Telling stories

The Virtue of Working Yourself to Death

Posted by southwrite on May 25, 2014


Head in hands

When news came a few months ago that freelance travel writer Matthew Power, 39, had died while reporting in Uganda, it generated quite a bit of comment. Colleagues and other writers speculated that he had literally been killed because of his dedication to the job. Power was reported to have died of heatstroke and exhaustion while reporting a story on Levison Wood, a British explorer who is attempting to walk the length of the Nile River.

Yet, much of the speculation focused on the risks that freelance journalists are often forced to take these days. With budget low and sometimes nonexistent, writers must take risks and have fewer resources to protect them than in the past. That may have been the case with Power.

It was certainly the case for Francesca Borri, a freelance foreign correspondent. Here is how she describes the freelance life in an article for The Columbia Journalism Review:

After more than a year of freelancing for him, during which I contracted typhoid fever and was shot in the knee, my editor watched the news, thought I was among the Italian journalists who’d been kidnapped, and sent me an email that said: “Should you get a connection, could you tweet your detention?”

And there’s little that’s glamorous about it: People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang.

And how much did she get paid for her work? About $70 a piece.

Most freelancers don’t face these kinds of dangers, but in many ways we can relate. We don’t get much for our work. Getting $150 for an 900 word story is considered pretty good these days – and it doesn’t require that you get shot. But often you get pushed to do things that you know you won’t get paid for in order to make the story better. Like traveling to meet sources to do a better story when you know it would makes more economic sense to just do an interview by phone.

For many freelancers it has long meant not having health insurance – although Obamacare has changed that for many writers.

Being a freelancer isn’t the healthiest way to live. The low pay often forces you to take on more assignments and work longer hours. Writers become the piecework laborers of the modern era. You get paid for each article you finish and must immediately go on to another one to keep the money flowing.

The sad thing about it is there is no real answer to the situation in which we find ourselves these days. If you’re good enough, work hard enough and get some breaks maybe you can make enough to live a comfortable life.

Or maybe not.

The money matters, but not getting it isn’t going to stop you from working, from getting the story. Ultimately, that’s what being a freelance writer is all about.

3 Responses to “The Virtue of Working Yourself to Death”

  1. You explained this crazy career beautifully. It’s a wonderful life and an extremely tough life.

  2. I totally agree. I make less on stories today than I did when I began writing for a living. And I’ve been asked to do some crazy things to get a story — like “do lunch” at a woman’s prison (which of course cannot be done): I kid you not! I guess what keeps us all going is that we love WHAT we do, not how much we earn.

  3. Loved this post; honest and revealing, telling it like it really is! I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. I’m just getting back to writing and am fortunate enough to have a very small income as well as some well-paid, casual work. In order to have this lifestyle choice I live in the country and have bought a house with one of my friends- together we embark on shared living! But, if I can write, it’s worth it. I, however, do not have to take assignments that have dangerous or unreasonable requirements. I can choose to write for the sake of writing- accepting the challenges of a limited income and a simple, frugal life. I realize most people do not have the luxury of an income- even if limited and I am grateful for mine.

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