8. Freelancing in the media

From leading online training sessions to joke writing, there is no such thing as an average workday for media freelancer Suchandrika Chakrabarti.

Freelancing in the media large

In the week of the US elections, there was a breakthrough in the search for the Covid vaccine, Brexit negotiations continued, and a former Daily Mirror Chicken may have missed out on promotion thanks to an intervention by the Prime Minister’s fiancée. I spent two days of that tumultuous, news-filled week writing jokes about what’s going on in the world for Radio 4’s The Now Show. In a writers’ room pulled together by a Zoom call, we laughed at the volume of stories we had to work with, and how the tone shifted so abruptly from one news item to the next. 

Growing up in the 1990s, writing comedy was a job I didn’t know it was possible to have. Even when my dad would suggest I watch Have I Got News For You with him, it didn’t click. Comedy was just our thing that we enjoyed together. When he insisted that I read the foreign pages of the Guardian as well as the rest, before I went to get the school bus in the morning, I got the idea from him that being a good newspaper journalist was something to aim for. 

Now, though, writing topical comedy is just one of a couple of jobs I had to juggle this week. Alongside comedy – an industry I decided to get into in January 2020 – I’m also a media trainer and a freelance journalist. Copywriting’s there in the mix too. Of course, I’m working on a novel.

All my jobs have two things in common: storytelling, and my overheating laptop. Without the internet, I’m not sure how I would have made any money during the surreal pandemic year of 2020. In fact, I don’t know how to work or live without the internet at all, anymore. The analogue era is truly over.

In the 90s, I learned a few things about the world of work that I thought would never change. Firstly, that I would one day have a one-word job title, like my parents (mum: teacher, dad: doctor). Secondly, that work would happen outside of the house, although it could spill over into life a bit, in the form of home visits or marking and class trips. Thirdly, that writing as a career would provide the kind of financially stable adult life that my parents had already figured out before having me. 

None of these certainties have turned out to be true. The 90s ended up being completely unrepresentative of the decades that would follow. While the term ‘journalist’ has covered my role for much of my career, the job itself is subject to constant change. In my last staff position, as editorial trainer at Reach Plc, I delivered training across the company, which meant at the Daily Mirror as well as travelling the country to other newsrooms. Additionally, I did shifts on almost every desk at Mirror Online. Digital journalism changes quickly, and it’s easy to feel rusty on all the various systems and workflows. I had to be on top of all of these jobs, ready to train everyone from a news shifter to a social media editor to a personal finance writer. 

One morning in 2017, I was updating a room full of people on how to use Facebook to ‘sell’ their stories effectively, for maximum audience engagement. One reporter tentatively put his hand up. He was very sorry to tell me that Facebook had changed its algorithm earlier that morning, and so… everything on my slide was wrong. In a digital age, media training is a conversation, not a broadcast. I had to be prepared to be wrong as well as right on any given element of digital storytelling.

The training room is also a confessional. Whether a trainer is in-house or a consultant brought in, we are seen as neutral, and our workshops are safe spaces. Journalists can ask the questions that they feel silly asking of their workmates; let off the steam that they don’t dare to direct at their editors; and ask why digital is, generally, such a step down from the ways of working on a newspaper.

Gone are the days

In the last few decades of the 20th century, the golden age of papers, newsrooms only really got lively by 10am, with the first big editorial meeting at 11am. A second shift would come in late afternoon to work until the newspaper went off-stone, to the printers, by about 10pm. It could be 11pm or later if there was huge breaking news. There might be days when a journalist did not produce a story for print at all, because they were working on something big, or were out interviewing, or investigating.

Tabloid section editors might have a couple of thousand pounds thrown at them of a weekend to generate provocative stories. One example, told to me on my podcast Freelance Pod, involved an editor asking one of her reporters to pretend to be a cool, cutting-edge Young British Artist (aka the YBAs), even hiring gallery space. That was the power of newspapers, and that was the luxury of time and money that they could have, pre-internet. Imagine a newspaper pulling a stunt like that now – even if the budget was there, the cries of ‘fake news’ would finish them off.

A digital journalist’s day is very different, and involves writing about seven to ten stories per shift. Shifts are generally 7am-3pm or 3-11pm – swapping from mornings to evenings each week – so they’re fairly anti-social. Most of the stories will be rewrites of news from other sources, with some scope for original reporting, but rarely enough time. Then there’s sourcing pictures, thinking up social headlines, making sure there’s a search-friendly headline too, all the while fielding GChat messages from editors and the social media team, and keeping one hand hovering over the phone to set up an interview for the next article. If news breaks, there will be a cascade of articles, perhaps a liveblog, and maybe even a very lucky person sent out to get video. 

