Journalists become freelancers for a host of reasons. Sometimes they want to dedicate their careers to stories they truly care about. Or they want to manage their own schedule and not have a boss to report to. For most, the autonomy and independence of freelancing outweigh the job insecurity.
But what happens when a global pandemic reveals the cracks in an already disrupted industry? With commissioning budgets slashed and projects cancelled, how can freelance journalists look into the future with optimism?
We surveyed 20 freelance journalists to get their steer on how the pandemic had affected their careers. The survey is ongoing so if you are a freelancer, you can share your experience here.
‘I almost gave up’
More than 60 per cent of our respondents said that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their work. As a consequence, some have taken up other jobs to pay the bills and a handful of journalists even said they considered to quit freelancing for good.
“I have applied for 50-60 jobs and had one interview, with a second face-to-face interview delayed due to the third lockdown,” says Alex Seftel, a freelance broadcast journalist.
One issue that has been made even worse by the pandemic is late payments from media companies, which only exacerbated the financial pressure on freelancers. The most popular strategy seems to be spreading the risks and work with a variety of clients.
“Don’t take on assignments if media houses are not forthcoming on payments,” says Zimbabwe-based journalist Nqobile Bhebhe.
While the economic downturn has meant fewer commissions and income for many journalists, those who specialise in topics like health and finances have experienced the opposite effect.
One of those is Lily Canter, a UK-based freelance journalist and the co-host of the Freelancing for Journalists podcast, who saw commissions coming in since March and has been able to explore new income streams.
“I’ve seen great demand for the subjects I cover. There have been lots of opportunities to try new things and monetise them like podcasting and hosting webinars.”
An opportunity for growth
If necessity is the mother of invention, a crisis has the capacity to teach you some hard life lessons pretty quickly.
Fiji-based multimedia content producer Lice Movono learned that having a financial system that forces clients to pay as soon as the work is done was the only way she could put food on the table, and this was a common thread through the survey. Resilience and adaptability were the most often-cited qualities that helped freelancers to keep their heads above water during the pandemic.
Despite the hardship, those who have diversified their skillsets have discovered new sources of income.
When author and tech journalist Neil C. Hughes lost a magazine column and was unable to travel to events and conferences, he branched out into podcast production and explainer videos, gaining 15 new clients.
“I would advise freelancers to invest time positioning themselves as an expert in their niche. It takes time and commitment, there are no shortcuts, but hard work always pays off in the end,” he says.
The upside to the pivot to remote working is that most freelancers did not experience a culture shock. They are long accustomed to working from kitchen tables and bedrooms.
The challenge, according to UK-based climate correspondent Alessandro Vitelli, came through innovating some aspects of his working life to keep up with the changing nature of freelancing.
“A strong and varied client base is your best protection. Some clients have reduced their commissioning, others have kept the same. Shifting the focus of your work can leverage these changes,” he adds.
Jenny Stallard, founder of Freelance Feels, moved out of the city, which helped her to clarify her long-term priorities.
“Being unable to work magazine shifts (due to move but also pandemic) has ‘forced’ me to shift what I do, and it’s been a blessing in disguise,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic is often described as a once-in-a-lifetime event but it is not so long ago the economy has suffered a major shock; the financial markets crash in 2008 had a similar effect on the publishing sector and the freelancing work in particular.
Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, a crisis can – and will – happen again. So we asked our respondents what advice they would give to other freelancers who may face uncertainty in the future.
We saw three main themes: strengthen your networks, diversify your revenue streams, specialise in a particular field, and take care of your mental health.
“Find a network of people in the same position as you. There are lots of good channels out there on social media where you can speak with like-minded people who can give good advice, be a sounding board and introduce you to new opportunities,” says journalist and editor John Crowley.
Freelance work can be isolating at the best of times, however even more so now with coronavirus restrictions in place. Many journalists have remarked that solidarity has helped to retain some sense of normality.
“I don’t want to give up on a career I love and have put a lot of time and energy into building. Resilience is everything,” says London based Chantelle Pattemore.
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