Helping j-friends to freelance

Aaron Kushner, the investor who rocked journalism in 2012 by buying the Orange County Register and expanding it while the industry was contracting, rocked itOld newspaper again this year by instituting bloodbaths that have lopped off more than one-third of the newsroom staff. Longtime bylines and credit lines are going or gone.

I dodged a layoff at the San Francisco Chronicle by pre-empting it: I paid off my bills, let my editor friends elsewhere know that I was available for assignments, picked a date and quit to freelance. I had certain things in my favor: I had already freelanced on the side nationally for 20 years, had hired and edited freelancers, and had run a business.

The newly freed reporters at the Register may not have those advantages. Reporters and editors tend to think locally – where the freelance money isn’t. They usually aren’t familiar with contracts or with entrepreneurship, other than what they’ve covered. They have a lot to learn if they choose freelancing as their next career.

A theory floats around that laid-off reporters and editors will crowd the freelance market, snapping up all the good gigs. Nothing could be further from true. This is a line of work to which many are called but few are chosen. That’s because so many of us were raised to be employees, responsible for our own work, not sole proprietors responsible for the whole thing, right down to the benefits.

It hurts to see colleagues hurting. Here are some things we can do to help:

> Neither encourage nor discourage the person from freelancing. Do be candid about the emotional and monetary ups and downs. Let them know about some of the differences between freelancing and staff work with which they may not be familiar, such as pitching story ideas in the freelance way. It’s not necessary to mention encounters with Attila the Editor, other than the fact that when your friend encounters an Attila, they can “fire” him by never working for him again. Can’t do that in a newsroom!

> Suggest that the person take workshops or a course in writing a business plan and starting a business. All businesses resemble each other, so even if the person learns with future owners of stores and B&Bs, the fundamentals will apply. And who knows? Your friend may like writing business plans enough to do it for other people – for good pay.

> Introduce the person to the very wide world of writing beyond magazines, websites and other newspapers. Let them know that their skills translate well to books, book chapters, corporate writing, some types of marketing writing and some types of consultancy – and that’s only the beginning. Help the person, too, to think globally, not locally.

> Share leads on gigs when you can – meaningful gigs, not gigs you’d never do yourself in a million years.

If the person walks back into employment, don’t take it personally. Smart people know when self-employment isn’t the best choice for them. Who knows? You may wind up being able to quote him or her as a source someday.

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