For many independent journalists I know, it’s discouraging to see the continuing string of newsroom layoffs that began in late 2016, including those announced by Dow Jones and Gannett in October that put hundreds of journalists out of work. Freelancers worry about the flood of laid-off staffers pouring into an already crowded job market. Yet, without a place for all these newspeople, we risk losing dedicated journalists at exactly the time when their energy is most needed to weather ongoing upheaval in our industry.
Recently, I have found one bright spot in this bleak picture: evidence that more mainstream organizations are joining SPJ in the recognition that independent journalists need special services to help them run successful freelance businesses. After the New Jersey Gannett layoffs in November, Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media teamed up with Poynter’s NewsU to offer free training for out-of-work journalists in the state, the idea being to help them make a go of it as freelancers. The training includes a certificate program in “building your brand through social media,” an array of coursework topics including how to become an entrepreneur and how to contribute to a local publication, and webinars and classes to help strengthen skills veteran newspeople need to thrive, working on their own.
NewsU isn’t new. For more than a decade, Poynter has been building a curriculum of more than 300 courses for newsroom and online training. What’s new is the acknowledgment that journalists need a path for continuing to work in the profession, even after their jobs are eliminated.
SPJ took a bold step a few years back by allowing groups of members with common interests to form official communities. They’re akin to national chapters, but organized around a common interest rather than location. It’s no surprise to me that the Freelance Community is the largest and most active of those groups. Through online events and chats as well as the community’s Facebook Group, we are engaging hundreds of independent journalists around issues ranging from access to information to freelance rates and contracts. Our resources help independent journalists keep track of contest entries and fellowship deadlines. Online discussions also spread the word about calls for pitches and training opportunities available to freelance journalists.
Independent journalists also are building community in person. Across the country journalists join with other freelancers for monthly Spark events sponsored by the Freelancers Union. Within SPJ, the monthly freelancers’ lunch meeting in Washington, D.C., will spread this year to other cities, and freelance programming is taking hold at the chapter and regional levels. The Freelance Corner at Excellence in Journalism (EIJ16) in New Orleans last year kept Freelance Community leaders busy throughout the conference, where budding and veteran freelancers alike crowded sessions and networking offerings.
Such groups and activities hold real value for journalists working outside the hub of a newsroom. Sharing information, skills and activities with similarly situated individuals throughout my time in SPJ has made me a better journalist and a more successful freelancer. I’ve found sources and story ideas in abundance by talking with other freelancers at the D.C. SPJ chapter lunches. I’ve learned different perspectives on some common freelancers’ dilemmas from the Freelance Community’s online chats. My technology advancements since joining the Facebook discussion group have made me more efficient and helped me solve problems that have bothered me for years.
There’s also truth in the adage that there’s safety in numbers. Coming together with other freelance journalists is important to our survival as the news business continues to morph. Wherever you are, however you do it, make sure you are counted among professional freelance journalists — and share the benefits of their collective wisdom to keep your business and our industry strong.
The best way is to join the SPJ Freelance Community today!
Hazel Becker’s two stints as a freelance journalist sandwich a 28-year career with BNA publications, now Bloomberg BNA, as correspondent, reporter, editor and product development manager. Freelancing over the last 10 years, she has covered personal finance, insurance, business and government for online publications and magazines from her home in Washington, D.C. She is the 2017 chair of the SPJ Freelance Community.