Friday, May 07, 2010

Ryan Pyle Blog: Ryerson Journalism School Questions


I enjoy lecturing and earlier this year I spoke about being a freelance photographer at the Ryerson University School of Journalism in Toronto, Canada. It was a very enjoyable and I feel that my experiences can offer people a lot of insight in to how to get your freelance career started.

Just a few weeks ago a Ryerson student wrote me asking if I could answer a few questions for them; as they wanted to profile my career for a project they were working on. Below are some of those questions and answers. I thought they may be suitable for my blog.

1) What is your impression of the state of the journalism industry today?

I think the state of the journalism industry is in decline. Saying that though, people know more about remote parts of the world, and people generally consume more information now, and in different formats, than they did twenty years ago. Journalism, especially non-professional journalism, is expanding rapidly as the internet and blogging continue to change our lives - and the way we consume media.

But, while non-professional journalism, in general, is proliferating and expanding; professional journalism and career journalism is shrinking and retreating, mainly because advertising revenue's have forced many magazines and newspapers to reduce pages and close up all together. The big question going forward, for people like me who earn a living as professional journalists, is whether the news consumers out there will pay for high quality professional journalism. There are too many bloggers and non-professional journalists out there that are spreading news and information that may not fully understand the ethics and morals of good journalism, and this hurts the industry over time. But there doesn't seem to be much interest for consumers to pay for high-quality, reliable journalism content. The next five years will be very interesting to see what happens.

2) What is it like to be a freelancer right now?

Being a freelancer is very difficult at the moment. Magazines and newspapers, my clients, are cutting back their pages and their assignments. The cutbacks are widespread and everyone is affected. The downturn in the advertising industry for traditional (print) media is the main reason for this, as more advertising spending drifts towards online venues. There are less pictures in magazines, there are less freelance stories and when you do get an assignment they are often shorter and often the pay is less. But while the jobs may be fewer and the pay may be less I still find documenting China visually incredibly rewarding and important. Even though I was able to win some awards in 2009, it is safe to say that last year was my worse income earning year of my career. I'm pleased to say that 2010 is looking better, hopefully the upward trend continues.

3) How much do you (or can you) make per photograph?

My pictures sell for a wide range of prices. In the photo industry the "price" of a picture is determined by the "usage". For example, if HSBC - a global bank - wants to use your picture from a hospital in China for an advertisement then that sale might be USD 10,000. But if the New York Times wants to buy that same picture to illustrate a story about health care in China, you may only earn USD 250. The key is in the usage.

4) What are the greatest challenges of being a freelance photographer?

The greatest challenge of being a freelance photographer is running a small business. Yes, taking lovely pictures is crucial, but if you can not earn a living and pay your bills your freelance career will end very quickly. In every course on journalism they need to have an optional class for those who want to be freelancers, and that class needs to teach people how to manage their costs and understand basic accounting. I know a lot of photographers who make beautiful images, but they don't freelance anymore because they couldn't make a living at it. Another massive challenge is managing contacts and networking but all of that doesn't matter much if you can't keep your books in order.

5) What are the greatest advantages of being a freelancer?

The greatest advantage of being a freelance photographer is that I am FREE. I can work on projects that I think are important. I can take jobs and turn down jobs as I see fit. I am my own boss, my own editor and my own accountant. That might intimidate people but I thrive on it. I enjoy having complete control over the direction of my career and control over the projects I work on. It helps me stay sharp and motivated.

6) And finally, what advice do you have for any journalism students who are looking towards the freelance career in the future.

Freelancing is tough and it will challenge you. It will test your perception of what is normal and what you are capable of. With no stable income and no benefits you have to use your wit and your ingenuity to generate income, and interest in your work. You have to create a following among editors and you need to sustain a comfortable lifestyle. All of this seems near impossible when you first start out. But remember, no one builds a profitable company over night. And you shouldn't expect to build a profitable freelance career over night. It takes time. I've lived in China since 2001. My first five years, yes - 5 years - were very difficult. It is possible, and if you have the ability to tough it out then there will be rewards down the road.

Ryan Pyle

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This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle