#5: How I approach and manage my freelance journalism career

"There is a lot of uncertainty in figuring out how this will work out," reads the seventh point in my journal entry titled "On Quitting", dated 13th January 2019—the day I resigned from my full-time job at the Hindustan Times

After two excellent years at HT—where I got the chance to learn from and collaborate with a bunch of talented and hardworking journalists, where editors gave me the opportunity to hone my craft, space to write meaningful stories and nominated me for an amazing fellowship at the Wall Street Journal—I was done with it.

As in most jobs, my stint at HT had both upsides and downsides. I struck a balance, making most out of the opportunities at hand, downplaying stuff that troubled me, and moving on. But everything has a threshold. Somewhere around December 2018, I knew it was time to leave. I was not fitting in. If I wanted to stay inspired to be a journalist, I had to quit. And so I did. 

At the time of resignation, I had no plan for what comes next. "How long? Who will read? Who will pay? What next? Am I in the right profession?" I wrote in my journal. "These questions come naturally when you know that salary won't be automatically credited to your account," I added, anticipating my cash flow in the coming months. "It does not sound ideal. But at least it is forcing me to think about my priorities. And that’s good."

Two years later, with the benefit of hindsight, I am so glad I took that call to quit my job. I did not go back to a full-time role at a news organisation—by choice, not due to lack of opportunities. I now work as a freelance journalist: In 2019, I exclusively did reporting and writing; in 2020, I started with a dual career, splitting time between freelance journalism and software engineering. 

I love working independently. I earn enough to pay my bills, save and invest; I am getting closer to the kind of work I aspire to do; I get a hell lot of time to learn new things, read, relax, pause, sit and just think; most importantly, I can prioritise stuff I had long ignored in early adulthood: my physical and mental health.

In the last two years as a freelance reporter, I have written long stories for various Indian and International publications. You can read my published work here

I am writing this post to share my experience. 

1. Background: We are not playing the same game

I hesitate to offer freelancing advice. Consider this: When I quit my job, I was 25, had a year's worth of emergency fund, no debt, no EMIs, and because I live with my parents, no rent to pay. That means, even if things would have gone downhill, and nothing worked out, I could still comfortably get through another year. This cushion allowed me to wait and see how freelancing goes, rather than immediately look for a new full-time job. 

Add to that the two intangible assets I own: an elite undergraduate degree (mathematics and scientific computing from IIT Kanpur) and high-in-demand technical skills (building software, data science). I think of them as insurance instruments to protect me from any future shocks. In the winner-take-all economy—which favours the elite and perpetuates inequality—my educational background and interests have equipped me to enter that elite group. (There is a great deal of discomforting dissonance between who I am and the vision of the society I want to live in. But it is what it is.)

So simply put, I have a lot of structural privilege. I am fortunate to not have to live with survival questions. If all hell breaks loose, I always have the option to build a great career in the technology industry. I can't stress enough how much this matters in every single thing I do. 

I mentioned this to make one thing clear: my worst-case scenario is very safe. As much as leaving a job without a plan sounds like a risk, it wasn't a big deal: the stakes were low. 

It is not so for most people.

Moreover, multiple factors will dictate your experience: social capital and network (people you know), skills (what you know, what you can do, how you fare with competition), random chance events (on which you have no control), your expectations from life and how you perceive risk.

It is important to keep this context in mind as you read further about my experience. I have figured out a model that works for me — at least for now. But no two people can have an identical model: we are not playing the same game. There is no right approach. It varies with who you are and what you want. What worked for me may only be partially applicable to your scenario, or perhaps not at all. 

This post only describes my experience as an individual. 

2. Framework: What do you want?

Goal clarity is the single most important thing to deal with the inevitable uncertainty of a freelance career. The future is unknowable, and plans rarely work — beyond six months, no rigid plan has ever worked for me. So my approach is to operate within self-imposed rules that align with my larger abstract goals. They guide my decisions and help me choose. Especially so in thinking about trade-offs, and in rejecting lucrative opportunities with a high short-term appeal. 

