freelance writers, photographers, cartoonists and other media workers don't have any safety net of minimum rates of pay or minimum standards, to protect them from being ripped off and exploited,” says Cassie Derrick, Director of MEAA Media.
“This has meant that rates and conditions have been going backwards for decades, despite the cost of living and role of freelancers in the industry increasing.”
Cassie explains that Nine newspapers recently negotiated a freelancer engagement policy (a first for the company), which includes minimum pay rates, annual increases, timely payment, kill fees and more.
“This has set a floor for freelance engagement, and as a result some [MEAA members] have told us their pay has gone up by close to 40 percent,” says Cassie, who explains the company also brought many regular freelance photographers in-house, giving them rights to expenses, superannuation and more.
So what can freelancers do to put themselves in the best position, especially when asking for rate increases can put your working relationships (and therefore earning capacity) at risk?
Cassie concedes that negotiating pay rates can be tricky when your work is precarious. This is where campaigning for collective agreements comes in, as it takes the pressure off individuals. She points out that MEAA members can contact their delegates or MEAA staff for advice and support.
“The safest thing for anyone working in the media industry, whether freelance or employee, is not to go it alone,” says Cassie.
Thankfully, after many years playing the freelance game, I’ve become much better at avoiding snakes. From meeting deadlines to building solid relationships with editors and sending countless follow-up emails (that usually result in work), I’m landing on more ladders than ever before.
Jo Stewart is a freelance writer based in the Macedon Ranges, Victoria. With bylines in Monocle, The Age, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Rolling Stone, Lonely Planet and more, she now shares her industry knowledge with young people as a volunteer career mentor with mental health not-for-profit Headspace.