The cover of Meg Wilcox's book, a primer for freelancing in journalism

Why freelancing is now a necessary part of journalism education

An industry in turmoil has made it clear that future journalists must know how to run a freelance business Continue Reading Why freelancing is now a necessary part of journalism education

The rise of the gig economy has significantly affected most types of work, and journalism is no different. In the mid 1990s, about five per cent of journalists were freelancers, according to Labour Force Survey data — and that number was up to around 17 per cent in 2015. The figure is likely much higher now. A March 2024 report from Statistics Canada shows that 870,000 Canadians did gig work as their main job in 2022, and 2.4 million Canadians had done some form of gig work in the past year.

These numbers aren’t surprising to anyone working in the media industry; with newsroom layoffs and limited full-time journalism jobs, both experienced reporters and new journalists are looking to freelance work, whether by choice or necessity. Setting out as a freelancer is a tough enough job for journalists with a portfolio and some experience. For new grads and early-career journalists, there are unique challenges trying to break into the field.

In short, that’s why I wrote The New Journalist’s Guide to Freelancing: Building Your Career in the New Media Landscape. As someone who found themselves working freelance after journalism school, and not having any training in freelancing, this guide was an opportunity to write the book I wish I had in that first year post-grad. At a relatively breezy 198 pages, The New Journalist’s Guide to Freelancing walks the reader through the key topics of developing a freelancing career. I interviewed more than 30 freelance journalists and experts for the book and quickly learned that, while every freelancer’s situation is unique, the challenges are often the same. This informed the overall structure of the book: first, explaining different types of freelancing work, then looking at networking and branding, and pitching to clients. From there, an introduction to personal financial planning builds into business financial planning, which includes taxes, contracts and negotiations. The final chapter looks at freelance within the broader labour context. Between every chapter is a “Meet a Freelancer” story that profiles different people and the many ways they work in the media landscape in Canada and the US.

With the book now published, I’ve had the opportunity to turn it into a full course at Mount Royal University in Calgary. While I was thrilled to take on the challenge to fully rework the Media Entrepreneurship course, it was also pretty daunting. After all, I would be test-running The New Journalist’s Guide with one of the toughest crowds around — fourth-year students in Journalism and Broadcast Media Studies who needed the course to graduate. But in teaching that first section in Winter 2023, and ones that have followed, I now strongly believe that every journalism or media-making program needs to not only offer a course on freelancing, but should make it a requirement for graduation. I make my case with insights from students who were kind enough to share their perspective on the course.

The course outcomes for Media Entrepreneurship cover a broad range of topics: 

“To learn how the world of freelance media works in Canada;

To understand the core business skills of freelancing, including managing projects, tracking personal finance and income and planning for taxes; 

To develop your own freelancing plan based on your interests and talents;

To apply these skills in a final project that will support you in a freelance opportunity of your choice.”

In the first half of the course, after learning about what freelancing is and what it involves, students completed skill-building activities that are covered in the book: conducting informational interviews with people working in the field, doing an online branding self-assessment, preparing personal budgets for life after graduation, drafting invoices, and filing their own taxes.

“The informational interview was interesting because it pushed me out of my comfort zone to talk with someone who is in the same industry as me but perhaps a few steps ahead. Having that was invaluable,” wrote Keo Bunny, noting it was one of his favourite assignments.

For Lily Dupuis, the branding self-assessment — an activity where students described how they wanted to be perceived online by employers, then search themselves to see what comes up — was particularly helpful.

“Working in media in this day and age means that your online presence can be something that could make or break getting a job,” she wrote. “I feel like all media professionals could benefit from doing something like this every couple of years, just to see what your digital footprint says about you.”

Delving into financial literacy topics like budgeting, savings, and taxes is a core component of the course. We spend several weeks talking about money, and taking time to unpack some of the feelings, apprehensions and assumptions that may come with it — especially for students who likely were not driven into the field by dreams of riches.

“I was able to understand what living within your means actually means,” wrote Cassie Hearn. “The budgeting assignment helped me create realistic expectations when it comes to living right out of university – I probably won’t be buying a house or new car anytime soon – and how long it will take me to pay off my loans, which will probably be sooner than expected.”

But the unexpected class favourite — by a long shot? Filing taxes!

In order to serve Canadian and American readers, The New Journalist’s Guide can only get so specific when discussing taxes – which was an opportunity for us to dive deeper in class to apply the theory from the book as we filed our provincial and federal tax returns. Students first completed a tax planning assignment, where they outlined their income sources, any expenses that could be written off, any tax credits that could be claimed, and where they could find the necessary documentation and receipts. From there, we used WealthSimple’s free tax software and worked step-by-step to show which sections were likely most relevant for them to complete. This exercise opened up discussions about TFSA and RRSP contributions and student loan repayments – things we originally talked about in the budgeting activities but now had more relevance in tax planning.

