Jenny Holliday is Senior Features Editor at HR Grapevine News and a Career and Business Coach at ICF ACC. She has written for The Guardian, HuffPost, The Independent, The Telegraph, and more, and shares her thoughts on freelancing in The Cardigan Brigade.
September 25, 2023 (Updated )
Journalism is the kind of job — no, scrap that, career — that you can say, for sure, is a calling. As journalists and writers, we feel so strongly about what we write. We care so much about getting the truth of a story out there, whether it be reporting on what’s important or telling someone’s personal story with the utmost care.
Many of you, like me, will be “byline junkies” — loving the moment you see your name in print, or online. Over the years, I have craved bylines in different magazines; when they’ve finally happened after, sometimes, years of pitching, I’ve felt euphoric.
Then there are the golden moments where you secure ‘THE’ job. Whether it be that first role as a reporter or a coveted magazine desk job, the time you land a gig working on a new website launch or seeing your name on an email signature for a publisher you always dreamed of working for, there is great joy in being the journalist who puts their ‘work news’ on Twitter (or X).
Remember Lows Are Unavoidable — And Normal
Journalism can undeniably bring a lot of joy to those of us working within it. But, just like any career, there is a flip side that doesn’t get talked about as much — and it’s one I’ve experienced throughout my career. While the highs are wonderful and the rewards great, there are also challenges, dips and lows.
Having been in staff jobs as well as freelancing on and off for the past 15 or so years, I’ve experienced a lot of the challenges that come with this industry. I’ve fallen in and out of love with journalism multiple times — and learned that a career in journalism is much like being in a relationship. It requires compromise, work, dedication and emotional strength. It won’t be perfect all the time and there will be days where you’ll want to leave forever, delete it from your life, and never speak about it again!
But please don’t think I’m a jaded old hack! The love-hate relationship I’ve had with being a writer over the years has often served me well. It’s spurred me on to diversify my skillset and explore new career moves. As writers, I believe we are incredibly lucky that freelancing is a credible career option. While living as a freelancer is often a feast and famine challenge, we also know we can “go freelance” and work things out if the “real job” world gets too tough.
During my career, I’ve worked on local and national newspapers, women’s weekly magazines, on digital teams, for agencies, and for myself. The moments at home, with emails going unanswered or, like today as I write this, chasing a payment that was due a few days previously, all make me feel quite angry towards journalism. It can feel like there is no other industry where people are treated with what feels like complete disregard and, sometimes, almost bullying behaviour.
But then, oh then, comes a commission! The joy of the ‘yes’, the thrill of the brief, the planning and arranging, the interviewing, and the jigsaw-like construction of the feature to a deadline. I’m back in the game, I’m loving it. I’m “Jenny the Journalist” and there’s nobody else I’d rather be.
Diversify Your Writing Skill Set
So, how to cope on the days the job does get tough? Heidi Scrimgeour is a journalist, consumer editor at Goodto.com, and co-founder of MuseFlash. She says: “I think what’s kept me firmly in love with journalism as a career — while watching so many colleagues have explosive breakups when the pitfalls finally got to them over the years — is the fact that ‘being a journalist’ is so diverse.
“I had my first-person years, my parenting years, my baby gear years, my small business writing foray, the commercial writing years, and now my SEO and e-commerce years. I think maybe it’s easier to stay in love with journalism if you can adapt and diversify. Whereas if you expect to be doing the same kind of writing over a lifelong journalism career, you’re definitely going to fall out of love.”
I agree that diversifying is key — isn’t being flexible with who we write for and what we write one of the bonuses of being a freelance writer? I think so!
Freelancer Lizzie Cernik adds: “I find the uncertainty and unpredictability hard to manage at times: but at the same time, I can’t think of an alternative. I’ve tried my hand at other things, but I’m always drawn back to journalism and writing. The highs (all be it not common enough now) make the lows worthwhile.”
• It’s totally normal to have days when things feel rubbish and it doesn’t make you a bad journalist. Try instead to reflect to think about your overarching relationship to journalism — do you have more good days than bad? How does your job make you feel?
• Ask yourself what your goals are. Having something to work towards can help break down smaller steps to shape your career.
• Remember not all journalism is the same — think about other areas of the industry which use or develop your skillset.
• Finally, don’t forget that journalism is just a job. It’s totally fine to explore other career options entirely — you could even find they help your journalism career.
Heidi adds to this with one of my favourite metaphors for freelance life, as mentioned above: relationships. “Reframing what ‘is’ journalism helps for me […] I guess in the same way that you reframe what you love about a partner in a long-term relationship! For a while, I thought e-commerce wasn’t journalism but, now, I fully believe that a move to digital is future-proofing my career rather than compromising it.”
I moved into digital writing after taking redundancy from a newspaper job in 2017. I knew digital was “knocking on the door” and that I either had to embrace it or understand that my career would go a different way. I know that it’s entirely possible to still be a journalist and not work in digital, but for me it was a new, exciting and interesting format.
Suddenly I could see exactly who was reading an article, or loitering on my website. I could engage with readers in real-time — the flipside is, of course, trolling which I’ve been fairly fortunate to avoid. The comments section of a website is a trickier place than the traditional postbag!
Ask What Makes Journalism Worthwhile For You
For me, journalism has been a career I wanted since I was 13, when I got an electronic typewriter for my birthday. I studied French at university, then went on to train as a journalist at a local newspaper when I was 22. It’s been a long road to where I am now — so surely some love versus hate had to happen along the way?
By contrast, Nicola Slawson, journalist and founder of the Single Supplement newsletter, got into journalism when she was 29. She says: “I had had a few totally different careers before —I organised business awards, worked in arts marketing, and then taught English abroad. I think that’s made a difference because I feel like I’ve tried other stuff and nothing suits me as well as journalism.”
Flipping her story upside down, there’s nothing to stop you from trying something completely different. It might make you feel better about journalism, or it could be the start of a new career entirely. And either is fine.
Nicola adds: “I also have goals I haven’t achieved yet which helps, so while journalism continually breaks my heart, I’m just too stubborn to let go of those dreams. There are still so many parts of journalism I haven’t tried yet so it still feels exciting.”
There may be times when it can feel like there’s either a long slog ahead for our work or perhaps a new dawn of exciting possibilities, but always remember that it’s okay to fall in and out of love with journalism. In fact, it can help shape that career as you go along.