By MADDIE BINNING
Special to the RJRC
Freelance journalists starting out in the business should be wary of working for exposure instead of money, experts said in a recent Ryerson Journalism Research Centre webinar.
The discussion, featuring Lauren McKeon, author and digital editor of The Walrus, vice president of the Canadian Freelance Union Ethan Clarke and Daily Xtra associate editor Eternity Martis, centred on how to navigate a freelance career in journalism and make tough decisions like determining what pay is too low and how to negotiate contracts. The conversation was directed by Ryerson School of Journalism professor Lisa Taylor and broadcast to an audience of mostly journalism students.
“A lot of folks talk about the quality of journalism these days and ask about why it’s not as good as years in the past, and a lot of it has to do with the rate of pay,” Clarke said. “Quality work takes time.”
Free work privileges the people who can afford to work under those conditions, he said, adding that it is important for journalists to do their best to combat this problem in the media industry. Although it can be difficult to resist, Clarke suggested writers should not only avoiding unpaid work but also rates of pay that are too low.
“(Journalism) takes real skill and unfortunately, through dynamics on the internet, that’s been cheapened,” Clarke said, noting that the internet has produced many self-proclaimed journalists. “We’ve really got to fight to bring back that respect and the value of paying for good journalism.”
McKeon urged journalists to wage the battle for better remuneration by talking to each other about pay and bad actors in the publishing industry.
“It’s up to us to start breaking the silence on how much we do get paid, what publications we maybe have challenges with,” she said. “It’s really uncomfortable to talk about how much you get paid and all that sort of stuff, but it’s important that we better the industry.”
That said, the question of what is acceptable pay for freelancers is often a personal choice that writers need to determine for themselves, McKeon said. In her own freelance work, she said she accepted low pay early on in her career to work for publications she believed in.
“Everyone has to weigh how much they want to do the story and how much they want to work with an organization, what it means to them, what type of journalism they want to do, what’s important to them,” McKeon said. “It’s all about gauging what kind of journalism you want to do and what type of career you want to build.”
Martis emphasized that freelancers “will not be fed by exposure.” She suggested that freelance journalists set up a budget that includes how many stories they’re going to write each day and what kind of stories those will be. After completing her Master of Journalism degree at Ryerson, Martis said she did a variety of freelance work, including shorter pieces for publications like Complex magazine and content for non-journalistic groups like the YWCA. She continues to freelance while working at the Daily Xtra.
She said that sometimes making money as a freelancer means doing a variety of work.
“It all really comes down to knowing the publications you want to write for,” Martis said, “but it also comes down to choosing places that maybe you’re not so interested in, if that’s what you need to do to pay the bills.”
Clarke said that if journalists are struggling with pay, contracts or any other of the difficult aspects of freelancing, it’s essential to remember that working as an individual doesn’t leave you alone.
“Stop thinking of yourself as an individual, you’re part of a group,” Clarke said. “There are other workers all around you, find ways to unite with them.”
The Canadian Freelance Union offers services that include support for journalists who are having difficulty getting paid, contract advice, health plans and other insurance options, press cards and more. Find these and other resources on the CFU website.