Freelancers should consider collectives

Maintaining the intellectual atmosphere of a magazine office or newsroom makes a lot of sense for those of us who work freelance

As a fairly new freelance writer with a lot of friends who are graphic designers, I’ve been thinking a lot about what journalists can learn from them when it comes to working collaboratively and collectively. Many of the designers I know share workspaces and weigh in on each other’s projects. As publishing platforms—from Kindle Singles to blogging to full-length books—cut corners on editing, it’s not crazy to imagine that an editorial collective could fill some of the gaps. I know that I could use a fellow writer nearby to tell me when a lede isn’t funny, an anecdote is falling flat, or when my word choice is… off.

Of course, some freelance journalists have found a home in creative coworking spaces, which have proliferated in recent years. But most of these spaces don’t require renters to be of the same profession, and so they don’t come with an expectation for sharing expertise, contacts, and work.

I asked my friend Justin David Cox, who’s a partner in the Austin, TX, design collective Public School, about their arrangement. Do they just split the rent on their workspace? Do they actually work together? Or are they simply a more formalized brain trust?

“All of the above,” he told me. Public School includes two photographers, four designers, one illustrator, two interns, and three dogs.

“From time to time, we all take on our own individual projects that are too small for Public School as a whole,” Cox said, “but in those cases we still rely on each other for critique and brainstorming, especially if a part of the project involves a skill set that someone else specializes in.”

Elaine Chernov, who is one-fifth of the Chicago-based design collective Quite Strong, told me, “I would describe the affiliation as very flexible, and it adjusts with the needs of our lives.” She added, “If more than one of us is a fit for a project that comes up, then it gives us a great excuse to team up and collaborate.”

This cooperation already does translate well to writing in the few shared work spaces explicitly for journalists. One is The Grotto, in San Francisco.

“One of the most tangible benefits of working in a shared office space is having officemates who pass along assignments when they’re too busy,” writes Grotto co-founder Ethan Watters. “Over the years, I can safely say that I’ve covered at least half of my office rent through such overflow work. I’ve also profited from having a stable of writing pros on hand to pick up my slack, critique first drafts, and give me advice.” (The founders of The Grotto have published a guide to setting up a creative coworking space.)

Even though many journalists who are now freelancers spent many years working side by side with other writers in a newsroom, there’s still a perception of writing and reporting as solitary pursuits. If you’re not sharing a byline, how can you collaborate? But once you think about all of the other work that goes into a piece of writing—from shaping the idea to hunting down sources to deciding on structure—maintaining the intellectual atmosphere of a magazine office or newsroom makes a lot of sense for those of us who work freelance. Especially for writers who specialize in very different subject areas or formats. And as someone who winces every time she sees an anemic author bio that reads, “Joe Schmoe is a writer living in Brooklyn,” it can’t hurt to add an institutional affiliation to your bio, right?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk