|Above, journalists adopting precautionary measures to protect against COVID-19 during a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 15, 2020. Photo: UN Geneva, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.|
Freelance Files: Freelancing in the Time of Coronavirus
By Karen Schaefer
Freelancers are at the heart of journalism today, including environmental journalism, where within the Society of Environmental Journalists, for instance, they represent nearly one-third of the membership.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to budget cuts in many news media, freelancers may be struggling to find work. And without the support of an organization behind them, many freelancers are now responsible for their own safety and wellbeing at a time when both are being threatened.
So how can freelancers respond and adapt to this crisis?
That was the question behind a recent webinar, “COVID-19’s Effects on Freelancing — and Its Future,” organized by the International Center for Journalists, the International Women’s Media Foundation, ACOS Alliance, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and the Frontline Freelance Register.
Webinar host Zoe Flood, a veteran British independent journalist and filmmaker, joined American freelance multimedia journalist Melissa Noel and Marc Perkins, managing editor for BBC Africa Eye, for a frank discussion on the state of freelancing during the pandemic.
Here are some key takeaways from the panel.
On finding stories: Pay attention to the pulse
Noel normally covers issues relating to the Carribean. But with travel no longer an option, she quickly switched her focus to domestic issues in the United States impacted by the pandemic from her home in New York.
“I think that wherever you are really looking, pay attention to what the pulse is,” advised Noel. “What are commissioning editors looking for at that time? How are things changing? What is the call for? And seeing where you can fit into that or even bring that unique sense of specificity of what you cover.”
BBC’s Perkins, speaking from his home office in London, said his team has managed to stay in full production while relying solely on freelancers covering both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 topics. He suggested that freelancers consider pitching non-coronavirus stories.
“I think there’s going to be corona(virus) fatigue and people are going to want to look at other things,” said Perkins. “Now I'm definitely looking for other projects that are not directly linked to, you know, just reporting on COVID.”
On staying afloat: Seek multiple income streams
Perkins acknowledged that freelancing is an economic challenge even in normal times. But the pandemic has amplified a freelancer’s normal economic woes.
To combat this personal instability, Perkins suggested having more than one income stream, freelancing with several organizations and developing new skill sets, such as teaching or hosting training sessions, when new commissions are slow in coming.
Flood, who has focused most of her reporting on sub-Saharan Africa, agreed with Perkins. She said adding multiple streams of income “is something that freelancers should be doing regardless of the situation, because it’s something that you can do to protect yourself against shocks, economic shocks or professional shocks.
“Especially as a freelancer, your situation is more fragile,” Flood said. “I think it’s worth it if you’re not very busy with work at the moment, to sort of consider those options and how to develop those income strands, those backup options, those opportunities to create a cushion for yourself.”
On professional development: Acquire new skills
How do you acquire the new skill sets to help generate new revenue streams?
Flood pointed out that, right now, everything is online, including webinars and seminars where you can learn basic skills, like capturing and editing visuals.
“You don’t have to buy a camera. You have a camera on your phone and you can learn the grammar of TV, the way that stories are constructed visually,” Flood suggested.
‘[Y]ou've got to get your name out there.
Freelancing is a fairly brutal game
and you can't be quiet and shy.’
— Marc Perkins, managing editor
BBC Africa Eye
Noel credited her multimedia skills as one reason she has been able to pivot to the different needs of new editors. But she also suggested there are ways to pay for developing new skill sets that may also come with added benefits.
“I would say right now, one of my suggestions would be applying for fellowships or applying to grant funding to different organizations, because not only will you have to really zero in on what it is you’re trying to report on, but you’ll really get down to what you want to do,” Noel said.
Perkins chimed in with a different tack. He said now is the time to take risks and reach out to global news media you may never have considered before.
“And you’ve got to get your name out there,” Perkins said. “Freelancing is a fairly brutal game and you can’t be quiet and shy.”
On pitching stories: Send fuller ideas
How do you pitch during a pandemic?
Perkins suggested carefully studying the media where you want to sell your story, and pitching a fully developed idea.
“If you search really well and you say, ‘Yes, the program I’m pitching or the idea I’m pitching is similar or fits in with that program,’ you end with a much better chance,” he said.
Noel agreed. “I work for about five different news organizations at any given time, both television and digital, and that’s the message I’ve also been getting from my editors.”
She added “Now is the time that we want to start looking at other stories, so they may be COVID-adjacent, but more so looking at impact.”
On protecting your health: Be extra cautious
While some print journalists may be able to do much of their reporting using telephone, Skype or Zoom interviews, it’s often still important to get out in the field and see what’s happening with your own eyes.
For multimedia journalists like Noel, going to where the action is taking place is crucial to her storytelling. “I think one of my biggest concerns has been, you know, having personal protective equipment and also adjusting how you report,” Noel said.
She said she’s been extra cautious about sanitizing her equipment and being aware of the distance between herself and her interviewee.
But Noel added there have been some assignments she wasn’t prepared to take: “So for me, my safety has to come first. … I have turned down assignments where I felt like my health may be at risk because of the nature of it or where I might be at that point in time.”
Perkins suggested that freelancers could include the costs of personal protective gear and supplies in their fee for an assignment. But he cautioned that news media outlets should be aware of their obligations to keep freelancers safe by providing protective gear and training on how to use it.
“I think it goes without saying that all employers, in general, if they can employ you, then they have responsibilities towards your safety,” Perkins said.
On the future of freelancing: Freelancers more crucial than ever
Flood, Noel and Perkins agreed that freelance opportunities are not likely to disappear when the pandemic is past. If anything, said Noel, the need for freelancers may grow.
“Now, more than ever, freelancers are really crucial, especially where the fact that a newsroom reporter or a news team cannot be everywhere, so we get to be those eyes and ears,” Noel said.
“And I think going forward, that’s going to be even more crucial as we face other challenges.”
Additional resources for pandemic reporting
- ACOS Alliance
- Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
- Frontline Freelance Register
- International Center for Journalists
- SEJ Freelance Library
- SEJ's COVID-19 Resources for Journalists
Karen Schaefer is a freelance journalist and independent radio producer based in Oberlin, Ohio, who focuses her environmental reporting on Lake Erie issues. She is editor of SEJournal’s Freelance Files column. Contact her with story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.