The trials of a freelance journalist: Trials by fire, whether you’re fired or laid off

Lou Carlozo November 2, 2020

That’s me, plugging away on a freelance deadline via my WiFi-enabled typewriter. Very special thanks to New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes for creating my avatar.

I’m not bashful about sharing it: I lost my job in April, right at the height of Covid-19. The guy who broke the news, my supervisor whom my wife and I forever after christened Andre the Android, would’ve been an ideal foot soldier for cranking up the shower heads at a concentration camp. I should’ve admired his icy precision: He delivered the news with flat affect, told me in essence I was getting no severance, no vacation pay,  no more health care, nothing. Fifteen minutes later my email was shut down. That was it. He shut down my Slack account, too, but that was good news; I hate Slack.

He was wearing shorts when he did the deed. Nice.

Never mind that Android released a letter to the “folks” on my team referring to them as “foks” — guess someone needed my editing skills badly — or that the company had bragged about doubling its revenues over the last several years just a day before. It’s just how business is done these days. I get it. One your minute you’re the king; the next they tell you to fok off.

Besides, I’d been down this road before — at least four times, in fact. I was laid off from the Chicago Tribune in 2009. “Hiring freezed” out of from a full-time job at AOL in 2010. Ditto at Reuters in 2012. And when I literally shook hands on an editor-in-chief post at a prominent music website, the owner went on vacation and took along the book “The ONE Thing” by Gary Keller. Having decided to follow the book’s manifesto, the owner pulled back on his handshake. (At least he gave me the consolation prize of stock options, which helped me pay off debt when he sold his company.)

Thus the only full-time job I’ve found reliable over the last 11 years is no job at all. I’m a freelancer, and damn proud of it, because while it’s a lot harder to pilot your own boat as opposed to kicking back on someone’s yacht, I’ll say this: No one can take away a job from you that you never had in the first place.

The Freelance Drill: Can’t Buy a Thrill

And for so many belonging to my freelance tribe, you know the drill. Staff jobs have all the plentitude of crossbred unicorn-bull seals. Those jobs that do exist often pay squat. Or you get to shill a product or service you could care less about — but must act like you do with all of your heart. Then there are the entrepreneurs among us, who manage to crack the code in ways large and small; for me it’s been somewhere in between as I covered in this column.

Will it get any better? Not unless you create your own job by reverse engineering it. And this can empower you.

You might as well apply this three-word maxim when looking for a full-time job in traditional journalism: Get over it. The esteemed Pew Research Center notes that the number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 51% between 2008 and 2019, from about 71,000 workers to 35,000. These statistics are fresh, by the way — from April.

Concurrent to this, freelance work is exploding — though to my thinking, the way bombs do when wonderful cities are leveled. Here the facts can be less clear. For example, Upwork claims: “61% of freelancers went into this type of work by choice.” Ha. I don’t know who the surveyors talked to but it wasn’t a single muthafudging journalist I know. (But I do know Upwork makes money off the backs of freelancers.)

Or this: Freelancers could represent 80% of the global workforce by 2030, while freelancers around the world earn $19 an hour on average. Much more believable if you ask me.

Know the No’s Before You Go

Yes, I did double my income within two years after being let go from the Tribune. And six months after losing my government contracting job this year as a managing editor, I’ve equaled what I made there. In six more months I will probably make more than Android, a source of unending amusement. I’ll send him some new shorts and a shower head.

But, but, but:

  • No insurance.
  • No retirement account.
  • No company match.
  • No workmates to get coffee or lunch with.
  • No paid vacations because when you take a vacation, you pay.
  • Plus, to borrow from musician and journalism scholar John Hiatt, you get to sell your smart ass door to door in search of a paycheck…
  • …then you get to chase down those paychecks when clients don’t send ’em on time.

That’s because you have five clients instead of one job and everyone wants everything yesterday. You can lose an account at the drop of a hat; I’ve seen three go dormant in 2020 alone. Two were my highest paying. And you have to watch your taxes like a hawk, without any help from an employer.

There is at least one piece of good news. You can “fire” terrible clients, or just quit without any notice. Then when you try, they often throw more money at you. Did I mention I make good money? I do. Is it worth it? More often than not, I’m not sure.

See the Future Through Your Vision Statement

If you haven’t done so, I suggest mightily that you write a vision statement. Every few years I write one and imagine myself exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. I do my best to describe everything in present tense, like a movie with words: a scene I can easily imagine myself inhabiting. I don’t always get there, but usually something unexpected and fabulous happens. God is good.

A vision statement also provides the best insurance I’ve ever had against the things I can’t control: layoffs, horrible bosses, work droughts. Pitchers know you can’t throw strike after strike unless you stare a hole through the catcher’s mitt.

But also, my freelance friends, take umbrage in this: Covid-19 has killed many sectors, but not content. The oil industry, restaurants, leisure travel and entertainment have taken massive hits, but I don’t think writing, journalism or content creation as a whole rank among them.

From what I’m seeing – and yes, I admit the evidence is anecdotal – the killing of live conferences and desperation of companies to rise above the noise floor have created tremendous opportunities. And for those who scrap, you come to realize that a $90 assignment is worth $90 an hour if you dispatch it quickly.

You may not do much pure journalism or any at all. But you’ll put your skills to work, develop new ones, carve out your niche and survive 2020, the Worst Year Ever.

A Defense, Not an Endorsement

This column, then, is a defense of freelance but not an endorsement of the Freelance Life. Yeah, I know: more flexibility, higher pay, blah blah blah. Those I certainly have now, but I find the work week never ends and the loneliness is at times unbearable. I would not advise anyone to seek this path out. Still, I won’t tell you what to do or how to decide if this life is the one you want. Just know yourself. You may love it.

Everything is harder than it looks and over the last 11 years, my motto on leaving full-time work has been the same: I did not jump, I was pushed (except for the job where my boss spread rumors about me, but that’s another story). But much of life is about making things work when steady work isn’t there.

Somehow, I made it work. You can, too.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All views expressed are well past their expiration date. lou@qwoted.com

Election Week is here. Get away from the political mud bath and listen to Lou Carlozo’s “Bankadelic” as guest David Adefeso addresses the student loan debt crisis.