To be a freelance writer is to exchange ideas with MIT revolutionaries, NASA surgeons, and public policymakers all in a single morning, while still scrambling to pay your rent. It is essentially a mindfuck.
The issue at hand is internet writing: both the demands of the trade and the low pay acquired from it. Most of my work requires a great deal of research, which includes tracking down high-level sources, cold calling, scheduling and conducting interviews, transcribing said interviews, digging into archives, and verifying statistics, all before I even sit down to write the 900-word story, which will then pay somewhere around $150–$300, though sometimes higher or lower. My process isn’t an anomaly; it’s standard for freelance internet journalists.
Yet, despite all this time and effort expended for such little reward, internet journalism persists at an extremely high quality. At this point, I’d like to distinguish between reported journalism and op-ed or think-piece journalism, which are quite different. In my case, I’m speaking of reported journalism, which requires original reporting—making the calls, finding the stories and sources—whereas the latter utilizes someone else’s original reporting and attempts to reframe the story from a different, often more personal angle. I think there is far too much think-piece journalism in the world right now, but this has to do with that expended energy vs. time. A think piece, while difficult in its own rite, can be and should be completed within a single day. Reported pieces require far more time.
So what does it mean to be traveling in social circles with objectively important innovators, while struggling to pay your own bills? Well, for one, it means you’re good at parties and very lonely.
Take this scenario for instance. A friend recounts a story they’d read about some current event. You keep silent until they are finished. You or a colleague either wrote the article in question, or you wrote a similar article and have spent hours researching the topic, talking to experts, and unearthing data. And the topic could be literally anything—gentrification, the planet Saturn, Indian movie stars, anti-collision technology, anything—because you’re forced to be generalized with your stories. When your friend finishes talking about that story they’d read, you have a choice: A) throw down some intimate knowledge and melt people’s faces with your data and anecdotes, or B) mention your knowledge only in passing, balancing how arrogant it will make you look against how much your friend’s information needs correcting.
Despite what my friends may tell you, I honestly choose option B more often than not. I bite my tongue, knowing everything they’re saying about a copper IUD is incorrect because I asked one of the world’s only two space gynecologists, and she told me so. But who in the hell says that at parties? And, also, it is very strange if the person saying this is also arguably the poorest person in the room who sneaked in their own beer to the bar. I don’t know if it makes the information not as trustworthy, but it does seem more akin to the awkward, chubby child interrupting her parents’ dinner party to obnoxiously recite all the state capitals.
So, here I am, knowing everything there is to know about the drag queen community of New Hampshire. It’s interesting, awkward, and lonely. It’s also kind of nice.