Feb 27, 2017
What’s a Freelance Writer’s Endgame Today?
When I was a kid I didn’t know that freelancers existed. I thought that Pitchfork housed hundreds of salaried critics in a large office space. I wanted to be one of them. To go to work and listen to records. To spend a career in the fellowship of other obsessives. To make a down payment off of middling Kaiser Chiefs reviews. It was my first dream.
I went to journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin because I thought I could parlay a couple years of SXSW coverage into something more real. At this point the wool had been pulled from my eyes. I knew that my favorite Pitchfork writers were adjunct professors, and copywriters, and subleasers. There were no skyscrapers built for music criticism. This was the hobbyist press. My program was staffed by petrified former newsmen pushed to the fringes by a dying industry. They told me to gather at least three sources. They told me how to write a nut graf. They told me about jobs I didn’t want, like the police beat in Waco, or a high school sports reporter in Temple. I was scared, but I still wanted to try.
Like most of the other young writers I know, I got my start by writing for free. I attached myself to a couple of blogs I found through Craigslist that most people have not heard of and slowly assembled a fistful of clips. I took those to publications that felt higher up on the totem pole, like Noisey and Paste, and earned a meager trickle of cash. By the end of my sophomore year I was noticed by the music editor of the local alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle, who put me to work drafting record reviews and local show coverage. I was at the right place at the right time, considering the Chronicle had just liquidated most of their staff to restructure around an unsalaried workforce.
I was a full-time freelancer by the time I graduated. I took out a year-lease on an apartment out of the city. I slept til noon and stayed up til 3, slowly crossing publications off my list. I wrote features for Rolling Stone and columns for Sports Illustrated. I interviewed Brian Wilson for 14 painful minutes, and took sponsored content deals from Red Bull. Eventually, I gave into the predictable urge and moved to New York. I’m turning 26 in a few months and, miraculously, while I haven’t held down an honest job since I worked at a pizza place in high school, I make just enough money to split a Bed-Stuy flat with two other people.
Unlike my cute childhood dream, I of course have a dramatically different idea of what it is to be a writer today. This, now, is media: A shockingly large group of mostly-young people who are either truly idealistic or stupid enough to squeeze out a living despite constant uncertainty and plummeting rates. Rich new media endeavors dry up every season. And when they do survive, media companies have done an excellent job of outsourcing the lion’s share of their content demands to freelancers. It’s never been easier to get published; it’s never been harder to do it sustainably. Yeah, maybe you eventually convert your momentum into a staff position, but that’s far from reliable. The New York City media landscape—overcrowded, ruthless—is so over-qualified and over-degreed that being put in the running for any staff position is dependent on anything but talent. All my friends are brilliant. All my friends have been laid off multiple times.
In short, today, to be in media is to be in this weird limbo. I love my job. I am living my dream. But I fear the day that my need for simple things will outweigh my desire to be a part of it.
Paula Mejia, a Brooklyn freelancer (and by any measure, one who is killing it) and an old friend, told me, “The idea of owning a house seems impossible. I’d love to have a dog, but don’t see how I can afford taking care of a pet right now, either. And a big part of the reason I’ve been able to make freelancing work thus far is because I’m young, still have energy, and can get by on little sleep if need be,” she explained. “But as time goes on, crashing stories and staying up all night working under tight deadlines is going to get much harder to do. I mean, what if I get sick? What if something unexpected happens? What if I no longer have the mental or emotional capacity to do this all the time?”
Now, to be clear, I am not asking for your sympathy. The tragedy of young journalists is far from the most pressing thing facing the world, and frankly, when 20-year-old Tavi Gevinson is a media mogul, it’d be irresponsible to say that it’s impossible to succeed anymore.
But what I will say is that I consider myself a successful writer. I’m not faking it. It doesn’t feel like a lie. Yet I think the ceiling of that success is collapsing, and it’s partially self-inflicted. When I was in college I used to write Noisey columns for $50. If my traffic was good at the Village Voice, I could potentially get $75 a post. Those are comical rates for anyone trying to do this as a career, but it’s a great upside for a 20-year old. I was able to line my portfolio with reputable establishment names and earn some low-stakes beer money on the side.
But now I find myself competing against the precedent I accidentally set six years ago. Media brands that publish a lot of content—Bleacher Report, Complex, Bustle, Pitchfork—know that there’s so much cheap work available by mining a constantly-refreshing generation of writers who are hungry enough to value prestige over cash. It removes the incentive to expand their freelance budget, which feels pretty awful the moment those writers are old enough to worry about anything beyond rent.
“In a way, I think having no endgame in sight is kind of the nature of the beast now. Back in the day, writers were paid handsomely,” says Mejia. “For a lot of journalists, $2 a word was lowballing. Those kinds of rates are definitely no longer the standard, as is the quality of life that came with them.”
“No endgame in sight.” That’s the way I’d frame it too. I write about three feature-length stories a week. It puts me over the hurdle every month and offers enough flexibility for tax day. But I’m still waiting for my work to stop feeling like survival, the first moment where I’m no longer clawing and scratching for the privilege of calling myself a professional in media—a career that specifically serves a very young, very single suite of priorities. But that won’t be my existence forever (I hope).
In the meantime, I continue down this path, putting blind faith in the fact that there will be a future that can offer something more, even as I hang on to my values and the things that matter to me most. (Again, this is blind faith.) My rates have expanded a lot since I was in college. Nobody can do this job $50 at a time. I made myself a better reporter and started pitching longer, more in-depth pieces that demanded bigger checks. Any high school ambitions of being a career music critic are laughably dead. I’m working harder than I ever have, and I am making more money. Some truths, unglamorous as they sound, remain in the media, I suppose.
“I don’t blame 22-year-olds who are trying to get their first job for freelancing for $50 a pop, I don’t really even blame media companies with narrow margins for working with them,” says Dan Solomon, a career freelancer and friend who recently purchased a house. “I guess trying to find a way to be indispensable to editors is the only real way to address that—have expertise, a viewpoint, reporting skills, etc., that they can’t get from somebody who graduated two months ago, and hope that they value that. Some outlets do.”
“Most of the things I could do with my skills that pay better don’t really interest me. I could try for a job in PR or advertising, but I think I would hate that. If it came down to ‘get a job in advertising or sell my house,’ I’d probably sell my house—although that’s easy to say when you aren’t making that decision right now,” Solomon reflects. “My career over the past few years has afforded me a platform to write about things that feel important, and I don’t think I’d be willing to trade that for more stability. I like the stability I have right now a lot, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the most important thing to me.”
Really, that’s what it comes down to for so many. When there is no guarantee of anything more stable or more lucrative in our field, the thing that media professionals must value most and sacrifice for is something intangible, and certainly not money.
Sometimes when I’m back in San Diego I’ll walk into my parents’ house and think, “Man, why did I choose the media?” It could’ve been so much better. I could have a house with stairs and a fireplace. I could come home from work and sleep. I wouldn’t have to call my landlord when the windows won’t open. I’d have equity. I’d have insurance. Those concerns are more prescient now than when I was a teenager. But honestly, I can’t imagine leaving. Maybe in the future, if I do, it won’t feel like a betrayal. But for now, I’m in it. I still want to try.
Illustration by Sunny Eckerle
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