Most of my goal-setting process revolves around having clarity on five sets of questions:

1. Why am I a journalist? Why not any other profession? What do I expect from my work?

2. What kind of journalism I want to do? What is that I do not want to do?

3. Why am I freelancing? Why not find a full-time job at a publication? What can I do in a big media setup that I can’t do independently, and vice versa? What are the trade-offs involved?

4. What are my needs and wants, right now and a little ahead in the future? How much money do I need to fulfil those? What is my personal finance philosophy?

5. What kind of life do I want outside work? What are the things I value in my life? What are the things that matter to me? What are my core underlying principles? 

These are hard questions. I struggle answering them. They force me to ask deeper questions about my belief systems, most of them hidden from immediate view, wrapped in dominant ideologies of the day. But over several months, scribbling in my journal, I figured where I stand at the moment, helping me set clear personal and professional goals. Of course, these answers are not set in stone and will change with newer life experiences. 

Here is a brief glimpse: I don't find it thrilling to get a lot of bylines. I enjoy writing long stories, exploring one topic in depth. I can't recklessly follow the news cycle. I prefer working with good editors who help me improve my craft than getting published in a big publication for the sake of it. 

I don't care about the "impact" of my work—I have no control over that. But I do have control over effort and integrity, and it matters to me. Reporting rigour in stories should follow an upward trajectory. I should learn new things. I value journalistic freedom more than anything else, even if that comes at the expense of readership. 

I am incapable of maintaining an active social media presence, especially Twitter. High-quality leisure is important, and I don't want my work to take over everything else I care about. Ethics and principles remain at the centre of my decision making, and I try to reduce the inescapable moral contradictions we all live with to whatever degree possible. 

    The list goes on. 

    Freelancing allows me to curate my career to fit many of these preferences and gives me more control over my time. That's the reason I stuck with it. 

    I did apply for one full-time job in the last two years. A couple of months after I left HT, the Wall Street Journal had an opening for a cyber-focused investigative reporter and an editor at the paper—who mentored me during my 2018 fellowship at the Journal—suggested I should check it out. I applied, the process began, but it didn't work out. I didn't apply for any full-time position after that. 

    I do have a few dream jobs and at some point in my career, I may try getting there. Not now, though. It doesn't feature in my six-month goals—the maximum time I plan for. 

    3. System: How to achieve your goals?

    Goals are crucial. Equally important is to have a pragmatic system to take you there. This includes the specific mechanics of getting assignments, managing money, balancing multiple projects and meeting deadlines. 

    Here is how I get reporting gigs:

    1. I write infrequently and mostly long-form reported stories. There are many publications interested in original reporting, and I am lucky that story ideas that I find exciting overlap with the interests of many publications which have budgets to hire freelancers. 

    2. Sometimes, an editor approaches me with an idea, or just an offer to contribute to their publication. In other cases, I pitch ideas to specific publications, checking if they would be interested. It goes both ways. 

    3. I started freelancing after working at India's largest publicationsThe Hindu and Hindustan Times—for three years. So I knew a couple of editors who hire freelance writers which made it easy for me to get started. 

    4. What has worked the best: building solid relationships with a few editors. Keeping in touch about ideas and writing for them once in a while. These editors have a good understanding of how I work and what they can expect if they commission an assignment to me. I strongly believe that the key variable predicting a journalist's output over the long run is their reporting process, everything from ideation to writing. I have been working hard on improving my process—a work in progress—to tackle complicated stories. Editors who know me see that in action and that sets the right expectations for a mutually beneficial arrangement. 

    5. I like to think of myself as a beat-agnostic reporter: not restricting my reporting to a few themes and chasing stories that pique my curiosity. That's ideal. But it's good to have a niche that defines why an editor should reach out to you. In my case, you will see three strands: reporting at the intersection of technology, politics, policy and culture; long-term investigations; and data journalism. This combination has limited supply in a crowded journalism market and helps me in getting assignments. 

