I graduated from Columbia Journalism School and had 6 internships but couldn’t land a full-time job. Freelancing saved me — and I’ve realized my elite Ivy League education failed me.

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After I graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2018, I did what I was told to do.

I got an internship at a daily newspaper in the middle of the country. I took the 5 a.m. shifts. I stayed late. I worked weekends. I cranked out over 150 stories in three months for a little less than $15 an hour.

But when it ended and I wasn’t offered a full-time job, I couldn’t help but wonder: What now?

I didn’t expect to be given the gig. The publication I interned at was in the midst of layoffs. But I kept leaning on my Ivy League education, which told me time and time again that if I put in the effort, a full-time job would be right around the corner.

It wasn’t.

I spent the year after I graduated applying to every journalism job I could find. I didn’t care where. With over six internships under my belt, I was too experienced to apply for another, but I didn’t have the qualifications for a staff job. The rejection emails stung at first, one after another, but after a while I came to expect them.

A handful of my classmates were in the same boat. Many didn’t know what to do after their internships, and they went into a different industry or further into academia.

I was working as a barista in midtown Manhattan when I started toying with the idea of freelancing. I knew freelancing was a thing that people did, but I didn’t know anyone who did it or how to start. I knew freelancers sent pitch emails to editors, but I didn’t exactly know how to pitch or what to say.

I felt as if the journalism school that taught me to idealize the importance of the craft had failed to teach me the realities of the industry.

Layoffs have plagued journalism for years, and the traditional path to success preached by prestigious institutions evaporated with them.

So why do journalism schools ignore freelancing as an option?

I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly three years, and everything I know about my career I taught myself or relied on the work and resources of other freelancers. And I feel frustrated — frustrated I spent tens of thousands of dollars on an elite education only to be sold on an idea of journalism that hasn’t existed in decades.

I’m not alone. Over two months I’ve spoken with over three dozen freelance journalists and students who’ve graduated from journalism schools across the country. Many said they not only were filled with the same regret I feel but have had to learn how to be freelancers for sheer survival.

"Journalism schools haven’t realized that freelancing is more of the norm than the exception," said Eric Adelson, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Florida. "Freelancing is the new entry-level job."

Journalism students are graduating into freelance careers with little to no idea how to navigate them. The problem persists in higher education, but it’s more striking that freelancing is routinely overlooked in graduate programs.

For an industry that evolves every five minutes, the curricula of many institutions are extremely outdated.

What professors and administrators teach should reflect the ever-changing nature of journalism — that includes addressing layoffs, consolidation, pay gaps, taxes, networking, pitching, and burnout, and explaining that many journalists are freelancers. Any journalism school that doesn’t is failing its students by not preparing them for all the potential stages of their careers.

The allure of elitism

I would be lying if I said the idea of elitism didn’t play a role in my decision to attend Columbia.

I was enamored of the status it exuded. I had a sense that when I graduated, my résumé would sit at the top of the stack on an editor’s desk, not be buried in the spam folder.

My classmate and fellow freelancer Isobel van Hagen, 25, felt the same way.

"Part of the allure of Columbia is the history and the legacy, whether it’s practical or not," she said. "I think people wouldn’t be drawn to Columbia if they were going to teach you how to pay your taxes."

The appeal of elitism is ingrained in the culture of the school.

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was founded in 1912 by Joseph Pulitzer, the namesake of the esteemed Pulitzer Prize. The school is in New York City, the center of international media, and boasts professors who have worked in the executive ranks of legacy newspapers or have influential connections with the industry leaders featured on mastheads across the country.

At Columbia, we didn’t just attend journalism school — we attended the journalism school. We were told that there were generations of classes before us who were leaders in newsrooms around the world and that soon we would be, too.

In the first week of orientation, the career counselors clicked through a long PowerPoint presentation featuring the icons of media companies where graduates ended up. We sat in silence as outlets like Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, New York magazine, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal flashed across the big screen. It was easy to start imagining myself there. A few graduates who did end up at those publications came to talk about how attending Columbia got them to where they were, and not much else.

