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Freelancers are at the core of journalism as we know it. But as the COVID-19 pandemic leads to budget cuts at almost every level, freelancers are struggling to find work. Without the support of an organization behind them, many freelancers have become responsible for their own safety and wellbeing, at a time when both are being threatened.
How can freelancers respond and adapt to this crisis? How can they resume work or use this time to invest in their professional development? What discussions are newsrooms having about the future of freelancing and what are commissioning editors looking for?
Independent journalist and filmmaker Zoe Flood spoke with Melissa Noel, an independent multimedia journalist, and Marc Perkins, the managing editor for BBC Africa Eye, about the state of freelancing during a panel on Tuesday. The panel was organized by ICFJ, the International Women’s Media Foundation, ACOS Alliance, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the Frontline Freelance Register.
- Noel, who has been covering issues relating to the Caribbean region, has shifted her coverage to domestic issues in the United States due to being grounded in the pandemic. “I think that wherever you are really looking, pay attention to what the pulse is. 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.”
- Perkins said that his team has managed to stay in full production while relying solely on freelancers covering both COVID and non-COVID topics. “I think there’s going to be corona(virus) fatigue and people are going to want to look at other things. Now I'm definitely looking for other projects that are not directly linked to, you know, just reporting on COVID.”
On economic shocks
- Perkins admits that while freelancing is a turbulent position to have at the time, it’s no different that it usually is. Instead, he said it’s just amplified during the economic instability felt in every other sector as well. To combat this personal instability, Perkins suggests having more than one income stream, freelancing with a handful of organizations and having multiple skillsets (such as the ability to teach or host trainings) for when commission periods are slow.
- Noel adds to this point that, “It's really important as freelancers, you have to really think about yourself as a business and thinking about yourself as a business is how to make money in other ways.”
- Flood followed up on Noel’s point, adding that working on professional development or 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,” she 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
- “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. Crediting her multimedia skills, Noel also mentioned that the reason she’s been able to pivot to different needs of editors is being able to adapt for each job.
- Flood also emphasizes the mobility in skillset but adds, “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.”
- “Now is the time to reach out to more commissioning editors and if you have some down time, involuntary or not, now is also the time to research and look at commissioners across the globe,” Perkins said. “And you’ve got to get your name out there. Freelancing is a fairly brutal game and you can't be quiet and shy, but also being persistent while polite with everybody you deal with is extremely important.”
- Perkins recommends pitching a full idea developed so the commissioner understands the research that has been done beforehand rather than just giving an 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. Perkins also admits that ideas that had been pitched pre-COVID have been altered (some more than others) in order to fit the reaction at the time.
- “I would add to that [that] 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. 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,” Noel said.
On safety considerations
- “I think one of my biggest concerns has been, you know, having personal protective equipment and also adjusting how you report,” Noel said, noting the example of having to sanitize her equipment more frequently as well as paying attention to the distance between herself and her interviewee.
“But I do understand that having access to those things is not the same for everyone, you know, based on where they work and where they live. 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.”
- In the case of freelancers in countries around the world, however, Perkins points out that the freelancers in areas deemed less safe, especially for journalists, are more likely to deal with long-term ramifications for their reporting by entities such as the government or other actors.
“I think it goes without saying that all employers, in general, if they can employ you, then they have responsibilities towards your safety. I think the most complicated thing for people managing freelancers is not around the operations. It’s the long term ramifications,” he said.
Regarding COVID though, Perkins admits that the biggest safety concern is making sure freelancers aren’t getting sick, which means providing protective gear as well as training on how to properly use that gear.
On the importance of freelancers
- “I think that the beauty of freelancing is that it gives you opportunities to go and do things you would never normally get to do if you're a staff member. I mean, the whole point of being a freelancer is you get a unique opportunity to change,” Perkins said.
- “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. And I think going forward, that's going to be even more crucial as we face other challenges,” Noel said.