    6. I always ask myself: If I get to tell a story, what is the value I am bringing in? What will make my story stand out if five different reporters are simultaneously working on it? How can I be authentic? If editors can see that value, the chances of getting another assignment increase. 

    In the last two years, I have not seen a phase where I had to struggle to find work. I hope it stays that way. 

    On balancing projects/timelines: I am not good at this. Things keep piling up, the todo list keeps extending, leading to weeks where I have to continuously slog to wrap things up. I am working on this and learning how to manage my time better. 

    Financial management deserves a detailed discussion. 

    4. Money: How do you sustain?

    "Huh, so you are living off your parents' money," said a senior journalist, whose work I admire, when I mentioned I work as a freelancer. I would not be surprised if many others believe the same. I just wish they also factor in that journalism is not the profession most Indian parents would willingly cross-subsidise. Not mine, especially when their kid has a STEM degree. The day I graduated from college, I knew one thing: the only way to resist parental pressure is to remain financially independent. 

    But I understand why they think so. The most common question friends ask me is about money. "Do you get paid enough?", "How do you sustain?", "Isn't it risky?"

    Let me turn the table for a moment: Do you feel secure at a large media organisation? What about layoffs? How do you feel when your annual raise is less than the rate of inflation? 

    The point is simple: you can't escape risks. But you can find ways to manage them.  

    Look, I don't want to make a killing fortune — and if you do, please don't become a journalist. Wrong profession for that goal. But neither do I want to be miserable at any point or worry about my finances all the time. I don't have too many material desires, but I am no monk either. What I need is a way to strike that fine balance. 

    1. The question that drives my thinking around finances: how I can do what I want to do while earning enough? Being a freelancer is like running a one-person business. I do not care about the larger economic crisis in journalism on a day to day basis: all I want is a publication willing to pay me, fairly, for my next assignment.

    2. My strategy: I start by asking how much I need. I assign myself a modest annual package—Rs X lakhs per year, just like a salary at a regular job. With the amount set, I work backwards: what do I need to achieve that X? Then I fill the bucket as much as possible with earnings from the stuff I like to do. For the remaining sum, I don't care as much about the specifics of the work: I just need to fill the bucket to make my system work. 

    3. Finances in 2019-20: This approach worked out pretty well for me. In the first year, I made almost all my money exclusively through writing assignments. That's what encouraged me to continue working as a freelancer. To give you a sense, in the first year of freelancing, I set myself an annual target equal to 90% of what I was making at the Hindustan Times. 90% because I did not want to get too ambitious about finances right in the first year, as I was figuring out how all of this works. But neither did I want to keep it too low and move forward with an unrealistic evaluation.

    4. Payment structures: Many times I have been paid similar per-word rates for a story I wrote in one day and another that took me three weeks. It makes no sense, but many publications only operate on word-count based rates and you can't do much about it.

    Some publications pay you for your time. For instance, in 2020, I signed up for a two-month exclusive arrangement with HuffPost India where I would be paid a monthly fee, irrespective of the number of stories or their length. I had a similar contract with the India Today group, also for a couple of months, to cover the 2019 general election. 

    5. Cross-subsidise one assignment with another: Foreign publications pay significantly more than Indian publications—even though the effort might be similar. A higher payment from one assignment enables me to spend more time on relatively lower-paid assignments. 

    6. Rates: the per-word rates in Indian publications average around Rs 10-15 (good ones – some pay even less than Rs 5 per word or nothing at all). American publications pay in dollars, and I have seen rates ranging from 0.5 to 1.5 USD. For example:

    HuffPost India 
    (not operational any more)
    Rs 10 per word/custom rates for special assignments
    Mint Long StoryPre-pandemic: Rs 30,000 (~2000-2200 words)

    Now: Rs 20,000 (for same stuff)

    The Atlantic$0.5 per word (~Rs 37 per word)
    Rest of World$1.5 per word (~Rs 100 per word)

    Delayed payments: A quick Twitter scan shows me delayed payments are a norm in the industry. Fortunately, I have almost always been paid in time. My first payment from Mint was delayed by a few months — but that was the last time it happened. 

