The freelance path: Are journalism degrees over?

[W]hile trudging through university or college, we’re pressured to take as many work opportunities as possible to ensure we’re not homeless or living with our parents post-graduation (or even worse, our siblings). As a journalist, that one job you want to aim for – the Rolls Royce of all writing jobs seems to be the freelance writer. You work your own hours, you write about whatever you want whenever you want, and you occasionally check in with what you would call your boss – the editor. Dream job material, right? Just look at what pop culture references have made of freelancers today: television shows and movies often depict freelance writers working in bed, drinking like fiends, or frolicking during the day without a worry in the world (just see Sex and The City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who gallivants in and out of Vogue so frivolously you’d think she was Pope John Paul – in Jean Paul Gaultier, no less.)

But becoming a freelancer is not so easily achievable. In fact, any kind of job seems to be on the decline these days. On a national scale, Canada’s unemployment rate rose to 7.6 per cent from 7.5 per cent in January, while December saw a net unemployment gain of 21,700, revved up from the initial 17,500. This number doesn’t seem to be decreasing anytime soon, and with more publications going out of business, print jobs are growing even scarcer by the second.

“I think that people think that [freelancing] is easy because you don’t have a boss and you get to do quite a bit of what you want to do. But it requires a great deal of discipline and involves a lot of rejection,” says Kate Carraway, a freelance writer for publications such as The Grid, Vice, and The National Post.

“It’s very taxing emotionally and physically… there’s almost no upside except for freedom.”

Although freelance writing may not be an easy ride, it may very well be the wave of the future. While newspapers are cutting jobs, their content is not on the decrease – which means there is a huge demand for freelance writers to create many publications’ content. Just look at the staff writers list the next time you’re on a publication’s website. You’ll see it isn’t very long.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, journalist and undergraduate program director for Ryerson University, believes it’s almost a necessity to freelance in today’s job market. He would know, too – he spent a large portion of his career as a freelance journalist, as well as a theatre critic for The Globe and Mail (but was smart enough to begin his freelance career with a Joe job lined up on the side.)

“This is the irony of the fact that jobs are getting hard to find: it’s not that news organizations are eliminating journalists, but they don’t want to pay them the full salary and the benefits and the full package,” says Al-Solaylee. “They’re relying more and more on freelance writers, who are cheaper to maintain.”

While the job market for freelancers seems to be on the rise, debate has begun to emerge over what freelancers must do in order to survive and how they should prepare to maintain a living as well.

Writing and reporting skills are a must, but some are beginning to question whether journalism school can really prepare us for the hustle and bustle of the freelance world. Will journalism school teach students how to make enough money to pay their rent? Will an English degree really tell them how to deal with a sadistic editor? The questions are highly debatable.

Some freelancers have paved their own way to successful careers, without the aid of a school degree, though. Sarah Nicole Prickett is a freelance writer for publications such as The National Post, FASHION Magazine, Dazed Digital, and The Toronto Standard – and she’s done it all without completing a degree. In fact, she dropped out of Ryerson University’s Journalism program in her second year and insists it was one of the best things she did for her career.

“I don’t know if it’s any more or less necessary to have a degree as a freelancer than in any other kind of role,” says Prickett. “There’s a significant area of overlap – a sort of Venn diagram between journalism and writing. People who are really successful are really good journalists and really good writers. But they are separate skill sets.”

“The only qualification for a freelance person is the right character and the right personality for it,” adds Carraway.

Even Al-Solaylee, an employed academic director, believes a specific degree isn’t always necessarily needed to freelance.

“It depends largely on the kind of freelance work you want to do,” says Al-Solaylee. “If you’re writing technical manuals and you have a degree in psychology, it’s just not going to help you to really understand.”

At the end of the day, a lot of freelancing depends on original ideas and constant networking, not to mention constant drive – skills you just won’t find in a journalism school’s curriculum. Not even Harvard can teach self-motivation and discipline.

Prickett believes her time at journalism school was actually causing her to unlearn how to write, stripping her of her original voice and opinions when, really, freelancing depends on them the most.

“I’m maybe exaggerating the effects of journalism school because of my natural disinclination towards rigid, one-size-fits-all systems,” says Prickett. “But I just found that what I was writing there wasn’t interesting to me.”

Al-Solaylee, though, believes journalism school won’t strip students of their creative writing. Instead, it will help them strengthen their voice and perfect their reporting skills.

“We offer courses in creative writing, feature writing, opinion writing, arts writing, and sports writing. We actually encourage you to explore different types of writing,” says Al-Solaylee. “What journalism does is it trains you to keep an eye on the facts, on fairness, on balance – things that people who don’t go to journalism school usually, I wouldn’t say ignore, but are very caviler with.”

Still, Prickett believes journalism skills and writing skills aren’t entirely synonymous.

“You have a lot of keeners and students who are really good at research and understanding why facts are important; they believe they can be objective, be good interviewers – all these things that make a good journalist. But they can’t write,” says Prickett. “So I was kind of different. I was always a writer first and foremost in my mind, and then I thought I can turn that into something that is lucrative in a nominal way.”

Her ballsy move to abandon school appeared to pay off, though: soon after leaving Ryerson University she landed an internship with FASHION Magazine as a cultures intern. She moved up in the freelance world. The rest seems to be history.

What most freelancers agree on, though, is the fact that writers need more than determination and balls to make it in the competitive freelance world these days. Besides getting over the initial hurdle of getting an editor to actually respond to your query letter or pitch (which can be a damn mission impossible sometimes), writers face a numerous amount of hurdles in front of them: untimeliness, unoriginality, competition against other writers, zero funds, zero space for content, catching an editor on a bad day – there’s just too many to count.

“It’s not a lifestyle where you can plan ahead – where you can say in five years ‘I’m going to put a down payment for a house’ or ‘I’m going to get married’ or ‘I’m going to have a child,’” he says . “It makes those decisions harder because you’re actually living paycheck to paycheck.”

“The other thing is that you can’t say no too often… You always have to be a real whore and say yes to everything,” says Al-Solaylee.

So degree or no degree, jobs or no jobs, it seems the only way to become a successful freelancer in today’s job market is to hustle and hustle some more.

Carraway says be the best at what you do, too, or don’t even bother trying.

“Being a freelance writer right now is extremely difficult, extremely punishing, and extremely rare,” says Carraway. “If you really do want to be a traditional freelance writer, doing features, criticism, reporting, then you should make sure that you are absolutely, without a doubt, the very, very, very best at whatever you niche is.”

And make sure you get paid well for your very, very, very special niche.

“With rent being out of control in Toronto, to live in somewhere decent and to be able to pay your rents and bills, you need to bring in at least a couple thousand dollars,” says Al-Solaylee. “And I don’t know any freelancers who can pull in that much money a month.”

Chris Allaire, Journalism ’14