Columns & Commentary 0

Words From a First-Year Freelancer

There’s a poetic irony in paying thousands of dollars for an education in one of the most rigorous professions, only to be thrust out into the wild and told that your work deserves little more than a pittance. In one year since graduating from Ball State’s College of Communication, Information and Media, I’ve worked both ends of the spectrum as a freelance writer. A gracious $300 from Playboy for a deep dive into a video game’s roots in noise rock, and a mere fraction of that for essentially the same level of work from a site – which shall go unnamed – no less desperate for clicks.

In many ways, it’s a path I forged for myself. No one has ever romanticized freelance journalism to me, and still I followed through with it, because it was the only path that made a modicum of sense to follow if I wanted full-time work as a niche writer. A lot of wandering can happen in a year, though, and so plenty of questions arose about what Ball State taught me that freelancing didn’t.

Take it easy. This isn’t some overblown diatribe against “the system.” I got that out of me during my time at Ball State, to much embarrassment, and admittedly a little bit of smug self-satisfaction. I’m not the first, and won’t be the last. But what did Ball State actually give to me? What did I earn, learn, or discover through its structure that was worth each and every struggle that accompanied my time there?

The honest (and cheap) answer is that I don’t know. Not this far into my professional career, and maybe not even much later. I’m certain that Ball State’s journalism department irrevocably changed my life for the better. Certainly the people did anyway. I had professors who pushed me beyond my own limits, nearly breaking me in the process, but rebuilding me as a tougher, more shrewd professional. It has to say something that I shivered in my boots during my first news assignment (only partially because I covered a 5K fun run in February), and two years later I was conducting my own interviews within the maelstrom of the 2015 Game Developers Conference. Sure, there were professors who scoffed at the idea of a student branching out into something that, on the surface, didn’t seem like the same “hard” journalism that they were used to teaching – but my publication still stands as a part of the department’s media lab. Even though I’ve done the mentally comforting thing and divorced myself from any of the publication’s inner workings, I can still sense the passion of those I left in charge, and even that of the younger writers who cut their teeth on editorials about powerful women in geek culture, or honest-to-god investigative reporting on topics more corporatized outlets wouldn’t dare to touch. No one can take that away, and that’s worth a price tag of its own.

The question remains in whether or not Ball State’s education felt “worth it,” though, both in and outside my specific corner. While I see my exceptionally talented peers landing jobs at ABC affiliates, New York-based magazines, or even the AP, I have to ask if the more modestly talented, yet no less driven of us are going to stay afloat in a media environment that values “content” over character. When we’re learning how to write well enough that our editors don’t want to break us in half, are we still learning to value our work enough that those same editors can’t take advantage of us? In my own field of video game industry coverage, layoffs and resignations are monthly occurrences. Certainly they’re no foreign concept in more general media, either. Unpaid internships and half-realized contracts leave all the power in a few hands up top, rather than those willing to forego health insurance and a living wage in the world’s most expensive cities. Do I get angry at these companies’ cultures, or do I get angry at Ball State? Do I rail against venture capital, or an educational system that needs to shoot out enough starlets to distract from the absurdly talented students still working at sandwich shops? Do I continue to fight against the obfuscation of individuality in the office, or in the classroom?

Of course, part of these fears are completely unfounded at a place like Ball State. Byte, a geek culture site, grew from a two-man radio show to an editorial board. Ball Bearings, a magazine that used to be pinned as fluff, is now ripping open the wounds of an establishment that would rather 20,000 students not dive into their finances. That’s to say nothing of the dozens of individual projects I saw grow during my final year. These things exist because there are professors, faculty, and students brave and smart enough to attempt crazy new things, even if some of them fail and the naysayers get their own satisfaction.

And yet, it’s an incredibly tenuous success. For every flagship project, there’s a board of trustees that don’t trust their students to do the jobs we paid them to let us do.

Ultimately, I can’t give you an answer to “was it worth it?” The people I met, slaved alongside, pissed off, and loved certainly helped. I’d be a certified nobody without their strength, and certainly less than half the writer I am today. I’ll refrain from putting a price tag on their mentoring and friendship. Of course I’d do it all again. But I will ask if Ball State actually sees its students as formidable talents in their respective fields, worthy of more than the grief of entry level? Or are they more “content,” more “brands,” more “for exposure” material? As the world and job market shifts in ways we can’t yet predict, I believe it’s these questions that might allow Ball State to continue claiming it’s a paragon of education, one that fights for its own students as much as its students learn to fight for themselves.

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