What to Do Before You Quit Your Day Job
Before diving into the world of full-time online journalism and leaving your previous professional life behind, we recommend:
- Working part time first to get an idea of how difficult it may be to make money as an online journalist
- Building up a network of colleagues, potential clients, and possible employees (should you decide to take the entrepreneurial approach)
- Assessing your financial responsilities (your family, your debt, your bills) and determining whether they may be put at risk by a career shift
- Building up a sizable portfolio of work that can be presented to media organizations with which you may work
- Publishing work with several notable publications (this will aid your job hunt and bolster your portfolio with the endorsement inherent in a prestigious news organization's having accepted your work)
- Building up an emergency fund that can cover your living expenses for at least six months (especially if you are not transitioning straight into a salaried position that you know can support you)
Potential Career Paths for Online Journalists
There are three popular paths online journalists tend to adopt:
- Full time work with businesses and media organizations
- Freelance work
Working Full Time with a Business or Media Organization
Adopting this approach works best for those with professional journalism training (e.g. an undergraduate degree and/or master's in journalism) and those who are willing to work from the ground up while paying their dues. This may involve starting with unpaid internships and slowly moving to progressively prestigious positions across a series of different media organizations.
The perks of this approach include stability, eventual health benefits, eventual steady income, and the prestige that accompanies work with a well-known, established brand, such as the New York Times, NPR, National Geographic, or Mashable.
The downsides of this approach include a long lead time, the necessity of contending with stiff competition for a very low number of openings, and no guarantees of indefinite employment.
Working as a Freelance Journalist
More and more journalists are choosing to work as freelancers. Part of this stems from a love of freedom and independence, however the choice is also a product of the paucity of job openings within the journalism industry and an unwillingness on the part of many struggling media organizations to take on (admittedly expensive) salaried employees.
The perks of being a freelance journalist include the freedom to pursue the projects and clients that interest one most and to work (in many cases, at least) from whatever location one may choose.
The downsides associated with freelance journalism include variable and unstable income, uncertainty with regard to available work, and the need to manage employment details such as health insurance independently.
Taking an Entrepreneurial Approach to Journalism
Because it is often difficult to find work (whether one is a freelance journalist or seeking full time work with a media organization), quite a few journalists have chosen to create their own work. Some do this by launching their own media outlets; others make a living by curating news for specialized clients or providing rarified but valuable analysis based on their journalistic expertise.
The perks of building your own business as a journalist include the ability to determine exactly where and how you will work, the freedom to select who (if anyone) you will work with, and more control over risk (by controlling exactly how you will address major trends in the journalism industry to make sure that your business succeeds, even as other news-centric businesses relying on outdated models flounder).
The downsides of taking an entrepreneurial approach to journalism include complete uncertainty as to whether your business will succeed or fail, plus the additional burdens that accompany the establishment and maintenance of an entire business (which go well above and beyond those of a pure journalist).
Income Levels to Expect as an Online Journalist
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest paying jobs for journalists are those taken with social advocacy organizations (with an annual mean wage of $75,610), followed by "other information services" ($58,280), cable and other subscription programming ($57,050), management companies and enterprises ($55,790), and radio and television broadcasting ($50,640).
Also keep in mind the industries that are actually employing large number of journalists, specifically the newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishing industry, radio and television broadcasting, other information services, cable and other subscription programming, and colleges, universities, and professional schools.
Another important detail: your income might be contingent on the geographic area in which you and your client(s) or employer(s) are based. To get an idea of what to expect, have a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' map below.
