Reflections on the lot of a freelance journalist: Freedom and flexibility don't pay the bills

Press Gazette's survey of 700 journalists has found that freelance are typically poorer but happier than staffers. Last summer Julian Cole lost his job as features editor of The Press in York. His daily blog Man on a Ledge was nominated in the UK Blog Awards 2016. Here he reflects on the lot of the freelance journalist

I can work naked, unshaven and when I like… Ah, just to explain there should be quotation marks in there. That isn’t me speaking. I always have clothes on, although I have been known to type in pyjamas and two-day stubble.

The person quoted took part in a survey of freelances conducted by the Press Gazette, a publication for journalists and those still trying to pretend that’s what they are.

This survey found that freelances were happier than regular staff, but increasingly worried about money.

One freelance, who earns £15,000 to £20,000, says in the survey: “Freelancing has never been more precarious. Fees are at rock bottom and it’s not uncommon to be treated with utter disdain by commissioning editors – or completely ignored. Often you’ll pitch an idea but won’t get any response whatsoever, not even a brief ‘no thanks’.”

I have suffered from being ignored in this way. One day I looked in the mirror just to check I hadn’t turned invisible. No, still there; still the same face, only with accessorising worry lines.

The other week an editor on The Guardian actually replied to an email. I nearly fell off the study chair. My email had been forwarded to another department. Excitement mounted, a champagne cork was loosened (or a hand hovered over the box of teabags). I emailed the person he’d sent the email on to. Nothing, not a squeak. Another zilch of a zero. Further emails elicited the same lack of response.

Maybe that’s the wrong approach; emails are easy to send and even easier to ignore. If I laid all the lack of responses to my emails end to end, I would have a gang plank to walk along.

Here I should point out that the Yorkshire Post is an honourable exception to this rule – as, too, now is Mensa Magazine. And thank you; much appreciated.

I am available for all wordy tasks, including copywriting, and anything without words too if things don’t pick up.

Some respondents to the survey say they are happy to be away from office politics. Well, yes – up to a point, although I quite enjoyed the gossipy jostle, if not the occasional machinations. Alone in the house there is little intrigue unless I gossip about myself. I tried this but ended up offending myself.

Someone else in the survey mentions the benefit of “no stupid meetings” and, yes, anyone who has ever been to a stupid meeting anywhere will probably agree with that. Another says: “I start when I want, I go out for dog walks…the coffee is awesome and I frequently type in the nip.”

Ah, is there a freelance naturist society I don’t know about? If so, I still don’t want to know about it.

My day is mostly spent upstairs in the study, where I have just been typing up an interview with an author, although sometimes I come downstairs and work at the dining table for a change of scenery.

I did this just now and at this very moment the cat has jumped onto the table and is rubbing her head on the laptop screen, while gazing at me with mournful golden eyes that speak of an empty bowl.

That didn’t used to happen in the office; in a minute, missus. And I used to think some of my old colleagues were troublesome. That isn’t true by the way. They were and are a good bunch, whether they remain in place or have been scattered by the wind.

Many in the survey enjoy the freedom and flexibility of being a freelance. I do too, but freedom and flexibility don’t pay the bills.

To finish, I shall consult Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, a favourite book and one mentioned here before. Apparently the word freelance was probably coined by Sir Walter Scott and first appears in Ivanhoe as “a term for a knight with no allegiance to any single cause”.

The entry below is for “freeloader”, but that’s a whole different story.

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