It’s tempting as a journalist to give up and just find some other job. Something more stable, predictable and that feeds a steady paycheck into the bank account. There is also the in-between realm of working a “day job” that pays the bills and doing journalism on the side in one’s spare time.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills, but I can speak from experience on this one–working a day job and being a journalist on the side is an incredibly slow way to get the experience you need and want. There are cases of those who are incredibly focused and get themselves into a niche and ride it all the way to quitting their day job and becoming a full-time journalist. But if you add much of a personal life in there–spouse or kids, for example–you are probably looking at several years of dragging along and not making much progress.
Then there is the temptation to just find “other people’s projects” and tag yourself on to them. In other words, “get hired” for other jobs. There again, you are going to have to spend precious time working at finding work. All time that you will not be spending working as a journalist.
I had an epiphany recently about the structure that makes the most sense for a freelance journalist who wants to be their own man. Or woman. My theory is not tested yet, but in my head it makes a lot of sense, and it is measured against years of experience.
It goes something like this:
1. BE CREATIVE. Designate at least one project you are working on that has no current market or audience, but that you feel strongly about. This could be a book or short story or essay you are working on.
2. BE PRODUCTIVE. Spend some time every day writing. Try to make it the same time or time frame. Test different times and see what makes the most sense for you. Put aside everything else during that time, including hiding your cell phone and email accounts. Writing emails does NOT count.
3. BE IN CONTROL. Realize that you are the one who is in control of what you work on. Don’t let yourself get pushed and pulled into doing things that have nothing to do with your work as a journalist. If that means you have to take your camera with you when you take your kid for a walk so you can practice photography, then just do it. Integrate your craft into your life–don’t try to manipulate your life to fit what you imagine your career is.
4. STAY IN THE LOOP. Be in touch frequently with other journalists. Meet them in person, connect through social media, send emails. Whatever you need to do. When you know what other journalists are doing with their time, it will inspire and push you to do more, do better, and quite simply–just do.
5. MANAGE YOURSELF. If your goal is to try to make a living as a freelance journalist, you are your most valuable resource. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to write, report, photograph, interview, research, find good stories. Despite the current market’s general disrespect for journalists (in terms of pay), realize that this is a highly valuable skill set. Market your skills with that in mind, and don’t take any wooden nickels.
6. MIX PROJECTS. Use a mixture of projects to advance your experience and credibility and livelihood as a journalist. Take on some projects that are just because you want to do them, some that are paid but have little to do with your real passions, and some that might develop into something better. You will know what works based on your financial needs. Don’t do only projects that are your dream projects, nor all jobs that are just to pay the bills.