EJ or not EJ? Commitment and the freelance life

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman

The rapidly changing face of journalism writ large is also the changing face of environmental and science journalism.

These are despairingly dark days of continued newsroom downsizing, the disappearance of long-established news outlets and reduced environmental coverage by those news outlets that survive.

Thus it was no surprise that the challenges of freelancing were high on the agenda at last week’s annual Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference, Time after time, someone stood up during a Q&A period and began, “I’m a freelancer from…” before asking a question to speakers or panelists.

I began freelancing in college and continued during nearly 20 years as a daily newspaper reporter. I still do when time, inspiration and energy permit. Like many other journalists, I began for several reasons: an opportunity to report about new and different things, to vary my writing style, to build my resume, to boost my ego with bylines from across the U.S. and sometimes abroad—and, of course, to supplement my reporter’s salary.

However, for many displaced science and environement journalists without full-time jobs with steady income and benefits, freelancing today is a necessity, not an add-on. I know exactly what it’s like to be in that situation because I was a full-time freelancer during the first year of the Detroit newspaper strike that began in mid-1995.

Thus the conference program included sessions such as “Show me the money.” The description of that session begins: “How to make a living, really, as a freelancer.” Other sessions included “The art of the pitch 201”—freelancing does require pitching skills to sell yourself and your stories to editors—and “Freelance ethics.”

What that shows is that these journalists remain committed to covering the environment and science and that they’re eager—or at least willing—to become entrepreneurial and business-savvy enough to earn their living in pursuit of stories and photos rather than shifting to more financially stable but less emotionally and professionally rewarding careers.

A better-informed public is richer for their efforts.

Eric Freedman is director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.