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The Unvarnished Truth: Susie Cagle on a Freelance Career

Posted by Rebecca Blake on March 25, 2014

self portrait © Susie CagleAt first glance, writer and cartoonist Susie Cagle looks as if she’s swimming in success. A graduate with a Master’s in journalism from Columbia University, her recent work includes such prestigious clients as Wired, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and McSweeneys. She’s appeared in radio and TV spots, and her work has been featured on NPR and in the Los Angeles Times, Print Magazine, and the Washington Post. People with “regular” staff jobs often tell her they envy her lifestyle. Yet, as Cagle describes it, “they then break eye contact when I tell them how much I am paid.”

In “Eight Years of Solitude: On freelance labor, journalism, and survival,” Cagle gives an unsentimental look at her career as an independent journalist and cartoonist. Her career has followed a trajectory similar to that of many capable and well-educated journalists: a Master’s degree, unsuccessful applications to entry level positions and unpaid internships, blogging assignments for $10 an hour, and a brief stint as a staff writer for a real estate blog before being laid off.

To distinguish herself from a glut other out-of-work journalists, Cagle taught herself to cartoon. The additional skill gave a boost to her bank account – a small illustration could earn as much as a 2,000 word story on a major news site. While her unusual skill set attracted notice (and requests for free work in exchange for “exposure”), she discovered that her talent in illustration devalued her legitimacy as a journalist.  She also discovered the huge disconnect between publicity and income, earning less than $20,000 in the year in which she had the most exposure on TV, radio, and in print. (Check out Tim Kreider’s beautiful summation of the value of “exposure” to a working illustrator.)

Cagle now finds herself on a treadmill of underpaid work: “I’m terrified that if I don’t publish an article one week, I might be forgotten altogether, losing out on the hypothetical opportunities I’ve been working toward for the better part of these last eight years.” It’s a bleak assessment of the freelance world, but one that rings true.

Top right: self portrait © Susie Cagle. Used with permission of the artist.

Brought to our attention by @ColleenDoran


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