Five years ago, during my first year of university, I attended a mock newsroom event on campus. It had been set up by the careers department in the hope of giving aspiring journalists like me some practical experience of how breaking news reporting works.
I remember sitting down in the IT lab and logging on to the computer as the gentleman running the event – a former regional news journalist – explained the traits required if we wanted to make a name for ourselves in the media industry.
“You’ve got to be competitive, ruthless and, most of all, a total news junkie,” he said, grinning in that way people do when they’ve overstimulated themselves in the act of passing on knowledge.
Over the next few hours, around 20 student journalists and I tried to keep up as our instructor played video and audio clips, shared links with us via email, and shouted out information relevant to our fictional breaking news story. He actively encouraged us to compete, suggesting we come up with ways to access information before our colleagues had the chance.
I left the event with a piece of paper certifying my attendance, and the sinking feeling that journalism wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I was already a dedicated news junkie, but I had little desire to become competitive and ruthless in the way the role seemed to demand.
Feeling a little unsteady in my ambitions, I tiptoed onwards. That year, I was the only writer to contribute to every single section of the student newspaper, and I scored my first-ever paid assignment from a local magazine. I started to experiment, find my own path, try to figure out if a fundamental change of values was actually necessary if I wanted to write for a living.
Over the years that followed, I found myself quitting my part-time job as a barista in favour of freelance assignments for titles such as the Guardian, New Statesman and VICE. By the time I graduated, I was in a position – out of necessity, given the lack of other options – to fund an MA in creative nonfiction entirely through freelancing.
Soon after starting my postgrad course, I was headhunted by Google to work full-time as part of a distributed team on a large-scale editorial project. I somehow managed this alongside freelance feature writing and a full-time MA. It wasn’t long before I was making guest appearances on BBC radio and being recruited for public speaking engagements too.
I started to experiment, find my own path, try to figure out if a fundamental change of values was actually necessary if I wanted to write for a living.
Some enter the world of freelance writing with the view that everybody else operating in the industry is their competition – that a favour for a freelance colleague can only come at the expense of their own career. If I’d adopted this standpoint, I don’t think I would have learnt and achieved as much as I have so early on in my professional journey.
Competition certainly has its place, especially between rival newsrooms, but it’s far from the only way of doing the business of freelancing or the business of journalism.
I’m a great believer in collaboration and knowledge-sharing, and this belief has informed my way of working from the beginning. Through teaching and public speaking, I’ve been offered the chance to reflect on my work and learn from others, as well as play a role in dispelling the myth that those who make it as writers must be competitive and ruthless in pursuit of their success.
In the digital sphere, I’ve been welcomed into long-established writerly communities and started a few of my own. I dedicate a few hours of my time each week to help and be helped by more than 70,000 other journalists, content writers, authors and bloggers from locations as diverse as India, South Africa and the United States.
Using simple tools like Facebook Groups and Google Docs, we share opportunities, advice, contacts and insights as a natural part of our working week. Colleagues suggest new editors to contact with particular story ideas. Refusing an assignment that isn’t a good fit and recommending another writer is commonplace.
The traditional media industry is in dire straits, and those who feel the impact most are freelancers. As budgets are cut, so are the fees and opportunities available to talented wordsmiths pitching their ideas and trying to pay the bills each month. But by innovating as a community and engaging with each other in new ways, freelancers are fighting back against these challenges – and we’re creating our own solutions.
The culture we’ve created breeds uplift for the whole community, and it’s incredibly rare for anyone to feel professionally threatened by a colleague’s success. Technology has brought us greater connectivity, and by taking advantage of it, truly global communities can emerge and quickly become empowered. This is exactly what makes freelancing in the 21st century so exciting and rewarding.
Lauren Razavi is a freelance journalist and IPSE-QA Young Freelancer of the Year 2016. She is also founder of content and communications agency Flibl, working with freelance content producers throughout the world to provide premium content for businesses large and small.