Is a freelance journalism career a Sisyphean delusion?

Why today I think continuing my career as a freelance journalist may be a Sisyphean, untenable delusion


By Nate Thayer

June 5, 2014

Here is an update with further evidence suggesting that making a viable living as a professional freelance journalist and writer is an untenable, Sisyphean delusion:

I was sitting at my desk yesterday morning, my pal, Lamont, content snoozing at my feet, absorbed in final editing of a long term investigative reporting project, the latest of many that I have been self-financing awaiting a positive response from a flurry of funding proposals sent that, once again, have been met with enthusiasm but no available funding, rejection, or silence. 

I love being a journalist. It isn’t what I do, but, more accurately, who I am. 

I was interrupted by three loud, harsh, rapid-fire knocks on the front door to my rented apartment. Immediately, I recognized the signature notification of the hostile adversarial arrival of armed agents with the authority and power of the State.

I was not unsurprised. 

My rent was delinquent, and despite numerous, persistent, and increasingly bordering on desperate efforts to acquire funding or institutional support for my work as a freelance investigative journalist to compensate for even the minimal costs of living expenses–the modern equivalent of food, shelter, and protection from the elements–these efforts have not been successful.

I grabbed my pal, Lamont, announced my cooperative intentions, and opened the door. I and was met without warmth by four uniformed agents of the U.S. Federal Marshal Service gripping their holstered large caliber automatic government-issued Glock 9 mm handguns with their right hands and draped in their plumage of bullet proof vests, Taser guns, chemical agent devices, ammunition belts, restraining devices and automatic weapons.

Their left arms fully extended towards me, they barked in unison: “Show us your hands!”

“You are from the United States Marshal’s, I presume,” I said in an appropriately friendly enough tone.

I was holding Lamont at the time which put me in a bit of a pickle to strictly follow their instructions, but, after assurances that Lamont was harmless, I placed him on the floor. Lamont stared up, bug-eyed at those he had accurately intuited as neither tactical allies or desirous of smooches, and we did as we were told.

I have long had a personal rule: It is counterproductive to engage in even discussion, little less negotiation or debate, with even a hint of an adversarial tone when one is confronted and outnumbered by armed government agents with superior firepower who are following orders to accomplish a specific assigned task. That rarely ends well. 

“Federal Marshals! Please step outside the apartment,” they said. “We are serving a legal eviction. Do you have any weapons in the house? Is there anyone else inside?”

“No, it is just me and my pal, my dog Lamont,” I said, my eyes locked on those of the officer in command, making sure I conveyed neither obsequiousness or fear, and that I was intent on full cooperation. They had a job. 

One Marshal kept me outside in the hallway while the other three did a thorough room to room search of my home. After a few minutes, they returned.

“You have five minutes to gather essentials in one bag–any money, valuables, a change of clothes. Make sure you take everything you think you want because you will not be allowed back on the premises,” said the team commander.

Waiting outside the front door on the stoop were 25 hired day laborers, crackheads and their associates recruited from a Washington D.C. homeless shelter, I was soon to learn. Their mission: to remove all my belongings and place them on the public sidewalk in front of my residence on U street in downtown D.C. A locksmith stood on the periphery ready to change the physical locks on the doors accessing my now former home.

The smarmy ‘Property Manager’, whose only function has long been transparent to act as the landlord’s enforcer, skim a portion of the rent off the top, and do little else of cost or consequence or requiring effort.

All the possessions I have accumulated in my 53 years, including 10,000 books, many pieces of mostly Asian antiques and art, cultural memorabilia from a lifetime of global travel, and every single one of the more than 2000 reporters notebooks I have saved from a 25 year career as a journalist, were removed from my flat and, over the next two hours, dumped on the public sidewalk. Many items, of course, were broken and damaged in the process. Many more were stolen to feed the addictions of the laborers recruited from the Lumpen Proletariat of urban American society.

The irony of them being drawn from the pool of homeless citizens of the capital city of the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth, did not escape me.

Within hours, the sum of a lifetime of accumulated belongings stretched more than 200 feet down the length of the sidewalk.

The next 12 hours were spent laser focused on defending my worldly possessions from being war booty for human scavengers, thieves, and the opportunistic dark side of mainstream citizenry engaging in the schadenfreude that fuels those who take pleasure or personal gain in the vulnerability or suffering of others.

The growing pool of vultures circled increasingly boldly, attracted by the stench of their favoured prey–the perceived carrion in their midst, waiting for any non-threatening opportunity to rip whatever remaining flesh from my carcass they could.

From the sidewalk, accompanied by my loyal pal, Lamont–and carrying only my computer carry-on bag , which contained my laptop, its accouterments, and an 800 page hard copy draft of my book, and a small suitcase designed to fit in the overhead compartment of an aeroplane, which contained little more than a change of clothes, my passport, my maxed out credit card, and a toothbrush–I watched as the fruits of my life work was roughly dumped on the street.

