You can be a journalist without a job at a mainstream news organization

That headline seems obvious, no?

Then why is it that when journalists see layoffs, buyouts, and newspaper companies in trouble, they sigh and say “Should I stop wasting my time and start applying to advertising agencies?

Really?

Here are a few ways you be a journalist without a full-time job at a mainstream news organization:

  1. Become a placeblogger.  Report on your community.  Beat the local newspaper, because you’re on the ground in your neighborhood and they’re probably not.  Make friends, and eventually, you may find yourself in the advertising business after all, selling space on your awesome local news blog.  Example: Baristanet.
  2. Freelance.  It sounds scarier than it is.  If you’re passionate about your beat, you might already be blogging about it.  That means you have some sort of body of work, or demonstration of your expertise on a given subject.  Use that to sell your ideas to magazines, niche publications that have money to spend and small in-house staffs.  My first paid reporting gigs were in a tiny little niche of the tech industry that I was interested in, if not necessarily passionate about.
  3. Got an idea?  Get a grant.  The Knight News Challenge is a great place to start.  If you have a great idea for how to do something innovative with local news, anywhere, you should be applying for a News Challenge grant, and this time next year, you could be getting paid to do something amazing, full-time.
  4. Get a job at a non-profit, and do journalism that matters for them.  Is that something like PR?  Maybe, but if you love the work they do, isn’t this a bit of a shortcut to saving the world?

None of these gigs involve working full-time for a big media company.  What was it exactly that you wanted out of journalism?  To work for a big company, or to be a journalist?

It’s not that simple, of course.  My health insurance is a bit more reliable now than it was when I was a student or a bartender.  (And you don’t even want to know how underinsured I was when I freelanced in the movie business.)

But if journalism is your passion, you’ll find the work you want.

10 Replies to “You can be a journalist without a job at a mainstream news organization”

  1. I have to say. Even though I am out of “journalism,” I still approach my work the same way and feel good about the organization that I am working for.

  2. I 100% agree. Part of Spot.Us is to see if/how journalists can do good work and sustain themselves outside a mainstream news organization.

    It obviously won’t be easy – but if you make a name for yourself as the cities journalist for hire and you do good work, I believe it could happen.

    Freelancing is a full-time job (I freelanced for years), but it is possible.

  3. Good points – but I have a good friend who is doing all of the above – and very, very well. As well as anyone, really, but he still needs his wife’s salary to carry the mortgage. And my wife is a sculptor so that’s not going to be an option for me.

  4. The health insurance issue is a big one, and not one I’d recommend people take lightly. Health insurance in the U.S. is super expensive for an individual and will be an enormous drag on anyone who tries to go solo. And while it’s more possible to go “naked” (i.e., without health insurance) while you’re young, start adding children to that mix, and some form of health coverage is crucial.

  5. Health insurance is a big deal. When you are young, however, it’s not that expensive to go private.

    I have health and vision for under $170 a month with a good PPO with prescription drug coverage.

    But, add in age and kids, and it would skyrocket. The health care situation in the U.S. makes it difficult to freelance full time, but when you are young it is easily doable.

    Stay in shape and in watch your health. Those two things will help make private insurance a lot more affordable.

  6. I’m freelance, but I’ve been lucky to get long-term contracts as opposed to relying on sending out endless queries only to get endless rejection letters.

    Oh, and I share half my expenses with someone else. And own a bike instead of a car.

    Let’s face it, though. Even with a “real” newspaper job, you’re lucky to be making as much as someone who’s put in a few years at Wal-Mart, especially in the beginning.

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