First published on Collective Hub, November 2016
The shared office space has come a long way since Google made free beer and access to ping-pong seem like the holy grail of the working world. These days, you can find a co-working space that lets you drop into branches in any city (WeWork), punctuate deadlines with breaks for green juice and yoga (Manhattan’s Primary) or talk strategy with creative icons while reclining on a lounge designed by David Rockwell (Neuehouse). But if you’re a freelance writer looking for camaraderie or, at the very least, an alternative to the yawning solitude of staring at your laptop for days on end, chances are that your pickings are a little slimmer.
It’s a sentiment that resonates with Kyle Chayka and Peter Moskowitz. In September 2015, the Brooklyn-based freelance writers started Study Hall, a co-working space committed to providing self-employed journalists with the connections and creative inspiration that’s difficult to come by in a bedroom or favourite coffee shop. It also offers the all-important sense of community that allows freelance writers to thrive.
“I had been working in a different co-working space in Bushwick,” Kyle tells me over a coffee on an unseasonably hot New York day. “It was perfectly fine but the people who were there were start-ups, graphic designers and film editors so I felt like I could never really talk about work with them. When I met Peter, I asked him if he’d want to start an office for freelance writers and he said definitely! We wrote up this description of our plans for it and published it on Medium. Because we know a lot of journalists, we ended up collecting a lot of emails! It turned out that a lot of people were into the idea.”
\Although the pair opened the first version of Study Hall in Bushwick, a grungy neighbourhood that’s becoming gentrified by a steady trickle of artists and entrepreneurs looking for respite from the pricey leases in nearby Williamsburg, they’ve since secured a 660 square-foot studio in Gowanus, a fast-changing precinct closer to the East River that’s seen their plans take shape. So far, the Gowanus space, which is dotted with communal farmhouse tables, shelves holding the latest issues of N + 1 and the New Yorker and a vintage couch, ideal for swapping story ideas or collaborating on new projects, has played host to a series of readings and writing workshops. The space, which counts around 25 members who write about everything from culture and business to politics, also recreates some of the energy of a newsroom — a rare commodity given a 2015 Niemen Lab survey found that full-time journalism jobs have dropped 10.9 percent since 2014.
“If you’re a freelancer, you’re never in the same room with other freelance writers and for us that was the most important thing,” Kyle explains. “But we also do different kinds of programming from pitch meetings, where people talk about their story ideas or how to approach a particularly problem they’re having. We also have readings — last week, we hosted a book launch for my friend Larissa Pham and we also hold a reading series called Difficult to Name, which is run by a writer Ryan Sartor. This gets more people into the space and makes it seem like a real community.”
Study Hall is one in a string of new co-working spaces that are less interested in providing a one-size-fits all approach for freelancers than they are in meeting niche industry needs. In June 2016, Fuigo, a space devoted to nurturing interior designers and providing them with access to resources, software and networks sprang up on New York’s Park Avenue, San Francisco’s La Cocina caters to low-income food entrepreneurs and EdSpace in London’s Hackney houses freelance workers working to transform the education sector.
For Kyle, who says that it’s important to keep Study Hall affordable and accessible for its target demographic, industry-specific spaces signal the ways in which self-employment has evolved over the past few years. Part of the challenge, though, is creating a collective of like-minded workers while preserving the autonomy that makes freelancing such a compelling path.
“I feel like co-working started as a tech thing but it’s increasingly become about providing civic infrastructure and helping freelancers operate their businesses well,” he laughs. “But then it becomes question of: are you an advocate or is it more about providing a service? When it comes to writers whenever you go one way, everyone tends to go the other way. It’s a little bit like herding cats.”