Navigating the Gig Economy

In the late 1940s, after service in the Navy during World War II, my father signed on as a mail carrier at the local post office. He never left that job, working his way up from walking a route to postmaster. Bored after retirement, he worked part-time as a greeter at the local funeral home. It was perfect for him. He got to dress up and meet his friends, and on good days he got to drive the hearse.

It never occurred to my father to change jobs while he was at the post office. People who did that sort of thing, drifting from job to job, were viewed at the time with some suspicion, as layabouts.

Things have changed. The gig economy—a labor market dominated by freelancers and short-term contract work instead of permanent employment—is growing at a rate that would have been impossible to imagine a few years ago. According to Freelancing in America: 2018, the fifth annual survey conducted by Upwork (which bills itself as the “largest global freelance network”) and Freelancers Union, more than 56 million Americans freelance. This is an increase of 3.7 million freelancers over the last five years.

According to the survey:

  • Americans are spending more than a billion hours on freelance work every week;
  • two-thirds of freelancers are finding work online;
  • freelancers often emphasize skills training over formal education.

The findings of the survey will be eye-opening for many people, but the results shouldn’t be surprising to ASJA members. After all, borrowing shamelessly from a Barbara Mandrell country hit from the early 1980s, we were freelancing before freelancing was cool.

An accurate figure for the number of writers who freelance—whether full-time or as a side hustle—is difficult to come by, but it’s fair to say that we are a small percentage of the larger freelance community. An essential part of any freelance gig, though, is access, to editors for journalists, to clients for content producers, and to agents and editors for book authors. The American Society of Journalists and Authors is well positioned to provide that access, either in person or online.

During ASJA’s national conference in New York last year, more than 200 professional members participated in Client Connections, a wildly popular afternoon-long session when Wendy Helfenbaum and her team scheduled some 800 in-person appointments with editors and agents. Success stories from journalists and content writers who got assignments from those appointments are still being reported. Smaller versions of Client Connections are an essential networking component of our regional conferences as well.

Online networking opportunities are offered on a regular basis throughout the year. Virtual Client Connections (where members have an opportunity to talk with eight to 10 clients per session) and Virtual Pitch Slams (where 15-20 members pitch proposals to editors) provide additional opportunities for members who cannot attend an in-person session at a conference.

ASJA also provides a rich variety of educational sessions for members and non-members of all experience levels at our national and regional conferences. The 2019 New York conference has a “Collaboration Nation” theme recognizing that we’re all in this together, a community of freelancers trying to make sense of a rapidly shifting industry. Co-Chairs Carolyn Crist and Jodi Helmer have put together an impressive program with separate tracks for journalism, content marketing, books, and the business of freelancing. Also offered for the first time is a “Mastermind” class for advanced freelancers.

Finally, in the true spirit of freelance entrepreneurship, individual writers are working to help others find work. At the head of the list of ideas so good I wish I’d thought of them comes The brainchild of Sarah Baird, a freelancer from Richmond, Ky., Shoeleather aims to bring together editors in major markets and community journalists.

“I noticed over and over that stories from communities where I was weren’t being told by local journalists,” Baird explained. “Editors want to tell the complete story, but they don’t know how to do it.” The idea behind Shoeleather, Baird said, was to replace the need for so-called “parachute journalists” with an online database for local journalists that would give editors in major markets a way to connect with people already familiar with community issues.

The response to her “passion project,” Baird added, has been “overwhelming.” More than 800 people signed up during the first months, with more than 1,000 expected by the end of 2018. Shoeleather is worth a look.