Freelance Journalism in Australia: The highs and lows of a career outside of the newsroom
You won’t hear a typical full-time journalist proclaim, "No one knows whether I’m at my desk, in a café, or beside the pool when I’m working." But for freelancer, Rosalyn Page, this is one of her favourite things about being her own boss. "The emails get answered, the words get written, the interviews get done, and the work gets submitted all the same", she said.
Rosalyn Page is a Freelance Journalist who juggles parenting, appointments, and exercise with full-time freelance writing about enterprise, innovation, and digital lifestyle. She values being able to decide what she writes about, and for whom, and being able to work from home with her dog, Sketch.
Freelancing in the media industry is increasingly becoming an attractive career path for Australians, but the nation's freelance community also faces a number of challenges. Unlike their in-house media peers, thousands of freelance media professionals face low wage growth and a lack of professional development opportunities, leading to many reluctantly dipping out of the industry altogether. Freelance wages and knowing your worth
Getting paid what you’re worth, or even enough to pay your bills, is a key challenge faced by freelancers, Rachel Smith, Freelance Journalist and Founder of Rachel’s List, told Telum. "It’s such a tricky one, and it can be so easy to accept crappy rates when you’re in a slow patch," she said. "But once you start to get regular clients and regular work, raising your rates should be something you do annually."
Australia's freelance media industry isn't regulated to the same standards as in-house employees, despite being recognised as a vital part of the media landscape. This can leave freelance professionals at a greater risk of being paid less than typical market rates, or sometimes, nothing at all. Patrick Lenton, Freelance Writer and Deputy Arts and Culture Editor at The Conversation, told Telum some publications rely on freelance writers not feeling confident enough to discuss rates upfront. "If I was able to give myself one piece of advice when first starting out, it would be to never agree to write until rates are on the table", Patrick said.
A 2021 report by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) found 66 per cent of freelancers reported they were frequently paid lower than usual rates for their work, while 40 per cent said they had been asked to work free of charge.
As the Founder of the Young Australian Writers Network and a Freelance Writer, Catherine Bouris agreed this was not an unusual challenge for freelancers. After running the collective for six years, she had heard "too many stories to count" of freelancers being taken advantage of by employers. "Sadly, some clients will sacrifice quality for the opportunity to save money, and there is often someone willing to work for less," she said. "That's why concepts like solidarity are so important, particularly for freelancers to understand that selling yourself short and settling for less not only puts you at a disadvantage, but other freelancers too."
Catherine also suggested media outlets or commissioning editors are often not aware of current rates of pay to offer a freelancer for their work. "Slashed budgets and downsizing during COVID-19 have only exacerbated this", she said.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance's Rate Tracker, which tracks freelance media rates for Australian publications, as well as Rachel’s List’s Pay Rates Report, provides a list of rates that freelancers can charge their clients. These resources can be used by freelancers to better understand what their work is worth and negotiate better pay from their employers.
Freelancing in isolation
Unlike a corporate media setting, where employees should expect mentorship and opportunities to grow, Australia's freelance community faces a lack of professional development and networking opportunities which can often make the job isolating.
To combat this, Susan Bell, Director of the Launceston Freelance Festival, told Telum initiatives like the Launceston Freelance Festival, which was held from 5th to 7th June this year, aim to upskill, nurture, and support freelancers through professional development workshops and networking opportunities. "The Festival addresses these issues and provides the skills and support to enhance the prospects and employment options of an important and growing demographic in the Australian workforce", Susan said. She also suggested online groups and social media platforms as a place where freelance communities can gather and share employment opportunities and strategies.
According to Catherine, a "lack of institutional support" is a key challenge faced by Aussie freelancers. For people looking to break into the freelance world, she recommended finding and connecting with other freelancers on Facebook groups, Twitter, and local writer’s groups. "Learn from them, support each other, and make use of the resources available", she said. This is particularly important when it comes to the business side of freelancing, knowing how much to charge per project, and understanding appropriate wait times for payment of services.
Succeeding as a freelancer
Despite the current challenges within the freelance industry, many freelancers have told Telum that pursuing a freelance career can be rich and rewarding. So, what are the ingredients to a successful career in freelance journalism?
To succeed in the world of freelancing, Susan, Catherine, Rachel, and Rosalyn recommend the following tips:
Social Media: Have a social media strategy that includes good SEO on your website and consistently chase testimonials to share with your followers and prospective clients.
Keep in touch: Build rock-solid relationships with your past and current clients - you might end up working with them for years.
Invest in the right software: Know how to use accounting software, to keep across your invoices, tax, and GST.
Be selective: Know which clients to keep and which to ditch.
Know your worth: Be willing to negotiate fair compensation for your skills and experience level. Get used to feeling a bit uncomfortable about money when negotiating and pricing your work.
It's all business: Adopt the mindset that as a freelancer, you’re running a business.
Create order: Have a workflow system in place to manage time and capacity.
Develop contacts early: Before making the jump to freelancing, have some contacts in place, and join a freelance community you can rely on.
Susan also pointed out that not every person is suited to a freelance career. "Understanding whether you prefer an employer and receiving a regular paycheck, or whether you can cope with the uncertainty of the freelance lifestyle is really important," she said. "But for those who are happily freelancing, conditions are improving somewhat."
As a freelancer, Catherine values the flexibility of her work and said it allows her to balance work, her law school studies, and other passion projects. Despite some challenges, she said more people are seeing the appeal of a freelance career. According to Catherine, the flexibility and scope of the sector allows freelancers to bring different areas of expertise to the conversation, which has influenced how freelancers have been able to advocate for themselves. "I'd say the majority of advocacy is still being done by freelancers themselves, whether it's publicly holding outlets accountable regarding pay transparency or editorial conduct, or supporting newer (often young) freelancers to navigate the industry," she said.
Click here to watch Telum's recent webinar on travel journalism, featuring tips from Freelance Travel Writer, Dr Lindy Alexander.