There aren’t many freelancers who do what Justin Ling does.
There aren’t many freelancers who do what Justin Ling does. The Ottawa-based journalist spends his days in the Press Gallery covering the news coming out of Parliament Hill. He’s had his work published in the National Post, the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s Magazine and the Ottawa Citizen, but there are unique challenges that come with working as a freelance political reporter in Ottawa. Story Board editor Rachel Sanders phoned Ling last week to ask about the ups and downs of freelancing on The Hill.
Story Board: When did you become interested in writing about politics?
Justin Ling: I’ve been into politics since I was a kid, it’s always kind of been a passion. I drifted around a while about whether I wanted to go into the staffer side of things or the reporting side. But a couple years back I decided that I’d rather tell truth for a living than lie. So I went with the journalism side once and for all. I’ve been freelancing solidly for the last two years or so. It’s fantastic. It’s not always been easy, but I’ve enjoyed it.
Story Board: Are you interested in getting a full time job at a paper?
JL: Not really. I think this kind of happens when anyone starts freelancing, where you feel like it’s a temporary thing and you’re just doing this to pay the bills while you wait for someone to offer you a job. But I think in the current context nobody’s offering anyone jobs out of hand anymore. And a lot of the jobs you get offered are not exactly the glamorous gigs that we were promised in j-school. So a year back all I could think about was that day the Globe would call me and offer me that glorious reporter job that I’ve been waiting for. But I’ve given up on that. It’s at the point where I don’t want that job anymore. What I’m doing now is exactly what I want to be doing and it’s paying the bills much better than I thought it would ever be. So I’m entirely content. The only problem is that the rest of the journalism industry still has this view of freelancing that freelancers are either too untalented to get their own job or are just waiting to get hired somewhere else. So that’s the biggest barrier. Being a freelancer is a pain in the ass. Mostly because of how people treat you, not so much what the job actually is. What I do from day-to-day is roughly the same as any staff reporter except that I’m probably filing more copy than they are.
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Story Board: What do you like about freelancing?
JL: I’m still doing the day-to-day breaking news stuff, depending what day it is. But I also get the time to work on whatever I want. I get to do investigative features, I get to file longform copy. I get to choose where my stuff goes, I get to choose what I write about, who I call, how I do it. Everything from the reporting angle is decided by me, not an editor. The editor only really gets to see the finished product. So I have the complete autonomy to work on what I want, when I want, how I want. And it’s really liberating. I always call it the purest form of journalism. There’s no oversight, I get to do it my way. I’m working in the Hot Room on Parliament Hill, so I’m sitting next to all the staff journalists but I get to decide my own schedule.
I mean, to be fair, I end up working more. I come in on evenings and weekends all the time. It’s not uncommon to get stuck here for 12 hours on a day. But it’s good.
Story Board: What are the biggest challenges of working as a freelancer on The Hill?
JL: It’s great if the people you’re dealing with have dealt with you before. But when you first say that you’re freelance, people translate that to mean “you have no job and it’ll never be published.” A lot of the time when you call a government department they have this little form they have to fill out to process your info request and they usually ask you: name, phone number, email address, and then publication. And if you tell them “freelance” there’s always a long pause. They say “yeah, but where?” and you say “well, I’m doing this on spec” which is how a lot of this stuff works and they don’t understand. It doesn’t process for them how freelancing works. So that’s just an example of one of the attitudes on The Hill.
But there are also some policies that make it hard for us. I found out yesterday that CTV does not allow freelance journalists onto their political shows. I have lots of friends and colleagues who go on either as regulars or fill-ins to do commentary and analysis and that’s something I’m apparently not allowed to do because I don’t have a “real job.” There are also some very archaic and arbitrary rules in the press gallery that apply not just to freelancers but to several other journalists, where if you apply for press gallery membership you are not allowed to get immediate accreditation. You have to have a six-month temporary membership during which you have all sorts of arbitrary and useless rules applied to you, like not being able to take books out of the library in case, you know, you make off with them, or something.
And this applies also to small publications. Publications like Blacklock’s Reporter and iPolitics have similar rules applied to them. I guess with the advent of the internet there’s a whole bunch of journalists who are making it, for the first time, as freelancers or as employees for smaller publications and the rules haven’t caught up. There are all these really inane, useless, archaic, anachronistic rules that just limit our abilities to do our job. Parliament, by definition, I guess, is out of touch but sometimes it can just be annoying.
To continue reading this Q&A, please continue to Story Board where it was originally published.
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