Why I Freelance: To Break into the Exclusive World of Media

By Fareeha Molvi March 5th, 2020

If we learned anything from California AB5, it’s that some policymakers view freelancing as a form of exploitation, rather than the career and lifestyle choice it often is. This is the second in a series of essays seeking to build understanding around why creatives freelance—and how the freedom to do so helps them live richer, more fulfilling lives.

Growing up Muslim and middle class in Southern California, I dreamed of working at a prestigious fashion magazine, but the odds were against me. Interns featured in style glossies were usually white and wealthy. I had no connections in media, and I didn’t live in New York.

I had no clue how to break in, so I went about it the old-fashioned way. Armed with clips from a student magazine, a couple internships, and a degree from UCLA, I applied to job listings hoping to get a foot in the door. I never got a call back.

But after a five-year post-college detour in copywriting and PR, I rustled up the courage to pitch an editor in 2015. I had some success, but one story about fashion and the over-commercialization of Ramadan changed everything for me.

Though it ran on Racked, a now-defunct fashion website, my words spread like wildfire on social media. Thousands of people shared my piece, including an NPR reporter covering the Middle East. To my surprise, I was sought out by other journalists as an expert on the rise of Ramadan marketing, going so far as to interview on-air for a radio show on CBC/Radio-Canada. The tipping point was when the New York Times quoted my piece.

For the first time, I felt the impact of my own words. As they rippled across the media, they added something significant to the national conversation.

I’ll never forget that feeling.

This dream isn’t for people “like us”

Before freelancing, every job application that went unanswered chipped away at my dream of working in media. At one point, my mother sat me down to explain that aspirations like mine weren’t meant for people like us. I felt helpless because she was right. There was hardly anyone in media who looked like me at the time, let alone an audience clamoring for my perspective.

Over time, I realized that wasn’t true. Diverse representation in media has indeed come a long way. But when I first started freelancing (just before the 2016 election, itself a lightning rod for diversity issues), many pieces covering the Muslim-American community in America were written by non-Muslim journalists. Even well-intentioned pieces lacked nuance, instead focusing on curiously “exotic” details. Mundane headscarves, for instance, would be cast as orientalist props from faraway lands, when they were likely purchased at local malls.

There was a need for observations like mine, those of a Muslim-American woman who confidently claims both identities.

Stuck between “too much” and “not enough”

After my Racked piece, I slowly accumulated bylines in national outlets—Allure, Glamour, Teen Vogue— many of the titles I had longed to write for as a teen. My confidence surged. It turned out I not only had something to say, I was good at saying it.

Had it not been for freelancing, my work would have never seen the light of day. My writing would have stayed locked inside the chasms of my brain, guarded by my own self-doubt that I was not enough.

Even today, I catch myself. Am I skilled enough? Have I honed my craft enough? Is this piece too Muslim? Is this issue too Muslim?

I’m not alone. Many artists hailing from underrepresented backgrounds doubt their abilities and their right to a voice. Some find themselves watering down ideas just to gain acceptance in the mainstream. Indian-American talk show host Hasan Minhaj told Salon in 2018 that he asks interviewees of color what stories they were dying to tell at former jobs but never got around to telling because they were trying to fit in. Not everyone, though, is so lucky to land a boss like Minhaj.

Newsmakers and gatekeepers

According to a 2018 report by Pew Research Center, newsrooms across America are considerably less diverse than the wider U.S. working population. Seventy-seven percent of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic whites, even though they make up 65 percent of the working public, while males make up 61 percent of newsroom staff but comprise just 53 percent of workers nationally.

The impact on the news we consume is profound. Not only is it largely delivered from the viewpoint of white males, but there are far fewer mentors of color fostering young talent in their communities, perpetuating a cycle of underrepresentation.

The creator of California Assembly Bill 5, which caps creative freelancers at 35 submissions per year per publication before they’re considered employees, hoped her law would lead to more staff jobs. On the surface that’s well and good. But besides the very real danger of employers looking outside of California for freelancers, did she consider which demographics would be most likely to get those jobs? And that if freelancing goes the way of the newspaper, we might lose a crucial way to bypass the institutional biases rampant in media, as I did?

Freelancing is not perfect, but it can be an avenue to opportunity. When you pitch new editors via email, they don’t know what community you’re from, how old you are, how many children you have, or whether you can afford to live in New York. What matters is whether you have a story to tell and the chops to tell it.

Fareeha Molvi is a writer based in Los Angeles where she has written for Allure, Glamour, The Cut, Huffington Post and others. Fareeha’s work explores identity and representation in entertainment and fashion.

Want to contribute to our “Why I Freelance” series? Pitch your story to trobinson@contently.com.

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