I tend to think that the earlier in your career you are, the more difficult it is to make it as a freelancer. Mostly because freelance success is about speed and reputation and contacts, all of which tend to build up the more years you’ve been working. So you’re right that hunting for full-time jobs is probably the right path. My experience is that early-career jobs are almost never a perfect fit, but in some ways you can use that to your later advantage. I worked in DC (a city I hate) at a policy magazine (which doesn’t really interest me) for four years. I won’t say it was my dream job, but it gave me a lot of skills and knowledge and contacts. I wouldn’t rule out applying for less-than-perfect jobs. Think instead about the skills you want to build and knowledge you want to accrue, and when you consider each job listing, measure it against your high-level professional desires rather than focusing on how it isn’t a good match. I wasn’t interested in policy, but I was interested in learning how to edit a magazine, and I gained a ton of experience in that less-than-ideal job. Figure out how you’re a good fit for each of the job listings you read, and both to yourself and in your application, play up those aspects. Don’t dwell on the mismatches.
When I was fired from GOOD, I was in a very different career place than you are. I’d been working for 6+ years, had a lot of professional contacts, and was laid off along with all of my colleagues, which focused attention on our story and was, in its own way, a sort of advertisement that we were looking for new jobs. That attention is also how we were able to get Tomorrow funded. I’m fairly confident that if it had been just me who was fired, I wouldn’t have been able to do Tomorrow. And if I didn’t already have so much professional experience, I don’t think I could have made it as a freelancer.
I don’t say this to discourage you. You should focus on building up your personal network—make a list of the people you know professionally, both peers and former supervisors, people you’ve worked with formally and other journalists you know socially. Email each of those folks and ask for an intro to someone they know that you want to meet. Or maybe several someones. Find people who have the jobs you want and ask them to coffee. Ask them smart questions about their day-to-day professional dilemmas– this will help you understand the needs that these publications have. Because applying for jobs isn’t about you, or what you feel is a good fit. Editors do care about your personal career development to a certain extent, but mostly they’re trying to make their lives easier with each hire, and the sooner you know what publications need, you can try to be the one who meets those needs. Lower-level employees can help you understand more about what the editorial environment is like at different sorts of publications, and even if they aren’t the ones hiring, that can inform your views on how to sell yourself to other editors when you are formally applying or having coffee with them.
Also, so many of my big career leaps have come from my side projects. Feministing, the blog I wrote for in my spare time for 5 years, led directly to me getting that DC policy job because it showed I had a point of view and could articulate it. Real Talk from Your Editor, that silly GIF blog I made, really raised my profile within the industry. Tomorrow magazine’s funding model was sort of bullshit—we didn’t earn enough to pay ourselves anything close to a fair wage for the hours we worked—but sparked enough interest that I’ve gotten several well-paid speaking gigs talking about it. The point is, even things that don’t seem to have immediate payoff can have long-term positive career effects if they’re creative and engaging.
Try to use your free days to tap your best creative self. Do not roll up into a ball and cry— that is not a great way to keep yourself inspired and thinking fresh. Nobody wants to hire a journalist who is sad and bitter about being laid off and has no good ideas. I think you should try three things: 1) shore up your personal network–meet new people and don’t be shy about asking journalists you already know for specific advice or contacts, 2) look for the good in every reasonably job listing you see and think about how best to sell yourself to that publication– Ask yourself how the job could fit into your longterm goals even if it isn’t perfect, and how you can help the publication in areas where it’s currently falling short, and 3) find an awesome side project, something that resembles your dream job or some aspect of it, and do a financially feasible, small-scale version of it. Don’t ask for permission, just start a tumblr or a zine or a project. It’ll show editors that you’re enterprising and give you something to put on your resume beyond your day jobs.
Emailing me is a good step! Applause. Email lots of other people, too. But don’t be discouraged if you send a dozen other emails and don’t get a single reply. You’ll never get anywhere—especially as a journalist—if you can’t ask strangers for their time and attention. No matter where you land your next job, and the job after that, you’ll probably be in this position again someday. So best to hone all these skills now, and think about this stuff all the time, even when you are full-time employed. The longer you’ve been a working journalist, the easier it gets.
Best of luck to you. You can do it!