At about 7am on an otherwise normal weekday in May 2016, the Head of Video at Mirror Online called me to see if I could get down to a sinkhole in Charlton, near where I lived in Greenwich, south east London, to take some video. This particular sinkhole had made the front page of the Evening Standard the night before, as it had opened up underneath a car, which had half-fallen into it. I arrived at a scene that was mostly taped-off for safety reasons. Many journalists had beaten me there. A lot of them brought impressive broadcast kit from their newsrooms. I was going to use my phone.

One journalist walked past me, saying that he was going to head into the graveyard of the church by the sinkhole, and get better shots from there. I did the same, stepping up onto a small brick wall to take pictures and video inside the hole. I could glimpse what was keeping the car half-out of the sinkhole – a large pipe it was balanced on – and I could also see the shimmering golden colour inside, the surprisingly beautiful shade of the clay soil under the streets of Charlton. I leaned over the graveyard fence and dangled my phone as low as possible to get as much footage as I could. 

Other journalists spotted us and started making their way into the graveyard, so the police intervened and bundled us all out, warning that the flooding that had caused the sinkhole also caused regular problems in the churchyard. We could end up finding ourselves ankle-deep in a sodden grave. That was enough to get me to leave, struggling with the 3G that everyone else was using to send my pictures and video into the office.

It was thrilling to actually do some reporting, and to try to beat the other journalists by getting my exclusive multimedia in first. I’d accepted that this kind of thing wouldn’t really feature in this job when I took on the role as trainer, but that was still one of the best mornings of my three years at Reach Plc. Imagine how deskbound digital journalists across the nation feel. 

I meant to stay in that job for two years before going freelance, but I made it to three before redundancy came for me. After finding it hard to walk away from a salary, in April 2018 I found myself with a generous payout and a laptop. It was finally time to become a freelancer. 

The freelance leap

I had no illusions that writing consumer journalism could bring in enough income to sustain my life in London. Print is generally more lucrative than digital, but print titles are fast disappearing. So my life as a freelancer would have to involve balancing different kinds of jobs, and branching out from pure journalism. The training role really helped my transition into freelancing. As soon as I’d left my job, I had requests come my way, and they’ve never completely stopped. The early part of the pandemic this year was tough, as we all adjusted to Zoom, but since then, a lot of people have decided that learning media skills – especially podcasting – is a good use of their enforced indoor time.

Alongside training, making a successful podcast in my last role at the Daily Mirror, Black Mirror Cracked, played a large part in changing my career. The pod netted 20,000 downloads in its first week (with seven episodes), and 150,000 over the six months I worked on it before I was made redundant (I worked on the first 30 episodes). Those numbers led to me speaking about the podcast at several events over the summer after I’d left it behind at the Mirror

I entered a new world where performance and personality mattered as much as the content, which isn’t always so true with writing. I didn’t realise that I had started building my personal brand. After speaking at a few conferences, one or two fans of the podcast would come up and chat to me as though they knew me, which showed me the power of audio, and convinced me that I should do more with it. I was asked a number of times if I’d tried stand-up, and a long-buried dream started to look more and more like something I ought to dig up. 

We live in a world now where the means of publishing are available to anyone with a decent wifi connection. More and more people look to journalists to teach them how to use digital storytelling tools. This means that marginalised groups can circumvent the traditional gatekeepers to get themselves seen and heard. Lack of diversity in newsrooms and writer’s rooms and other rooms that shape how we see ourselves and the world, is hugely problematic. It requires urgent solutions. Training helps open up an otherwise opaque world to aspiring creatives of all backgrounds. 

I’ve given up on having a simple one-word job title like my parents did. Instead, I have freedom beyond their wildest expectations: the freedom to create, but also to fail. Is life better as a freelancer? I do prefer having the ability to mix up careers, and choose the job I take on. I haven’t managed a great work-life balance, but then my professional writing is bound up in my personal life – just count the number of times I’ve used the pronoun ‘I’ in this essay.

When I write topical comedy now, my late father’s love of journalism and politics comes to mind, and all those times he insisted that I watch Have I Got News For You with him. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that he might have liked to do my job; but he lived in the wrong time. 

In the last decades of the 20th century, the question of why there was no one who looked like him in newsrooms and writer’s rooms and all those other rooms where our perception of reality gets made, simply wasn’t asked. We’ve lost generations of talent as a result. We can’t let that continue.

While providing greater flexibility, freelancing in the media offers few certainties and little financial security. To better support freelancers, the industry should ask itself:
  • Can you help make the working conditions for freelancers more secure?
  • Do you share access to information, courses, new technology and practice with freelance staff?
  • Is there mentoring or other support available to help freelancers shape their 'brand'?