Trainee Journalist

September 21, 2021 (Updated )

By the time I graduated earlier this year, months after handing in my final coursework, I had applied for dozens of journalism jobs, internships and grad schemes. Like many other people in my situation, there was often a swift rejection, or no response at all — and there was little alternative work available where I lived, so I applied for Universal Credit. 

There are more than five million people in England currently on Universal Credit (UC) — but when you Google search “journalists on Universal Credit” or “how to start freelancing whilst on Universal Credit”, not a lot comes up. So how can journalists navigate the system?

What To Know Before You Apply

Before you sign up, it’s important to consider which direction you want your career to go in – for the near future at least. There are two distinctly different ways of applying to UC depending on whether you want to try and find a staff job as soon as possible, or if you want to work on a freelance basis.

If you’re on low income or unemployed, and you’re set on finding a PAYE job in the industry, it’s more straightforward. You can register as a jobseeker, and access help finding employment. The process can be very different if you’re a freelance journalist already, or want to start a freelance career.

Hang On, What's PAYE vs Self Employed?

The Pay As You Earn system (PAYE) is for jobs where your National Insurance and Income Tax payments are taken automatically out of your salary, before your wages hit your bank account for you. Your employer will manage this for you and you’ll see the deductions on your payslip. This is generally the case for most full-time or part-time jobs.

Self-employed people, on the other hand, generally work for a variety of clients. They don’t have set hours or a boss running their schedule and they also manage their own taxes. You’ll have to save up the cash throughout the year, and report how much you earned and settle the tax bill independently.

A journalist from MoneyMagpie, a self-help money site, told us they strongly recommended that freelance journalists register as self-employed before signing up for Universal Credit. “If you [register as] unemployed, they will expect you to be a job seeker. So [when] you have to do your meetings, you’ll have to show that you’re applying for jobs.”

To counter this, you’ll need to register as self-employed. You can find a step-by-step guide to registering on the Government website.

But, whether you register as self-employed or a jobseeker, there’s a lot to think about to make sure you get the best support, wherever you are in your career.

How To Apply To Universal Credit As A Jobseeker

Applying for Universal Credit for the first time can be confusing. If you’re on low income or unemployed, and you’re set on finding a job in the industry (instead of freelancing long-term), you can make a claim as a jobseeker.

If you’re a recent graduate like me, you may worry that you aren’t yet eligible to apply. Tom Allingham from Save the Student (who has written a guide to Universal Credit for students) tells me: “As long as you meet all of the standard requirements that apply to all Universal Credit applicants, you should be perfectly eligible to receive it.

“This is still the case even if your graduation ceremony doesn’t take place for a few months after you finish uni – in this instance, you’re no longer considered a student after the last day of term in the final academic year of your course.”

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“They knew I was looking for writing jobs. And I appreciate that in some ways, because I did want to hold out for the jobs that I want. To have that extra support means you just don't need to worry about money as much.” 
Maria M

You will agree to certain responsibilities such as actively looking for work, and you will typically be assigned a work coach, who you will speak to weekly. It’s their role to get you back into employment, but some journalists fear that if they apply for Universal Credit, they will be pushed into the first available job — whether it’s one they want or not.

Journalists Kyra Edwards and Maria M* both first applied for Universal Credit in 2020. Kyra has been on Universal Credit since last April, and says she “always assumed that you would have to look for work that wasn’t within your ‘career choice’.” However, Maria, who was on Universal Credit for six months in 2020 after an internship ended, notes that she wasn’t pushed to apply for any jobs outside of her chosen career path. “They knew I was looking for writing jobs. And I appreciate that in some ways, because I did want to hold out for the jobs that I want.”

However, while work coaches seem to be typically supportive, they are often unaware of the nuances of the industry. They aren’t specifically trained to help with any one job field. Kyra tells me: “They would send me BBC schemes and apprenticeships –  anything they saw that they thought would be relatable.

“However, I was already qualified and I’d worked in different jobs as a journalist, and the things that they were sending over was training stuff and very early stages [roles] that I’d already surpassed. So I didn’t actually apply for a lot of things because it wasn’t actually suitable.”

