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FOUR PILLARS OF LIFE FOR A FREELANCE JOURNALIST

From the right angle, I appear to be a very successful freelance journalist.

After graduating with a Masters in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario in 2011 I completed an internship with the National Post, spent a year developing digital content for a startup in downtown Toronto, took the leap into freelancing and kicked off my solo career writing for the country’s three largest newspapers, The Star, The Post and the Globe. That’s when things really took off.

After spending a couple of years building my portfolio in Canada I managed to get a foot in the door at New York-based entrepreneurship and technology magazine Fast Company, where I’ve contributed multiple articles every month for the past five years. During that time I also wrote a number of features that were published in The GuardianFortune, and Politico,accomplished my lifelong dream of writing for Rolling Stone (not once, not twice, but three times) and most recently celebrated my first byline in The New York Times.

I would love to end my biography there, but that would not be the whole truth. The reality is that the income generated from all activities listed above would still leave me below the poverty line, or more likely in another line of work. While journalism is my true passion and my main motivation, it is not my main source of income. It is rather one pillar of a freelance business that can be separated into four.

The first you know, and it’s the one that gets me out of bed in the morning. While I spend more than half my time doing what I consider my dream job—writing stories for reputable media organizations—that work generates far less than half my income. In fact, according to some rough calculations, it’s responsible for about 23.5% of my income thus far in 2018, and nets about as much today as it did when I began five years ago. 

The second is content writing, which is my main source of income. This includes ghostwriting, blogging for brands and local businesses, writing white papers and other written content. Though it only occupies about 35% of my time it generates about 70% of my income.

The third pillar is media-consulting pillar, which is still relatively new for me. In that capacity I help local startups navigate the media landscape, establishing a distinction between PR and thought leadership. I explain that if they want someone to write a press release about their latest product and send it out to a network of journalists, they can hire a PR firm. What I offer is help in defining a thought leadership brand that goes beyond a single product or company, and assistance in strategizing how to become recognized as experts in their field.

The final pillar of my independent business is public speaking, which I’ve done for many years but only recently began getting paid for. I’ve moderated countless debates and roundtables from Toronto to Dallas to Lisbon on a range of topics, and have more recently been asked to deliver presentations of my own. Though the pay only comprises some small single-digit percentage of my annual income, I love travelling and public speaking, and hope to grow this into a larger part of my business moving forward.

At this point I feel the need to acknowledge how this likely sounds to any seasoned journalists that remembers when the industry had the luxury of a division between church and state. As George Orwell once famously wrote, “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

As much as I wish I had a choice in the matter, the regrettable truth is that I don’t; I cannot survive financially as a journalist without supplementing my income, and with my degree in journalism, these are the best ways for me to do so.  

That being said I am glad to have studied journalism formally, glad to have taken journalism ethics courses taught by industry veterans and glad to have a deep understanding of why that division must be upheld. At the end of the day, pursuing my dream job is entirely dependent on maintaining my credibility in the industry, and there’s no paycheck worth gambling on that.

That is why I vet each “client” carefully to assess the likelihood of having to report on them objectively in the future, knowing that if our paths do cross in the journalism world I either need to abstain from the assignment or include a disclosure with my reporting. This is something I make clear with each before engaging in a discussion about paid work: you can either talk to me as a journalist, or a content writer/consultant/public speaker, but not both. To increase the distance between my journalism work and my other business pillars I also have a strict policy of never engaging in any activities typically associated with public relations, such as writing press releases or pitching stories, and always make clear that my contacts are not for sale.

I uphold the same standards with anyone that invites me to appear on stage for money, knowing some would happily pay a small speaking fee to have their client or company mentioned in one of the publications I write for. I make it clear to those who have offered a speaking fee that as soon as my name appears on the same contract or paycheck as their brand, the two can no longer appear in the same article without disclosure.

As a result, some of my contacts know me as a freelance journalist, others know me as a content writer, public speaker and media consultant, but none are invited to engage me as both.

A hardened capitalist might look at all of this and suggest that journalism is taking up too much of my time with too small of a return, that I should drop it in favour of pursuing more of these higher paying opportunities, but even if I wanted to (which I don’t) I could not. I am employed as a content writer because of the publishers I am associated with; I am asked to consult with startups because I have experience navigating the media landscape; I am asked to appear on stage because of my journalism credentials.

Fortunately for me, I am unable to let the journalism pillar crumble and still maintain the other sides of the business. Unfortunately for me, I’m unable to move away from these higher paying pursuits to focus entirely on my primary passion. For better or for worse, they continue to work in tandem, leaving me to spend a majority of my time doing what I love while still affording the roof over my home office.

Over the years I’ve entertained full-time opportunities in both camps, but ultimately decided to continue down the road I’m currently on, as neither seems more appealing than the balance I’ve struck independently.

Content writing, consulting and public speaking offer a high paycheck and job security in exchange for work I’m less passionate about. The journalism industry provides lower pay and minimal security but an opportunity to do what I love. Having a potentially infinite number of income sources that fall in various places along that spectrum provides a level of financial security, job satisfaction, long term growth and flexibility no full time employer has yet to offer.

This isn’t the career I had envisioned for myself when I chose to pursue journalism sometime just before the 2008 market crash; but within the current state of the industry, I consider myself very fortunate to still be a part of it more hours of the day than not.

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist whose come to terms with managing his four pillars - which is more fun for him than seeking shelter in just one of them.

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