An elite education, however, does not make you elite — not today, anyway. The journalism-school-to-staff-reporter pipeline we were told existed doesn’t anymore.

Columbia painted a picture of success, but I was the one who felt like a failure for having to turn to freelancing.

"The nitty and gritty aspects and difficulties of freelancing is compounded with the fact that the industry is really struggling at the moment, and Columbia wants to project this image that it’s not like that and that it’s not as bad as it is," van Hagen said.

Many journalism schools across the country echo Columbia by promoting a culture of elitism. Leila Barghouty, 29, chose Stanford’s journalism program not only because of the education it offered but because of what it meant to have the school’s name on her résumé.

"I knew going into this industry that I was going to struggle," she said. "I didn’t have the right pedigree or the right name or the right internships. I chose Stanford because I wanted the prestige of the school name."

A disconnect between students and professors

There were times when Brittany Hosea-Small, 32, was attending UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2017 when she questioned whether the lectures she was hearing would be relevant in the real world.

Hosea-Small, now a freelance photojournalist based in the Bay Area, remembers one class where the professor discussed the ethics of photojournalism — what to photograph and what not to photograph.

"While I agree ethically with what our professor was saying, I thought, as a freelance photojournalist, without an editor backing me, if I don’t bring back photos to the desk, I am out of a job," she said.

A staff reporter is granted more liberties and flexibility than a freelancer, Hosea-Small said. If a freelance photojournalist opted out of an assignment, they would not just be forfeiting the income but jeopardizing the relationship with that editor and any other future assignments. That simple fact, Hosea-Small said, was missing from her professor’s lecture.

The disconnect between professors and the realities of the industries they teach may lie in an inherent problem with academia.

"If you’ve been out of the industry for even five years, I can’t guarantee how valid a lot of your information is going to be," Hosea-Small said. "At higher-level institutions, there’s people who have been in journalism for 20-plus years, and their information is valid and important, but if we are going to learn about where journalism is now, I don’t think they’re going to have the answers."

Larisha Paul, 22, a freelancer who writes about music and pop culture, said she felt the need to "defend" her assignments and ideas during her time at New York University when professors said she wasn’t writing enough news-focused articles. By the time she graduated, the pandemic had wiped out job opportunities. She found herself turning to social media, not her professors, for advice on what to do without a full-time gig lined up.

"I had to start piecing together what I saw on Twitter, like calls for pitches, how to get interviews, and developing relationships with editors," she said. "Most professors think that when you apply for a job, you’ll get the job. I didn’t see how they could take their experience and apply it to a bunch of 20-somethings."

Counselors push students down a dying career path

Anastassia Gliadkovskaya, 22, graduated from Columbia in 2020 and found herself pondering the divide between her education and her postgrad experience when her summer internship fell through because of the pandemic. She decided to try to pitch a few independent projects but quickly realized she didn’t know how to go about it.

"Constructing a good pitch is something we went over at the end of our master’s project over the course of one or two classes," she said. "It felt rushed. I feel like there should have been a several-week-long workshop on it, because we have all these stories from our classes, and our professors never considered that these could have all been sent to editors as pitches. I don’t see why that was never carried out."

Gliadkovskaya said one of Columbia’s career counselors had dissuaded her from freelancing and applying for an entry-level job. She was encouraged on multiple occasions to keep applying for internships, though by the time she came to grad school she’d already completed four.

"I think they want to protect the delusion that we can all just go work full time in the industry as staffers," she said. "Otherwise it sort of negates the point of going into debt just to ultimately freelance."

Not much has changed in the past two decades. When Adelson, the University of Florida professor, graduated from Columbia in 1997, he was told pretty much the same thing.

"When I was in school, my perspective was get a job or bust," he said. "There was no class that I took about being able to freelance, what it would be like, or any of the finances or taxes. Also, the aspect of being a brand and your own company is something that never occurred to me in school. I was taught that you were always a part of someone else’s company."

A curriculum based in reality

Barghouty didn’t major in journalism as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, so she sought a master’s program geared toward it. She chose Stanford in part because of its prestige, but what sold her was that she found the faculty at Stanford much more diverse than at Columbia, her second choice.