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Kyra Edwards (L) and Tom Allingham (R)

If you’re having a bad experience with your work coach, you don’t have to stick with them. MoneyMagpie’s journalist tells us: “Some people have a fantastic work coach, but some people don’t. You can request to change work coaches, so if you’re finding that you’re banging your head against a wall, find out who the self-employed [or other] specialist is in your job centre and ask to be [with them] because they will understand things a bit more.”

You can still be paid for commissions whilst registered as a jobseeker, but you do have to be transparent about your income and any money you do make, whether through commissions or PAYE. For every £1 you earn your Universal Credit payment reduces by 63p. MoneyMagpie’s journalist adds: “When it comes to managing Universal Credit, be communicative. Leave notes in your journal as much as you can about changes in your work circumstances.”

Maria M says she would definitely recommend UC for new journalists who are struggling to find a first job or make a living in the industry: “To have that extra support means you just don’t need to worry about money as much because you’re not going to get big commissions when you’re just starting out.”

How To Apply To Universal Credit As A Freelancer

If you decide not to immediately pursue a PAYE job and work as a freelancer, it may be more difficult to transition whilst already registered as a jobseeker. For those already certain of a freelance career (even if temporarily), registering as self-employed immediately can be a better option.

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“I don't think I would be able to do what I'm doing without the help of Universal Credit. I'd say it certainly has helped top up my income and keep me on a stable wage.”
Daniel Reast

Many freelancers aren’t aware of this option, but registering for Universal Credit can provide a safety net to make sure you’re able to live. Freelance journalist Daniel Reast tells me, “I don’t think I would be able to do what I’m doing without the help of Universal Credit. What I earn from journalism is not very much — one commission a month is my goal, and the majority of months, I don’t reach that. But I’d say it certainly has helped top up my income and keep me on a stable wage.”

It’s key to remember that stat we mentioned earlier — your UC payment will reduce by 63p for every £1 you make. However, if you don’t get paid for anything, not to worry – you’ll receive the full amount of credit that you’re entitled to. MoneyMagpie’s journalist notes that “If you’re ‘self-employed’, they will anticipate that there are periods of not working.”

Since we first spoke to Daniel for this article, he has started a new full-time job in the industry. Transitioning from registered self-employed with Universal Credit to a PAYE job is relatively straightforward; MoneyMagpie’s journalist advises starting UC as self-employed for freelancers even if you plan on becoming employed in the near future. “If you’ve left a PAYE job and you want to go into another PAYE job, there is no harm and it costs you nothing to register as a sole trader with HMRC. There are far fewer barriers to getting your Universal Credit.”

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Managing your finances yourself can seem intimidating; it’s best if you keep track of your commissions, the amount you’re paid, and the payment date. We spoke to self-employed Sam Elrow*, who has been working freelance through his studies for around four years as a feature writer. He’s also currently studying for an NCTJ via online learning.

He suggests: “If you can work out a system where you pitch 20 places at the start of the month, see what comes through, and then try and get as many articles done by the end of the month, then you have all your payments sort of coming in at reasonably around the same time, you’re going to have an easier time reporting earnings.”

MoneyMagpie’s journalist, who has been on Universal Credit themselves, told us: “If you suddenly get lots of invoices paid in one month, leave a note in your journal to say, this is actually work that I’ve done over the last six months, but they’re all being paid now. And then if anything comes up — if they close a claim or question something, it gives you a record. You can go back and say I’ve told you this.”

Self-employed freelancers will receive Universal Credit payments no matter how little they earn for the first year of being registered; after a ‘start-up period’ of 12 months have passed, this is eventually subverted by the Minimum Income Floor.

According to government guidelines, you must then prove that you are ‘gainfully self-employed’ — basically, that you’re making enough money to justify your self-employed ‘business’. This isn’t great for freelancers in any industry, with journalism especially being financially turbulent.

What Is The Minimum Income Floor?

For the first 12 months of freelancing the Minimum Income Floor doesn’t apply. This is what’s called your start-up period, where you are building your business and taking steps to increase your earnings. You won’t need to apply for jobs to get your payments and they will be based on how much you actually earn.

