Indonesian writers go freelance to find freedom in changing industry

Disty Winata

Master of Commerce candidate at the University of Sydney

Sydney

Jakarta, posted: Fri, July 20, 2018 | 01:51 pm

In Indonesia in particular, companies are relying on freelance writers with higher frequency in areas of specialty reporting, which have been among the hardest hit by newsroom cutbacks.(Shutterstock/File)

Journalism, as a profession, enjoyed stable development in Indonesia before economic cutbacks hit the media sector. In addition to that, technological change has altered not only the structure of the industry but also expended the role of journalists in production processes.

Given the rise of online collaboration tools and remote work, it stands to reason that more firms are running and growing their businesses with fewer employees, by shifting more often to on-demand assignments. Many organizations have relaxed their professional norms and include atypical resources to keep up with audience demands and engagement.

Freelance writers, or journalists who are not fully employed by news organizations, represent a growing portion of these atypical resources. In Indonesia in particular, freelance writers have been used with higher frequency in areas of specialty reporting that have been among the hardest hit by newsroom cutbacks, including niche topics.

An increasing number of journalists are self-employed entrepreneurs working as content creators or editors. The rise of unstable working conditions for journalists corresponds with labor market trends of rising individualization and flexibility, which reflects in the steady growth of independent businesses and freelancers. Furthermore, various phases of media industry transformation have prompted many journalists to start looking for new jobs.

Most entrepreneurial journalists started freelancing between four and six years ago for three major reasons. First, the young generation has grown up with technology and is more aware of digital content and marketing trends, they are accelerating the freelancing trend. Second, the concept of freelancing in Indonesia is now more respected than ever, with professionals starting to opt for independent work over being employed. Lastly, more experienced journalists are being driven to become freelancers because of the growing pressure of industry changes, such as restructuring, less control over content creation and growing dissatisfaction.

Increased freelance writing is also a response to the pecuniary disadvantage of working in journalism. A study by the Independent Journalists Alliance (AJI) from December 2017 shows that Indonesian journalists are still underpaid and deserve to earn a standard rate of Rp7.9 million per month.

Despite potentially having to work two or three times harder to receive decent pay, the flexibility that freelancing offers trumps the low pay, even for forced freelancers. Classic employment in the media industry does not afford workers the luxury of being able to choose one’s work location, time and clients. That flexibility also opens up possibilities for freelancers to juggle multiple clients to earn more income.

With that freedom come some challenges. Common complaints include the lack of clear instructions from clients, often necessitating multiple revisions, and the difficulty of juggling tasks in a limited space of time.

When asked about how to overcome the aforementioned challenges, voluntary freelancers often show the drive to work around the limitations and proactively pursue new knowledge. These freelancers exhibit entrepreneurial characteristics, as they are driven toward excellence and active problem-solving. Meanwhile, involuntary freelancers tend to blame poor infrastructure and a lack of awareness among clients for their failure to achieve success.

Even though freelance writers in Indonesia still experience trials and errors, the government, businesses and educational institutions are increasingly encouraging entrepreneurial journalism. So, what will journalistic work look like in the future?

Freelance writers depend on their own professional skills to operate independently. Despite accounting for a growing segment of the media workforce, freelance writers are often overlooked. In order for Indonesian freelance writers to thrive, they need the right support to feel empowered.

First, a mutually beneficial relationship, in which freelance writers feel fulfilled in their work and employers receive high-quality content, greater awareness and understanding of the nuances and intricacies of working with freelance writers are essential for employers and businesses. Moreover, more standardized ways of working are helpful to reduce unexpected delays and improve efficiency in content production.

Second, the government has launched Indonesia Roadmap 4.0 focusing on the creative economy and entrepreneurship. As freelance writers are micro-entrepreneurs, setting a minimum wage and providing social welfare could alleviate freelance writers’ biggest concern, that of insecurity. As the rates are currently dictated by clients, having a minimum wage and social welfare in place can create a safety net for freelance writers and encourage journalists who may have been hesitant to become freelance writers to be more entrepreneurial.

Third, the incorporation of entrepreneurial journalism into core curricula remains a pending issue and contributes to the fact that journalism students do not tend to become entrepreneurs later on. Introducing entrepreneurship programs in journalism training can facilitate the emergence of entrepreneurial journalism.

The motives for writers choosing to go freelance are heterogeneous and multi-dimensional. Voluntary freelancers enter freelancing because they want to pursue more fulfilling work by creating content that is in line with their interests. Meanwhile, forced freelancers enter freelancing for lifestyle and monetary reasons. However, as journalistic work in Indonesia becomes less secure, freelancing, the traditional method of self-employment, is not always a model for independence and entrepreneurialism. Hence, taking advantage of opportunities as the market changes requires a willingness to learn new skills, often at one’s own initiative and expense.

Removing roadblocks for journalists to pursue a freelancing career would support the emergence of new forms of journalism. Enabling entrepreneurship in journalistic work, in this case freelance writers, also potentially extends journalistic diversity and plurality, thus serving society. Creating a freelance-friendly ecosystem can produce a degree of independence, autonomy and freedom from routine that is not common in conventional, hierarchical media organizations. Developing an entrepreneurial approach to a successful career as a freelance writer need not create an insurmountable stumbling block in Indonesia. (kes)

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Disty Winata is a Master of Commerce candidate at the University of Sydney and the director of communications at the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association. She is also a content marketer and experienced in working with freelance writers across Southeast Asia.

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freelancers freelance writers entrepreneurship journalism