Nick Miller met a girl, resigned from The Age and now freelances in New York. Surprisingly in these straitened times, it works.
I'm lounging in the basement of a fancy New York hotel in SoHo with a bunch of other freelance journalists, waiting for our turn to do a round-table with the cast of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
After the state of the coffee (drinkable) and the standard of the buffet (top marks to the chocolate croissants), inevitably the conversation turns to "so, how's business?"
The mood gets darker than a Prohibition gangster who's had his convoy of moonshine hooch hijacked.
"This isn't a job any more, it's a hobby," says one embittered French journo, who left her paper a while back with the dream of being a Hollywood-based freelancer.
All agree that the jobs are rarer and the pay stingier. Many of the Europeans had a suite of publications they used to pitch for, and now rely on just one or two.
And the editors get ever more unrealistic in their expectations, an Italian writer complains. "I have one asshole who keeps ringing me up and tells me to hang outside the studio gates to get gossip," she says. "But he pays per story, per word. He gets furious when I say no. He just doesn't understand how it works."
I nod and sympathise and quietly marvel at how lucky I've been.
Two years ago I left my comfortable, happy, well-paid job at The Age (no fat payout – I just left) to work in New York. No plan, no prospects. Why this insanity? Long story short: I met a girl. When I told this story to a prospective employer in New York, she actually laughed out loud at me. "Man, I gotta tell my girlfriends this," she spluttered. "No-one moves here for love."
She didn't give me a job. My decent references and CV meant nothing in a city where the Columbia journalism school pumps out 100 bright-eyed, will-literally-work-for-nothing, techno-savvy multimedia content producers, I mean journalists, every year and, at the other end of the pay scale, award-bespeckled ex-New York Times heavyweights ponder their shrinking payouts and decide to throw the dice on the job market after all.
And there's the visa thing. Milo Minderbinder couldn't invent a better system. You need the right visa to get a job, and you can't get a job without the right visa. Twice I was asked "So, when can you start?", replied "When you sponsor me for a visa," and heard nothing more.
So, I freelanced. And it's worked. I'm making half what I used to bring in, but surprisingly it's enough. Some subbing here, some features there, some colour pieces on arts or food, news when it pops up and someone needs a stringer.
You build relationships, you stretch your horizons, you work late into the evenings when you have to, you sit around in your underpants when you can, and you make a living in the greatest city in the world. Not bad. Not secure, but not bad.
I've flown to Detroit to cover a murder (amazing place, like the aftermath of a zombie plague), to Kentucky to see the neck-bomb-hoaxer (found a grubby motel, bought a six-pack and a packet of cigarettes and wrote a news feature while Australia slept – so fun!). I've done live TV crosses on Skype and radio reports over the phone. I've taken pictures and been paid for them. I've recorded a video interview for the web (and not been paid for it: pitching to and invoicing from the other side of the world to news organisations going through radical restructure is part science, part lucky dip).
I've gotten stories from commissions, from pitches, from randomly chatting to someone, and from an editor noticing via Twitter that I was somewhere interesting.
I've had stories killed because the local correspondent gazumped me, because I missed the deadline through bad planning, and for no reason I could tell.
But enough about me. I asked a couple of ex-pat Aussie journos, who came over around the same time I did, how they'd found it.
Q: What was the plan?
Mat Murphy, ex The Age: "I had lined up a weekly column and was interested in running features, etc, on the US economy. As I had been at Fairfax for 10 years and had built up relationships there, it was my first choice in terms of pitching stories."
Hannah Tattersall, ex The Fin: "I thought I would freelance for a few months and then find a full-time job. I thought I would mostly write features for my old workplace… I'd also met with various section editors from Fairfax, ACP, etc, before I left the country, to let them know I'd be over here."
Q: How did it work out?
Murphy: "There really was a lot of news happening out of New York in 2011/2012. Unfortunately as Australian media companies started laying off workers, so too did they slash contributor budgets. There was a noticeable change in their appetite."
Tattersall: "I'm still freelancing a year on, but also working part-time for a large news corporation which is a perfect balance. (The freelance work) has been very up and down but I'd say overall my expectations have been exceeded. I've had some months where my workload has just been crazy, and other months where I’ll only have one or two stories… the longer I freelance, the easier it becomes, and I now have business cards and a website filled with my stories which helps when cold-pitching."
Q: What about the pay?
Murphy: "Pay wasn't too bad… but you can get caught out if features don't run when expected."
Tattersall: "I had dreams of becoming super-rich from freelancing but that’s just not the case. Per story it works out better than being employed full-time… but you don’t get paid for researching time, interviewing, transcribing, fact-checking… The huge number of redundancies in Australia this year also meant that editors were starting to say they couldn't accept work or had to cut rates."
Q: And what about the whole vibe of the thing?
Murphy: "It was nice after 10 years of writing three news stories a day to have time to craft longer pieces. But the uncertainty is tough as well. Wondering where your next pay cheque is coming from and how to survive in a city like New York on an uncertain budget can be a challenge."
Tattersall: "I definitely struggled with the uncertainty of work and money at first (and was lucky I had a partner working full-time when I had slow months). I felt guilty about having so much free time at first… but now I really enjoy the flexibility to start and finish my working day when it suits me."
So… are we uniquely lucky? It seems unlikely. I've had an amazing time. But I'd certainly not advise you to all come over on the next boat. There are eight million stories in the naked city, but only a finite amount of money to pay for them.