All the classes at Stanford were small and focused on investigative techniques and data — how to find public records and expert sources.

"There was also this big focus on being a jack-of-all-trades," she said. "How to edit video, how to write, how to be the ultimate multihyphenate."

With Silicon Valley so close, Barghouty said, the program also had a heavy focus on being "entrepreneurial." In one class, students practiced pitching "media-adjacent products" in search of seed funding.

After she graduated in 2015, she landed an associate-producer role at Vice, but she was laid off less than a year later. That’s when she realized Stanford’s graduate program had offered no guidance on how to operate as a journalist without an outlet.

"We didn’t talk about freelancing. It didn’t come up," Barghouty said. "We really didn’t learn how to survive in an industry that’s thinning every year."

Now that she’s been a freelancer for five years, Barghouty wishes Stanford had focused more on how to calculate the worth of her work and how pitching as a freelancer "is extremely different than pitching as a staffer."

At Columbia, I don’t recall ever learning about the business of journalism. I remember taking a law class, which was helpful, and a history class, which was dull, but nothing that explained the concept of advertising, how media outlets made money, or how I could do it if I wasn’t attached to one.

"Not only was I not taught freelancing skills like pitching a story and things like that, the idea that there is a broader universe of writing jobs was ignored," said Amanda Palleschi, 35, a speechwriter who graduated from Northwestern University in 2008. "There was an attitude that you are a corporate shill if you took any job that wasn’t as a journalist."

Curricula across higher education are slow to update, and it can be a herculean task.

"When you get older, you figure out your parents did the best they could," Palleschi said. "This is the same thing. They did the best they could with what they were given."

Students told me their universities sometimes would offer panels featuring independent journalists. But offering voluntary lectures and inviting guest speakers is not the same as implementing a curriculum that encompasses the reality of being a freelance journalist.

The precariousness of the industry means a journalist may become unemployed at some point. Freelancing could offer stability, for a short period or as a long-term career path, if students were taught the basics.

Some universities stand out in their freelance course offerings — like the City University of New York, The New School, and DePaul University — but wider adoption is desperately needed.

DePaul’s "Journalism Workshop" course emphasizes issues affecting journalists of color and helps students navigate the industry as an independent. One of the biggest perks of The New School is its instructors, who are freelancers themselves, according to Lexi McMenamin, a freelance writer and New School graduate student. They said Natasha Lennard and Maya Binyam’s multimedia course brought in full-time freelancers to speak, offered pitch templates on how to get paid for stories written in class, and broke down what jargon like "on spec" meant.

Jeff Inman, an associate professor of journalism at Drake University, has been offering a freelance magazine course since 2006. His students learn how to formulate a pitch, make connections with editors across the country, write for specific outlets, and go through a rigorous editing process.

"This industry is changing every five minutes, and what is required of a working journalist is a massive amount of knowledge," he said. "You have to do the core of your job, which is writing, talking to people, and coming up with a good story, but if you are a freelancer, you have to do it faster and understand distribution channels, algorithms, marketing content, and audience."

Freelancing doesn’t mean failing

While I’m happy to have had the opportunity to go to journalism school — the connections I’ve made and the opportunities it’s given me are invaluable — I feel as though it engrained in my mind a false image of success that I still struggle to unravel.

I still compare my success as a freelance reporter to the "traditional" success I was taught — in which the only way to get your foot in the door is to land a staff job or take a gig with low pay in hopes that a better position opens up eventually.

It’s easier to recruit students by saying grads end up at flashy legacy publications than as independent contractors carving out their own path and chasing down $150 invoices. There’s also a logical reason freelancing may not be encouraged in school: It’s financially difficult.

But so is journalism! Landing a job at The New York Times is hard, but people do it. People find success freelancing, too.

A staff job may not be in my imminent future, and that’s fine. I’ve learned more about negotiating, networking, and honing my craft as a writer, editor, and researcher through freelancing than I did during my 10-month graduate program.

It’s time the institutions training the journalists of the future acknowledge reality: Freelancing doesn’t equal failure. It’s time to update the syllabus.

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Meira Gebel May 27, 2021 at 11:09PM

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