Making the Most of the Crowded Freelance Market
By Jarre Fees
Since the Internet reached its adolescence, both print and on-camera journalists have watched the gradual decline of the freelance market.
But last year’s economic collapse dealt a heavy blow to writers, editors, news anchors and others, who now find themselves in a free-falling market that is saturated with professionals.
Many of those journalists were able to find freelance work last year, only to discover that this year’s sinking market is much more crowded and, since no one knows how much further it is to the bottom, are being forced to pursue alternative employment.
Unity: Journalists of Color’s recently released 2009 Layoff Tracker Report found that there have been 46,599 U.S. journalism jobs lost since Jan. 1, 2008.
The U.S. Department of Labor, in its Occupational Outlook Handbook 2008-2009, predicts little or no change in employment for journalists through 2016. That statistic, of course, doesn’t include freelancers, who are already working just outside the system.
Some journalists are trading their independence for more dependable lines of work — teaching jobs are available nationwide to qualified candidates. Other freelancers are turning to fields they’ve always been interested in but never had a chance to explore.
When WPEC-TV in West Palm Beach, Fla., did not renew news anchor Terry Anzur’s contract in 2006 she said she welcomed the opportunity to return to Southern California, where she had previously served as co-anchor for KTLA-TV’s “News at Ten.”
Unable to find another on-air job, she started Terry Anzur Coaching Services in 2007 to coach on-camera talent for TV stations in the United States and Canada. Anzur said she “had a great year in 2008, including four months preparing young journalists to cover the first multiparty democratic election in the Islamic Republic of Maldives,” but characterized 2009 as “a tough year because most stations have cut their training budgets to nothing.”
The evolution from print to Internet, Anzur said, is reminiscent of the earlier changeover from radio to television. “The industry is still in transition,” she said, “trying to figure out where the revenue streams are going to come from.”
Many freelancers are wondering whether those revenue streams are ever going to come at all.
Entertainment journalist Robyn Flans, who spent five years writing for People magazine and has freelanced for a number of publications, said she believes the market downturn is permanent.
“All the magazines are folding,” she said, “or everyone’s using in-house writers. Publishers are going to see that, even if the economy bounces back, it was cost-effective to do it this way.”
Flans said she also feels the proliferation of Internet bloggers has hurt the freelance market. “It’s delegitimized the profession,” she said, “and made everybody a writer.”
Sportswriter Billy Witz, who was laid off at the Los Angeles Daily News in early 2008, found freelance work right away at The New York Times and several online venues, but said the market sagged in 2009.
“The print work was slow this summer,” Witz said. “And last fall I wrote a weekly piece for Fox Sports.com, but this year it’s only three weeks out of four.”
Joe Grimm, who took a buyout from the Detroit Free Press at age 55 in 2008, publishes the journalism careers Web site, jobspage.com, teaches reporting and writing at Michigan State and contributes a blog to the Poynter Institute’s Career Center.
He said mid-career journalists face a particularly difficult challenge.
Older journalists may be able to coast for their last few years and young journalists are getting trained now for the new jobs that are emerging,” Grimm said, adding, “At mid-career, we might forge a combination of both approaches. By all means, we can and must learn new skills: writing for the Web, shooting and editing video, learning to use social networks.”
Grimm noted that some mid-career journalists are more able than others to adapt to lower incomes. “Making less money can work for savers whose kids have finished college,” he said. “It can mean stitching together a few smaller jobs that are part-time or long-distance. And it might mean a mix or layering of old skills and new.”
“The journalists who have a very tough time are those who are in debt, who do not easily learn new things, who can't move or who are in the years when their expenses are at their highest,” he said. “Sadly, most of us are in one or more of those circumstances.”
Dennis Liff, a longtime journalist who worked as a sportswriter, news editor, copy editor and special projects editor in California, said he started preparing for a career change several years ago, before being laid off in 2008.
“I started working in video in 2004,” he said, “and started making a music documentary a few years later.”
Video editing lessons followed. “I’m still in the stage of developing that skill,” he said, adding that he formed a video production company and is in the process of setting up family history project that he hopes will eventually prove profitable.
Other journalists are turning to writing books, but that field is also undergoing changes and, in any case, publishing deals have always been hard to come by.
“The skills that you have — writing on deadline, writing creatively and coherently — those are skills that translate to a lot of other industries,” Witz said.
“But there’s something about this calling that just gets in your blood and it’s not easy to give up.”
Anzur said she thinks there will be a growing market for her on-camera coaching skills “as more people have to appear on multimedia devices such as iPhones.”
She’s also under contract for a college-level, multimedia textbook that she is co-writing. But Anzur makes it clear that she is “very much a freelance journalist for hire.
“I would jump at the chance to host a show on-air or online, do talk radio or write a regular column,” she said.
Whether freelancers find work in the fields they know or move into new areas, Anzur had some practical advice. “I think the important thing for freelancers to remember is that you are truly on your own,” she said. “No agent is going to find a job for you. I am constantly networking for the next opportunity, and you never know where it’s going to come from.”
Resources for Freelance Journalists
Mediabistro.com offers tips on pitching stories to various publications, this month featuring Redbook, Marie Claire and Ladies' Home Journal. The site also offers a freelance marketplace (more than 1,100 freelancers are currently listed) and offers seminars or online courses in feature writing, food writing and writing for the Web, among other topics.
Freelancewriting.com has job boards for writers, copy editors and copywriters; writing jobs to bid on; and a magazine guideline database. The site is a compilation of numerous other resources for writers, including CraigsList and Creative Circle.
Writejobs.com has mostly Internet job postings. Be warned: Among the freelance opportunities available are assignments that pay $15 per article ($20 for health and fitness stories) and one job that pays $25 for a 500-word article.
Thereview.com offers job listings for teachers and educational specialists, from kindergarten through college.
jobspage.com gives practical advice on job interviews and negotiations, newsroom politics and summer internships.
Tips for Struggling Freelancers:
*Retrain if necessary and be willing to branch out.
*Use industry and personal contacts.
*Be flexible. Your skills might translate easily to another industry.
*Tap into your inner freelancer to figure out what you really want to do with the next phase of your life. It might be time to try something new or pursue a discarded dream.