“It made me see both how freelancing is not as scary and difficult as I thought it would be in terms of finances, but also how much budgeting, organization and introspection I need to do even before deciding to dive into freelancing,” wrote Riggs Vergara. Interestingly enough, Vergara and a classmate started freelancing pretty quickly after that, using what they learned in the course to work as graduation photographers, selling portraits to their classmates later that semester.

“Money matters, and learning at an early stage how we can make our money work for us and what specific financial terminologies mean helped remove the stigma that doing your own taxes is really complicated,” wrote Aisha Nazar Sheikh. “I learned to call the CRA, ask questions about my taxes, and be more involved with my accountant and financial advisor.” The module on taxes was so helpful that the student even got the elder tax exemption for a senior living in her home.

After these activities, students worked on applying what they learned in class. First, they completed a self-directed freelance project (i.e. pitching to a media outlet, submitting work to a festival or award, applying for a grant, reworking an online portfolio or social media accounts) and then in a thinkpiece that asked them to either pitch a plan for 1) how they would approach freelancing after graduation or 2) consider whether freelancing is better or worse for workers overall. Both assignments generated some great in-class debate and thoughtful essays, podcasts, videos and presentations.

At the end of the semester, and thankfully for my still-tender ego having just put out the book, my students were quite positive about the guide. The highlights: uses simple language, breaks down complicated concepts and explains jargon, inexpensive, not too long and includes stories from people practicing in different types of jobs.

The New Journalist’s Guide as a textbook was an awesome, easy, and fun read. I enjoyed that it didn’t feel like a traditional textbook but more like a book, using real-life experiences that kept it engaging, compared to traditional textbooks,” wrote Wyatt Patterson.

I asked students about any issues they had with the guide, and a couple people mentioned they would have liked to see more graphics and visual elements, and that some sections could have gone more in-depth. Notes for a future edition, if I’m so lucky.

The biggest surprise, for me, was learning that a handful of students had already lent their books to friends or shared information they’d learned in the course with others they knew who worked as freelancers, even if they weren’t in the media.

“I think that the advice in The New Journalist’s Guide transcends just media professionals, as it provides readers with a well-rounded approach to tracking finances, communicating with clients, and planning your freelance business,” wrote Lily Dupuis. “The words may come from a journalistic perspective, but foundationally the advice is consistent across all professions.”

Notably, one constant in the student feedback is that the Media Entrepreneurship course helped develop their confidence as media-makers who were soon leaving the classroom and heading into the field.

“This course taught me that things I felt were too complicated to tackle are actually doable — things like negotiating a contract and budgeting, taxes and pitching my ideas,” wrote Sheikh.

“The course positioned freelancing, which I previously considered as a last-resort for breaking into the industry, as a viable avenue for pursuing a career in,” wrote Liam Dawe. 

Out of the nine (of 25!) students who provided extra feedback on the class, every single one of them wrote that they felt more confident for whatever lies ahead.

“Until I took this class, I did not really know much about what it was like to be a freelancer, nor did I know how to pursue freelancing as a career,” wrote Mohana Holloway. “I now feel a lot more confident when it comes to informational interviews, pitching, taxes, creating an online persona and networking. These are all integral within the broadcasting and journalism industries.”

That’s why I’m convinced that all journalism and media programs need a required freelancing course — not just to address the working realities for our graduates, but to provide them with the core skills to succeed in an industry that is usually described as “in crisis.” Whether it’s finding viable funding models, decolonizing journalistic structures and practices or addressing misinformation and disinformation, the solutions to these problems won’t be found in the way things have been done. 

If we can provide the next generation of journalists with ways to navigate this industry in flux and, more importantly, the confidence to tackle these challenges, then we can contribute to securing a strong future for journalism.

Are you a journalism or media educator looking to add or update freelancing in your curriculum? Feel free to reach out — I’m happy to talk further about what’s worked in our course, and share resources.

Meg Wilcox teaches in Journalism and Digital Media at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, and is co-director of the school's Community Podcast Initiative. An award-winning podcaster, she has been making podcasts for more than a decade, and loves collaborating with community members, students and organizations to tell audio stories. Before joining MRU, Meg travelled the country as a reporter, producer, and host (CBC, iPolitics, CTV, Banff Centre Radio, CKUA). Her first book, The New Journalist's Guide to Freelancing, is out now through Broadview Press.