Primary Sources of Income for Online Journalists
Amongst the journalists we have studied and interviewed, the following channels have been used as common sources of income:
- Full time employment with a news organization (or some other company in need of journalism; examples include Elise Hu, a technology and culture reporter for NPR and Tim Bradshaw, a tech reporter at the Financial Times in San Francisco)
- Part time employment for several different employers
- Full time employment in another field (for a fun example, see burlesque artist Millicent Binks)
- Freelance writing (an approach adopted by professionals such as Rob Sharp and Seth Kugel)
- Freelance consulting (often with social media management, as demonstrated by Erica Swallow)
- Book sales (common amongst national journalists with strong personal brands; see David Pogue, Tanner Stransky, Jeff Chu, Andy Greenberg, Kim Severson, Michele Norris, and Scott Simon)
- Speaking engagements (often tied to book sales; note that many news organizations have policies against accepting fees for speaking engagements)
- Blogging (in this case, passive earnings most frequently come through ad revenue)
- Entrepreneurship (e.g. starting one's own media company; practiced by David Cohn)
Establishing Financial Security as an Online Journalist
We asked journalists of a wide variety of backgrounds what they did to build financial security into their lives. Their most common solutions include:
- Pooling resources with a spouse (who may bring health insurance and a steady income to the table through a full time employer)
- Freelance writing or consulting on the side (as mentioned above)
- The maintenance of an emergency fund capable of supporting one's financial needs from six months to a year (to be cultivated regardless of one's present income level)
Any position in which your income is contingent on the whims (not to mention successes or failures) of an employer, clients, or an audience is going to be insecure. Anything you can do to mitigate that insecurity will put you in a more sound financial situation.
The simplest approach involves not putting all of your eggs in one basket. In addition to alleviating financial risk by teaming up with a spouse, getting other gigs on the side, and maintaining an emergency fund, you can ensure your financial stability by:
- Cultivating your area of expertise (e.g. if you cover the automotive industry, this would involve going above and beyond in understanding the auto industry, its trends, and the inner workings of various car companies and parts producers) so that you can get a job outside the journalism industry should your career as a journalist cease to support you
- Developing a broad network of contacts within the areas you cover to increase your odds of finding new job opportunities
- Utilizing your expertise to start a business in another industry (this enables you to access additional audiences and clients that you might not have tapped into as a journalist)
- Developing products or taking on ventures that produce passive income (things like books and online courses that, for the most part, only require setup and will not need regular and active upkeep)
Administrative Tips for Online Journalists
In addition to producing work as a journalist (be that fact checking, radio shows, blog posts, or on-the-ground reporting), there are a couple of administrative details that will require your attention should you choose to go pro.
Though taxes won't be much of a novel issue should you be employed full time by a media organization (you'll be filing taxes just as any other fully-employed individual might), you will need to give special attention to tax-related finances should you choose to be self-employed or start your own journalism-centric business.
Be sure to:
- Keep records (that is, both receipts and a summary) of all business-related expenses (travel, gas, food, meals, materials, services, etc.)
- Keep track of all journalism-related income
- Consider setting aside 15-30% of your profits in a separate tax fund so that you aren't in a money crunch when tax season comes around
- Familiarize yourself with the Schedule C (or Schedule C EZ, if your expenses in a year were under $5,000) and Schedule SE before tax season arrives so that you have everything you need, do not feel overwhelmed, and save time looking for missing information when taxes are due
- Take advantage of the resources provided through the Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center on IRS.gov.
- Consider utilizing online solutions such as Turbo Tax if you tend to feel overwhelmed by financial details and would like a wizard to guide you through the process of filing for taxes
Your Digital Identity
It should go without saying that you must devote time to keeping your digital identity polished and up to date, however many journalists (even very plugged in and high profile personalities) get so bogged down in work, emails, and projects that they forget to keep their information up to date.
The state of your digital identity will dictate what others think of you, whether publications will accept your pitches, whether clients will reach out to you, whether employers will hire you, and whether audiences will trust and follow you. Be sure that:
- All of your social media profiles indicate your present role
- Work showcased across different portfolios is up to date
- Your website(s) and profiles have no broken links, missing images, or formatting issues (these emerge as any online property undergoes wear and tear)
- It is easy for someone to contact you via phone or email (these contact channels may seem out of date and cumbersome to some, but some people, valuable clients, sources, and employers among them, will not reach out to you at all if they cannot easily call you or send you a message)
Given the rapid rate of change inherent to the journalism industry, it is all the more important that you keep abreast of major trends in media, engage in active dialogue with others within the field, and actively introduce yourself to new approaches. You can do this by:
- Keeping tabs on chatter within the journalism industry through networks such as Muck Rack
- Reading up on developments and trends within the journalism industry
- Attending local networking events frequented by other journalists (talks, seminars, classes, meetups, etc.)
- Taking webinars and online classes
- Trying new apps, tools, and platforms
- Constantly looking for new opportunities; many journalists find success through gaining the first mover advantage within a new online medium (just think about how many subscribers and followers you might have if you were one of the first journalists to begin covering a subject on YouTube)
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