After almost three years, this week will be my last as a freelancer. From next Monday, I will be heading into an office to work full-time for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, I thought I’d set up a blog and make the first piece thoughts on freelancing, and why I am leaving this style of work.

The first thing to say is that freelancing isn’t really a valid definition of what I have done over the years. Freelancing, as a job, doesn’t really exist. The freelancer is essentially a contracted worker.

The word has romantic connotations. Freelancers supposedly get to write what they want, pursue investigative stories for a long time, and have the independence to work as and when they please. While all three of the above advantages do, to some degree, exist for freelancers, the reality is a little different.

Freelancers are only paid for what they produce, and receive no rights in terms of health, pension, holidays and the like. Regaining these rights in exchange for losing the odd sleep-in is really the main reason I’ll be heading back into an office.

In terms of day to day life, freelancing is really about balancing the projects you want to do against the work you have to do. Over the years, I’ve written a few stories I’m quite proud of, but on a daily basis, I earned my keep by editing and writing copy on restaurants, metals, economy and other subjects not particularly close to my heart. Rather than reading like a work such as Tokyo Vice, a memoir of my time freelancing would be closer to the diary of a bean counter.

The subject I found myself writing on most of the time essentially paid my (relatively low) wage, and extra work added additional cash to pay for holidays, nights out and the like. However, the problem was that the “extra” work was more interesting, and often ended up taking more time than my more regular gigs.

This inability of mine to manage time properly often led to pile-ups of work, and thus, an end to free time.

And then came the March 11 earthquake. The combination of the lack of interest in stories on anything else from many media organizations, and the difficulty of getting information needed for economy-related pieces on the earthquake and the increasing strength of the yen combined to make freelancing a struggle.

While things had picked up in recent months, the lack of financial security between the earthquake and autumn proved stressful. Supplementary work also proved problematic because of the strength of the yen. While the dollar weakening by ¥1 or ¥2 is insignificant for a single contract, over the course of a six-month period it can cost tens of thousands of yen.

Between August 2009 and February 2012, the dollar’s value went from around ¥95 to ¥80. With it, every $1,000 earned lost ¥15,000. Stories generally pay between $200 and $800.

But beyond money and the lack of rights, there’s a lot to be said for freelancing. The learning curve one takes when going freelance is more dramatic and enjoyable than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s, basically, what I learned:

1) The editor is generally right: Writers generally hope to specialize in creating between 600 and 1,200 words of content for a page that fits into an overall narrative they are trying to present. But the truth is, editors generally don’t care about this narrative. Take a writer who, for example, is trying argue that actors are exploited by studios through a series of interviews that are published by multiple outlets. Here’s the dilemma: One publication believes corporations give actors a great deal, but wants to use the writer. What is the writer to do? The answer is pretty simple. Compromise or walk away, because the editor is constructing a narrative made of many more stories than any given writer can tell. Why would an editor care that corporations’ treatment of actors angers a single freelancer. If you want to tell your story, and not contribute to an organization’s larger narrative, start a blog.

2) Social media helps: Without Twitter and Facebook, my time as a freelancer would have been very different. It may have been better in many ways – it would certainly be easier to present a “trend” from Japan that had been extensively written about elsewhere as an original story, for example. But beyond the short cuts lost, it’s a constant source of news and a way to construct your own story about subjects you are interested in. If you can find a way to do this, your efforts will be recognized, work will come your way, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll make friends that share similar interests and help you develop.

3) Neither online nor print: Print is not going to die anytime soon, and online is not going to take off in a way that brings in big money. Essentially, it’s an economics thing. For one, ad departments have a more difficult time justifying paying big money for online promotion than they do spreads in magazines or newspapers. With print, there’s the balance sheet: Newspapers are often expected to make losses, so they are a great place to hide bad results from other divisions of a parent company. Print publications are also often a source of vanity for their wealthy owners, meaning they aren’t likely to disappear in the near future. And online, the reality is that companies want to push the idea of unprofitability. Why would a site tell it’s freelancers finances were going great? It would only mean they needed to pay them more. In other words, in both worlds, there are grim prospects of super paychecks, so there’s little reason to turn down any work on grounds of prestige or preferring to be a specific type of journalist. 

4) Dull work isn’t dull: Anything a freelancer does deals in information. If information looks dull, you are looking at it through the wrong eyes, and probably missing a story. The first “tedious” story I could find on my feed while writing this involved Chinese rapeseed production. It sounds dull, but check why you should care and you probably will. It turns out rapeseed is essential for oils and grains we consume every day, that China is increasing output for its population, and that this will likely impact prices elsewhere. So here we have a story: “China stats show food prices to avoid sharp rise globally.” Nice news in a depressing world.

5) Fun work isn’t fun: Anything a freelancer wants to do probably involves their own attempt at creating a narrative (see point 1) that is unique and connected to their passions. That narrative will likely clash with the ideas the editor has, for one, but worse, will likely turn out difficult to argue. Writers gravitate to stories that have been told many times before, and often hope to tell the story in a new way. If that’s what you are looking to do, get ready for a lot of research. It isn’t easy to prove that what everybody thinks is white is black.

6) Money can’t be everything: I’ve learned over the last year that photographers want cash for their pictures every time they are published. They should. And writers should always be paid for their words too. But the reality is, both photographers and writers do a huge amount of legwork that is unrecognized. Pitching, finding stories, maintaining contacts, developing an online presence, researching, and handling invoices are just a few of the unpaid actives a freelance journalist has to do to stay afloat. Add all these into your end paycheck and think about money and you will quit on the spot. In terms of hours put in, freelancing is as difficult as it gets.

The reason for this blog is that if money isn’t an issue, then perhaps, paradoxically, I will be able to write the stories I always wanted to. Hopefully, this is the place I will write without the worry of constraints.

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