The rules of life of Russian freelance journalists

You can read as much advice as you like for Western journalists on freelancing, but what is the point if you live in the harsh Russian reality, receive royalties in rubles, and are constantly confronted with “local specifics”?

We decided to collect for the Pressfeed blog the advice of several Russian journalists who only work as freelancers. The result is an entire encyclopedia of rules for freelance journalists with chapters on finances, clients, time, self-promotion, and much more.

(Although, some of the rules of journalists and freelancers in Russia may work in the opposite direction for those who live in Western countries.)

Outdoor writer Ivan Kuznetsov
Ivan Kuznetsov
Outdoor writer from the Dolomites, Italy, and Karelia, Finland

Rule 1. Find a full-time, remote job

Oddly enough, this is the first piece of advice I will give. Freelancers, in general, get paid less for texts than designers for websites, illustrators for pictures, and programmers for code. If a designer can take a large order at once for 100 thousand rubles (for example, to draw a website), then the journalist for the same cost will have to write 20–30 large articles in popular publications.

Permanent remote work in an editorial office or company needed to cover basic expenses: rent, food, transportation, internet. But this way you will know for sure that you will receive at the end of the month some amount of money and will not be left on the street without food.

Rule 2. Move to the provinces

If you are not tied to Moscow or St. Petersburg and are not afraid of small towns (or even villages), living in the provinces will be cheaper. The most expensive item of expenditure, of course, is rent. In Moscow, a one-room apartment costs 35–40 thousand rubles, in St. Petersburg — 20–25, in Sochi or Vladivostok — 15–20. These are the four most expensive cities in Russia. And maybe Yekaterinburg. In all other cities, rents are even cheaper.

In the capital of Karelia, Petrozavodsk, where I lived last year, the rent was 10–15 thousand. Four times less than in Moscow. Transport is also cheaper. But utilities and food are more or less at the same level.

Rule 3. Write about what you know

This is the golden rule that anyone who writes for a living should learn. Only in this way do they turn out to be honest, lively, and vivid. After all, if you know a topic well, you can easily talk about it. Editors really appreciate it. It is better for a freelancer to know sports, travel, or finance professionally than to be an amateur in 10 areas.

You should look for jobs in the same way. Let’s say you’re an editor looking for a job on a sports website. And there’s a great opening at N+1 magazine about science. Forget about it. Get better at your subject.

Rule 4. Make friends with editors

Journalism is almost like show business. Seriously. You can’t make a move here without connections. No, most major popular publications do not hide contacts and respond to letters sent to the editorial office. But this is a long, painstaking, and often inefficient way. They will answer you, give you one article a month and then wait until the next month. You won’t make any money that way.

To write more, you need to be friends with editors and other journalists, constantly remind yourself, to offer article ideas, series of publications, and entire columns.

And you have to be first everywhere: there are a lot of journalists, and the budgets of editorial offices and companies are limited.

Rule 5. Become a great salesperson

Any freelancer — not just a journalist — always works two jobs. The first is in their field; the second is the same for all freelancers — a salesperson. You need to be able to “sell” yourself, to talk about yourself so that the buyer (the customer) cannot get away with it. You need to be moderately cheeky, sociable, and keep your word. The quality of your products (texts) depends on whether there will be new orders. This is especially important in the early days when the journalist is working on a name.

By the way, a personal brand for a journalist is also important. Just like in show business, a freelancer needs to constantly “shine” and be in the public eye, to know everyone and everyone in the crowd.

Rule 6. Master related fields of work

There is simply little need for journalists today. Where once you could send the editor a text in a Word file and rest at that, today a journalist is more like a producer who directs the process from beginning to end.

Coming up with an idea, writing a text, selecting photos, waiting for publication, and checking if there are any mistakes — all of this is your job, for which you are often not paid separately. You need to be able to layout longreads, process photos, edit videos, understand contextual and other types of advertising, and even program…

The more skills you have, the more likely you are to get the job. It’s always a good idea to know a little more than you need to know in your profession.

Rule 7. Save money and time

This is another golden rule for any freelancer. People often don’t have enough money or time. But most often it’s not about quantity but because you spend a lot of waste time.

For example, I don’t buy new clothes very often, I eat mostly at home, I’m careful with my gadgets (and they are expensive) and I travel using every possible way to save money. And I work almost all the time (haven’t watched a single episode of Sherlock).

For family people, of course, costs increase (I live alone), but even here you can treat finances and the most valuable thing — time — with care.

These rules were first published in Russian on the Pressfeed blog, a leading journalistic query service in Russia, on February 27, 2017. On Pressfeed, journalists post requests for comments and factual information on forthcoming publications, experts respond and receive media mentions.

Text: Ivan Kuznetsov

Cover photo: selfie in Moscow in winter 2019 by Ivan Kuznetsov