Freelance perspectives

Dave Forstate, Videographer/Producer, CBS News/KDKA-TV Pittsburgh

For perspective, Dave is in his 60s and is retired from KDKA-TV and CBS Network, where he worked for 3 decades. A few caveats to keep in mind as you read his narrative:

  • The East and West Coasts are unique when it comes to freelance opportunities. You can freelance from everywhere, especially via the Internet, but for video or film production, there are a LOT more traditional opportunities in L.A., New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh…
  • He started at a time when film, then videography, was a really specialized skill (remember “barriers to entry?”). Now everyone carries around a video camera;
  • He also worked in places (New York, Pittsburgh, D.C.) with strong union traditions, which get weaker by the year and which were never very strong in Texas.

Just keep that in mind for perspective as you read Dave’s description of freelance:

Dave Forstate, videographer, CBS News and PBS:

I actually started freelancing when I was 18 working up and down the streets in the film district of New York doing whatever I was allowed to do. I have found that there are four different categories in the workforce.

1) The first is “Full Time” which I did for 36 years at KDKA-TV here in Pittsburgh. This is pretty self-explanatory.

2) The second is “Part Time”. This entails being committed to a particular company where you are given so many hours a week up to the limit where you might receive benefits. Right now this seems to be the most popular way of doing business.

3) The third is “Casual”. You are a part of a company with no set schedule and no benefits. At local (Pittsburgh) PBS, I consider myself casual. I may work 10 days and then not work for two weeks at that company. As a casual, I have a connection with that company and, in this case. I am a part of the union and paid union wages.

4) The last is “Freelance”. In freelance you might have a connection to a particular company or even a production house, but for the most part you stand alone. Now there are guys out there that have created a production house, but I consider them a company. A freelancer, for the most part, is a hired gun. They might work on a project for a few hours or a few months. A freelancer might own their own equipment and/or rent equipment. Most freelancers do have regular clients, but they are always waiting for the next call even when they are working. There is a subcategory to freelancers that I call “Stringers”. I worked my way through graduate school stringing for several stations in different markets. A stringer usually has their own equipment and covers assignments or spot news a news station can’t afford to or doesn’t want to, like overnights. 

As a freelancer, I worked both for news organizations and production companies. I have freelanced on reality shows like USA Networks “Friday Night Tykes” and HGTV’s “My First Home”. I spent 10 years shooting post game for NFL Network and worked on several documentaries for ESPN and MSNBC. I have worked on over twenty Electronic Press Kits (EPK) for such films as Striking Distance, KingPin, Passed Away, Sudden Death and Warriors. I have freelanced for both CBS and ABC. Many of these jobs require that I be part of a union or pay their union dues. 

Since I’ve set up most of my freelance thru companies that are union, I receive W2’s. I usually don’t make enough from 1099’s to institute a quarterly tax. Local tax is taken out of my W2 as well as union dues. Question to your students: are they willing to work for a union shop? I quit local 6 for movies because they charge $8,000 just to join and you are not assured of work. I have a part time agreement with IBEW and NABET for networking purposes. I am allowed to work s certain number of hours before I have to join the union but they still take out dues. There is also another factor. Who assumes liability? There is liability in renting equipment. Some houses/jobs require you to have insurance on the equipment at your expense.

Freelance can be a really hard way to go, but to someone new to the job market it may be their only option. It is a lot different today than in my time. I have seen freelancers go out on jobs with a DSLR and charge a couple of hundred dollars. This sets a really bad precedent since the equipment package I use can cost a minimum of $500 and go up from there for 4k. My biggest suggestion is to try and get ahead of the curve and master the newest tech. Try to avoid making any large purchases as tech changes quickly and the value goes down making your investment upside down. Always have a plan B. 

Lillian Stone, a freelance comedy writer based in Chicago

1) Tell me about essentially starting right after graduation as a freelancer. Is it insecure and scary, or is it superior to a full-time gig? How so? (Also, a few details about just what you do for work.)

  • Right now, an average month’s income looks like 60 percent food writing and lifestyle journalism (city magazines, digital publications like Allure Magazine and HelloGiggles, etc.), 30 percent copywriting for private clients and 10 percent comedy writing (which is my ultimate goal).
  • I worked in magazine journalism and nonprofit communications for two years after graduation. I officially went full-time freelance in June of 2018, but I had been working my way to full-time freelancing for about a year prior to that. My magazine job after graduation was what really got me started – I started as an intern, then worked my way up to become the editorial and digital assistant. When I left the magazine to work at a nonprofit, I was offered a few freelance pieces here and there until I eventually took on 2–4 larger pieces per month.
  • The initial leap to freelancing was a little intimidating, but I secured one copywriting client that enabled me to make up my full-time income almost instantly.
    • A NOTE ON COPYWRITING WHILE REPORTING: For me, this is a matter of personal ethics. I don’t ever report on my copywriting clients, and if I happen to be assigned a piece using one of them as a source, I disclose that to the editor and let them make the call. If I were involved in local newspaper journalism or investigative work, I would likely not engage in any copywriting as a matter of ethics. It works for me, but it’s not for everyone.
  • For me, freelancing is totally superior to a full-time gig! Obviously, there are downsides – health insurance and 401K benefits being a big one – but making my own schedule and working remotely is completely worth it for me. I’m also able to prioritize the kind of work I want to be doing. Additionally, I really enjoy the freedom to work with different publications so I can develop my editorial voice.

2) How much time do you spend reporting versus looking for work, billing, etc.?

  • I use Quickbooks Self-Employed, which is a billing software that makes invoicing/tracking mileage/tax time incredibly easy. Billing isn’t the time-consuming part for me – it’s pitching! During an average week, I usually spend anywhere from three to 10 hours developing pitches, sending pitches and following up with editors. The rest of the time is spent reporting, transcribing (bleh) and writing.
  • I also spend a lot of time networking. That’s really the only way to land the larger bylines. You could have the greatest pitch in the world, but you have to get the editor to read it. For me, that happens on Twitter. It’s a really unique sphere where you can be yourself (my Twitter is ridiculous) while making lasting professional connections. I’m also involved in several Facebook groups for female and nonbinary journalists. If you have any students who fit the bill, feel free to give them my contact info and I’ll connect them!

3) Would you take a full-time job if you could, or do you prefer freelance? Why?

  • For me, going freelance was the only viable option to pursue professional humor and satire writing. If I were to take a full-time job, it would either be with an independent publication (Chicago Reader, etc.), a television writing staff (the dream) or a lifestyle publication (New York Magazine, etc.). I don’t plan to go back to a full-time gig unless it’s in a humor writing capacity.

4) What tips do you have for students to find clients and manage freelance?

  • You have to be organized to a fault. I use three systems: QuickBooks for invoicing, a Google sheet for tracking pitches and Trello for workflow management. You will not succeed without your own organizational system. I know lots of freelancers who spend hours sifting through receipts, etc., and I have no clue how they do it!
  • I would not advise freelancing without spending time in a staffed editorial role. For me, it was crucial to learn the business – everything from managing in-house style guides to editorial workflow.
  • It’s also essential to build up a little nest egg before you take the leap. I had a very specific savings goal in mind. Once I hit that, I felt comfortable taking the leap. There are definitely dry patches here and there, and you need to be able to pay your rent!

I hope this is helpful! Again, feel free to send students my email address if they have further questions. They can also reach me via DM on Twitter at @originalspinstr.

Tara Haelle, freelance writer specializing in health/medicine

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