After the 12 months has lapsed the Government will assume you have now built your business and now earn at least the equivalent of the National Minimum Wage for 40 hours a week, regardless of what you do actually earn. They’ll base how much Universal Credit you get based on either the highest value of the Minimum Income Floor or your real earnings.

IPSE, an independent organisation that represents the interests of employed people, have lobbied for this policy to be altered over recent years. Andy Chamberlain, IPSE’s Director of Policy, told us that the Minimum Income Floor “assumes that you make minimum wage and that you work 40 hours a week”. He adds: “People are effectively having their entitlement reduced because this hypothetical level of income is assumed, which may not exist.”

“We’d really like to see it either scrapped altogether, or at least this startup period to be extended to a more reasonable length of time to give someone who starts out in self employment a chance to make a success of that business.”

Advice From Other Journalists On Universal Credit

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to Universal Credits for journalists — it really does depend on what support you need, and what you want to try and get out of it. It’s also by no means a perfect system.

It typically doesn’t attempt to acknowledge why individuals need to access it, or what training or support they may need to get to where they want to be. Sam Elrow* has an MA in Politics, and says that he has applied for at least 600 jobs in the years since finishing his undergraduate degree.

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"Universal Credit is really hard for anyone who's on a zero hour contract where you don't have a regular wage that's always the same, and that always comes in on the same day of the month.”
Maya Bly

“I’ve just never been able to get a staff job anywhere. There’s no real investigation as to why you are on Universal Credit, in the sense that they don’t ask you what your qualifications are, or why you are underemployed or unemployed. It definitely takes a toll on mental health.

“As a culture, we’re taught to take pride in our work. Most people create their identity around work. Being on Universal Credit when you’ve graduated from university can be confusing.”

There’s absolutely no shame in needing to access support from Universal Credit, but when it seems to only keep your head above water and doesn’t push you forward, it can be frustrating. Sometimes UC payments can even end up being less than what you need to survive.

Journalist Maya Bly* was previously on ESA, a benefit for people whose disability limits how much they can work. She is currently registered unable (unfit) to work and has written several articles around her experiences, but is hesitant to accept freelance work now as she’s worried about how it will affect her UC payments.

“I know my income is not going to be enough initially to cover my expenses. Universal Credit is really hard for anyone who’s on a zero hour contract where you don’t have a regular wage that’s always the same, and that always comes in on the same day of the month.”

Organisations Who Offer Financial Assistance

• The Journalist Charity have a fund offering financial assistance and fund to help with costs associated with a first job.

• The Printing Charity offer practical, emotional, and financial support if you’ve worked in the industry for three years.

• If you’re an NUJ member, their charitable arm NUJ Extra, provides support to pay urgent bills.

The upcoming reduction to Universal Credit will also be detrimental to claimants; in October 2021, the £20 extra payment per month introduced due to the pandemic will be cut. Some journalists may find that losing this money affects them strongly; Maya recommends that “If you’re really struggling, it’s worth applying for grants through the Journalists’ Charity or or welfare organisations.”

Ellen Bramley from the Journalists’ Charity told us: “The charity works hard to give the most effective support, advice and financial assistance to struggling journalists across all sectors of the industry. [We recognise] that the imminent cuts to Universal Credit could cause anxiety for many UK journalists. That’s why it’s really important to spread the word about how the charity can help journalists from all sectors of the industry with advice, financial assistance and emergency support.”

Whatever stage you’re at in your career, the key thing is to keep on top of you finances and know when a problem is upcoming. Whether through Universal Credit or otherwise, applying early and communicating makes the world of difference.

*Some names have been changed for privacy.

Fern McErlane
Fern McErlane

Fern joined the Journo Resources team in mid-2021 as a trainee, and will focus on writing original features and content during her time at Journo Resources. Fern also takes the lead on our Instagram account, as well as keeping our resources and jobs board up to date.

Based in Leeds, where she completed her degree and was part of the editing team for her student paper The Gryphon, Fern is also a freelance journalist and is available for commissions on a range of lifestyle subjects.