Letting go of prestige as a freelance journalist

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Picking up your NCTJ certificate or signing the contract for your first job, it might’ve seemed like journalism fit into relatively neat categories: glossy magazines and arty culture websites; the sheen of broadcast news; serious broadsheets vs their more brightly coloured tabloid counterparts. It’s likely, too, that at this point in your career you had a set idea of which version of this world you might be most interested in pursuing – probably at the expense of anything a little bit more leftfield.  

Although expected – it’s always good to know where you’d like to be, especially at the beginning – as a journalist having your eyes on one singular prize (or regular commissions at a dream publication) can actually be fairly limiting. Hear me out…

Being fully aware of how many different routes there are out there, all of which use the same or at least adjacent skills to those that journalists already have, is vital. It wasn’t until I left a magazine that I’d been at almost since I‘d graduated (a full seven years) that my eyes were opened to the sheer variety of roles that exist within print media, and also within the industries that it aligns or even lightly rubs shoulders with: comms, PR, digital content management, broadcast. Even Higher Education and the Third Sector need your skills.

I don’t think people at the start of their careers, or even a few years in, are routinely encouraged to think of all the potential projects or roles that they could turn their hand to within these varied sectors. That’s a shame, because a lot of financial headaches and unnecessary stress could be avoided if we weren’t quite so stuck on old school journalism and securing major bylines at household name publications.

There is a real value in freeing yourself from chasing high-profile or glossy commissions at the national papers that fell on your parents’ doormat on Sundays, and the magazines you pawed over as a teenager. Media has splintered, broken, and is finding its way through an incredibly difficult time, both in terms of its own future and funding and on a wider scale (the pandemic that we’re all currently living through has not been, to put it lightly, great.) At the moment, we’re in a situation where everyone (and every brand) needs content, but the traditional creators of it are grappling with changes that they’re not always resourced, or prepared, to make. Allowing yourself to look for other, potentially less glamorous, work, as a journalist in this context, is a way to protect yourself in an industry that’s volatile and prone to unexpected redundancies, cutbacks, closures and (urgh) ‘pivots’.

What are the other options?

In making a deliberate choice to broaden your remit it’s important not to devalue copywriting, B2B journalism, agency projects and corporate work. All of these areas might appear less prestigious, but engaging with them with an open mind (even if it starts with faked enthusiasm) can help you secure reliable anchor clients that pay their invoices on time and don’t leave you nervously trying to get through to an accounts department at a gigantic publisher that has just cut a third of its staff and has been ghosting you for two months the day before your rent is due. 

It’s important to treat the work that your NCTJ teacher would’ve classed as less prestigious with as much respect as you would a spread in the Guardian (that NCTJ teacher, by the way, also had their own journalism adjacent income stream in literally teaching you journalism – don’t forget that.)

Sure, I’ll never say that I didn’t enjoy my first freelance byline being in Grazia. But who’s reliably paying me at the moment? An old contact, who needs SEO copy for a travel project. A membership magazine, for which I rode out the first 12 months of the pandemic on a maternity cover and with whom I’m currently contracted one day per week. And a B2B content agency, which pays me an hourly rate for everything from charity annual reports to company testimonials.

These are the projects that bring in the bulk of my money, and that I can then top up, when I have time, with potential freelance commissions. There’s no guarantee that my cold pitches for better known media brands (last week I had a spare afternoon, which I spent bothering editors at the i, the Independent and the Guardian features desk) will come off, but that’s ok, because I learnt very quickly not to rely on them. Forces, when it comes to cold pitching, are often very much outside my control, and yours.

 Ellen Manning, who has taken on sponsored content, advertorial, copywriting,  B2B work and writing for trade publications alongside her news and feature writing, agrees. “It would be wonderful if we all had the luxury to only pitch pieces that will yield bylines in prestigious publications and to sit and wait until the moment it happens,” she says, “but for the vast majority of us, there are mortgages and bills to pay that require a consistent income – something this kind of work can help with.”

She adds: “Work of this kind has proved valuable in so many ways. For starters, it involves all the same skills – research, interviews, crafting copy – so is a great way to continue to hone your skills as a journalist. In addition, it often requires some additional skills – from dealing with clients to writing in different styles and for different audiences.” 

 My experience of securing high profile bylines but realising that I can actually rely on the less glorified ones, and knowing the benefits of being open to actively pursuing both, has been a lifeline since I went freelance just over two years ago. As I’ve found, this non-precious approach can allow you to find more variety in the work that you’re producing, give more opportunity to build skills, and (importantly) often see you pull in more money (something we all need to get more comfortable talking about – but that’s a topic for another day.) 

Finding the work 

So, how can you find this kind of work, and how can you ensure that it keeps bringing in consistent projects month-on-month?

Trade and membership magazines, I‘ve noticed, appear to be absolutely teaming with opportunities at the moment. They can be a great place to pick up reporter shifts or fixed-term contracts, and/or to make sure your foot is still in the traditional journalism game (I’m also hosting a Presspad masterclass to discuss the value of working with these kinds of publications, in August.) 

When applying for contract or freelance work, going via recruiters can be incredibly helpful. I’ve now had four contracts in two years from recruitment agencies, all in areas that I wouldn’t otherwise have considered, or even found on my own. I’ve been contracted to a part-time role in digital management (at a radio station), completed a time sensitive content project for a Russell Group university, and both freelanced for and deputy edited the aforementioned healthcare membership magazine on a full, and now part-time, basis. My go-to recruiters have put me forward, and asked the vital/awkward questions, in all of these cases.

Ellen points out that there might be less obvious opportunities, too: “This kind of work can often be for the same publications you may have ambitions to write for,” she says, “albeit in a different section, so can potentially be a door-opener. There have been a few times when work of this type has led to other work, or the potential to get closer to those elusive big bylines.” 

As Ellen says, the advice here isn’t to let the prestige projects go completely. The big bylines will always be the ones that you want to shout about on social media. But remember that that’s what everyone else is doing too – showing off their highest profile wins whilst paying the bills with less glossy, more consistent and probably lower stress projects. It’s time more people talked about it. 

“We all want the big bylines in the best known publications,” Ellen says, “and it’s a dream we should all continue to chase. But journalism is more competitive than ever, and those bylines can be few and far between. I think the key is to not look at other publications or different kinds of writing as ‘lesser’, but as part of your journey and part of the whole package of what is your portfolio. They have their own distinctive advantages and can add to your experience and career, helping you get to those dream bylines, and also adding along the way in terms of experience, skills and contacts.”

It’s also worth reminding yourself, regularly, that the past 18 months have been hard, and the next year probably isn’t going to be a world of publishing abundance and sparkling industry success stories either. Now more than ever you need to take your wins where you can, and remember to not be too hard on yourself. We’re all just trying to get through the pandemic and its fallout, and stay as much as possible out of our overdraft, or, if we’re lucky enough, our savings. Working consistently, not sporadically and unstably, will protect your mental health and your bank balance. You might just have to cast the net a bit more widely than you’d expected in order to do that.

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