It was hard not to interpret, in the fleeting darker moments of yesterday, that the worth of the architecture and contributions of my life up to the present, the content of my resume’ having been deemed unworthy, defined as accumulated debris and being discarded as legally recognized garbage.

From the public spectacle unfolding in front of me, while fending off an increasing stream of predators eyeing whether I was paying attention to the items they individually identified as their favoured, I worked the phone.

I arranged for a large moving truck and crew to arrive in front of my now former home urgently. Simultaneously, I organized the rental of public storage units in the cheaper outskirts of Washington, D.C.

At the same time, I was assessing in my mind’s eye a handful of the least felonious appearing, more minimally chemically addled, down on their luck crack heads who had been retrieved from the local homeless shelters after, understandably, agreeing to provide their mercenary services, in exchange for whatever their personal price of a biblical piece of silver was, with the forces who had just executed throwing me out on the street.

I recruited a half dozen of them, who agreed, after they had completed their tour of duty serving the adversarial forces of my personal darkness, to defect and assist me in moving my possessions from the street into a very large moving truck, the impending arrival of which I was anxiously awaiting which would then deposit the portion of my life work that had been salvaged into a storage facility. 

I explained to them what they already knew; there was a reason I was just evicted from my home and that my available resources limited my ability to compensate them with a traditional financial transaction.

Instead, I proposed and they agreed to be paid in the form of a stash of extremely high quality, laboratory refined Marijuana with a substantial street value that a good friend had bestowed to me as a gift some time ago. That friend, not without coincidence or irony, was a former senior journalist who had a long, distinguised career working for a very high profile, respected television news program before fleeing in disgust and dismay at the state of contemporary quality journalism to begin a new career as a self employed, very talented, agricultural producer, technician, and retail salesman with a singular specialty product.

14 hours later, it was over.

At midnight, Lamont and I walked in the front door of a sympathetic acquaintance, having been stripped of permanent shelter, where we are regrouping, reassessing viable strategies for tackling the future.

Such is life.

Lamont slept even closer to me than usual last night, snuggled all night his head resting over my shoulder above my heart. We woke early to a new and unclear dawn of an abrupt new chapter, and another new adventure.

Although the events of the day have been a setback and to extricate myself from the current debacle will result in even more costly and complex and time-consuming difficulties in order to stabilize and secure my personal perimeter, I will move forward with determination,  and with full confidence that all will, in the end, be just fine.

I am not particularly alarmed, albeit admittedly more than a bit disillusioned. 

I have always found serenity and a certain pleasure in possessing a one way ticket to somewhere I have never been.

For now, as it were, that is all she wrote.



  1. Alan Amsted says

    Maybe if you’d sold some of your “many pieces of mostly Asian antiques and art” you could have stayed in your apartment a little longer.

  2. says

    Rough servings delivered by life lately… I’m glad you’re able to embrace them with a sense of adventure. Ha, sometimes the only thing that can be pulled from such experiences is the knowledge that a good story will be had.

    Hang in there and I hope you keep writing…

  3. Jill Kuraitis says

    I am just so sorry this happened to you I don’t know what to say. As an ex-journalist (not ever remotely close to your league) I can relate – there are so few jobs for journalists and writers that we are desperate. I admire your “that’s life” attitude more than I can say, but that doesn’t get you a place to live. What can I do to help? Jill in Idaho

  4. Susan says

    Well, damn. That sucks.

    You write:

    “I am not particularly alarmed. I have always found serenity in possessing a one way ticket to somewhere I have never been.”

    Those sentences are evidence enough of the worthiness of your work, intellect and heart.

  5. says

    Nate- All of this happened to me just shy of the marshals. Twenty years of work for the best publications added up to sleeping on a borrowed floor. My dog huddling with me just like yours is. I’ll tell you this. You will find a whole new life ahead of you after this hard turn if you keep the attitude you have. I’d help in any way I’m able. Say if there is a way.

  6. says

    There is plenty of good work out there for freelancers, but it’s not big investigative journalism. That’s one casualty of the changes in the media business (another, at the other extreme, is the comic strip.)

    Freelancing is a business, and not everyone is cut out for self-employment. Throw in all the zillions of people who think we should be delighted to work for free for “exposure”, and you have a mess.

    Good luck with all this.

  7. A Fan says

    suggestion — get in touch w Vice Magazine (which I see is being considered for purchase by Time Inc. today accgd to press for more than a billion dollars.) Yes Time Inc. is a ship of fools but vice has a soul and I would imagine they would be interested in any direction you sneezed — from Pol Pot to documenting everything about your current situation. maybe a natural fit.

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