    8. My side job:
     Many freelancers I know have some sort of a side job, leveraging their core skills elsewhere. For instance, a journalist friend splits her time between reporting/writing (core work) and working for a big data startup (side job) who hired her to write stories based on insights from their analytics for their internal use. A freelance musician I met at a cafe splits his time between producing music (core work) and teaching music at a university (side job). And so on.

    The idea is to diversify your income source and not be dependent on writing alone. I got on a side job mode in my second year of freelancing, leveraging my programming skills. 

    In January 2020, a friend and I started PopperAI, a news automation company. Our software created thousands of machine-generated articles based on high-frequency public data. But we shut shop in July due to various reasons. The purpose of starting the company was clear: it was a means to an end. I wanted to build a parallel high-value revenue stream for myself which would buy me more time for reporting ambitious stories. Alas, it didn't work out and my financial model for 2020 took a hit, albeit temporarily. 

    I then explored other freelance opportunities in software engineering and got a six-month contract with a Bengaluru-based startup, where I now contribute part-time. It's a great deal, especially because the company gives me the flexibility to work on my schedule. 

    I find the side job very empowering: it drastically reduces uncertainty and helps me focus. The fact that I enjoy writing code and thinking about engineering problems makes it the best of both worlds. 

    9. Building a healthy and thoughtful relationship with money: carefully thinking through my personal finance philosophy helped me a lot. Maintaining a low burn rate and a high savings rate, creating an emergency fund, planning for short-term/long-term investments, buying a good health insurance policy—all the standard things people recommend to make money work for you. Consider reading Morgan Housel's book Psychology of Money and Monika Halan's Let's talk money to educate yourself. It's so important. It took me some time to get in that flow. 

    5. Other things: what is it like to be a freelancer?

    - Where I work: I have been working from home long before the pandemic made it a compulsion. But I am more productive when not at home. In normal times, I work from coffee shops. There are several work-friendly cafes in New Delhi and I identified a few spots where I am a regular — who let me sit through the day even if all I order is one cup of coffee. I considered moving to a co-working space at one point. A flexible seat costs around Rs 8000 per month. But I decided against it and stuck with cafes. 

    - Become a digital nomad: If you are a nature person, go work from hills. It's amazing. Places like Zostel Mussoorie—one of my favourite spots—are designed for remote working. This will only grow post-pandemic as both the supply and demand are likely to increase. 

    - You have to hold yourself accountable: In a regular job, you are told what your mandate is. You have an editor who has expectations. You have a fixed salary. Freelance changes that. You have to decide everything for yourself. You get to decide what you want to do and how. You can direct your career to the style of journalism you prefer. You decide the extent to which you will report a story. You decide the bounds. The freedom can be daunting if not leveraged thoughtfully. It's not easy.

    Work is no longer the central part of my life: The institutions we are part of and the work we do there become a part of our identity. That erodes in many ways as a freelancer. There is no concept of weekdays or weekends. Every day is different. For instance, if I am desperate to finish a new book, I can just not work for two days and read. Or meet friends in the afternoon and work late in the evening. Then there are weeks where I am packed with assignments and have to work every day. I can plan a two-week trip to the mountains and then take more work when I come back. I love this flexibility.

    - You only have control over your own story: When employed at a news organisation, I think beyond my work. I care about the newspaper I am part of and try contributing, in small ways, to improve the overall coverage of the publication. On big event days, I loved collaborating with the team. I could raise red flags about the work we do with folks who make editorial calls. In short, you can contribute to building stronger institutions. Freelancers don't get to do that. You operate as a solo journalist and all you can do is do a good job on your article. 

    I hope this was helpful for you. Questions or comments? I am at samarthbansal@protonmail.com. For occasional updates about my work, sign up here: bansalsamarth.substack.com

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