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How are freelance journalists faring during COVID-19? We asked around.

How are freelance journalists faring during COVID-19? We asked around.

Picture of Giles Bruce
(Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

As part of its “You Asked, We Answered” series, the Center for Health Journalism has been asking journalists what questions they have about reporting on COVID-19. This week's question: How can freelancers effectively report on the pandemic without the resources that journalists in newsrooms often have?

In late February, Jared Whitlock told his Southern California newspaper he was quitting to become a full-time freelancer.

Then a global pandemic happened.

Despite the economic fall-out from COVID-19, however, the San Diego-based journalist tells me he’s had a steady stream of work over the past several months.

“I hate to say it. It’s bad to say it, but the timing was pretty good,” he said of his move to freelancing. “In a weird and dark way, it’s a good time to be a health reporter.”

He says he misses the daily interactions with an editor, to bounce ideas back and forth, but otherwise his career transition has gone smoothly.

“I already worked for a pretty small newsroom,” said Whitlock, who wrote for the San Diego Business Journal. “I’m kind of scrappy, basically.”

While the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus has caused gigs to dry up for some freelancers, those who focus on health have had more work than they have time for. As a freelance reporter who specializes in health news, this is in line with what I’ve experienced: Some of my more general assignments went away early in the pandemic, but my health-related jobs have picked up.

But challenges remain for independent journalists trying to report on COVID-19.

“Sometimes I envy the resources newsrooms have, when they have the best data teams and can go after a big story,” Katherine Kam, a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, told me. “I have to admit I’m envious when I look at stories and there’s four or five bylines on there and at the end there are multiple other reporters contributing.”

But Kam has been working on her own for decades and has established relationships with several editors and publications. Their social media teams sometimes help her find sources.

She said she also has an advantage because she has long written about health and medicine. “I hate to say it. It’s just been a huge leg up,” she said. “I think every health reporter I know has been really, really busy with coronavirus stories.”

We want to hear your questions about covering COVID-19 — ask your question here!  

 

Still, early on, she had to switch the focus of stories that had already been commissioned. For her 2020 California Fellowship project for the Center for Health Journalism, she’d planned to write about the impacts of domestic violence on Asian American families. But after COVID-19 lockdowns hit, she didn’t believe she’d be able to effectively tell that story without interviewing her subjects in person. So instead she’s been reporting on the mental health crisis brought on by the coronavirus.

Mason Adams, a freelancer in southwestern Virginia, has even had to go back and re-report articles that he’d already written, like one about the 2020 Virginia state legislative session.

“The pandemic was starting to hit in the very closing days (of the session),” he told me. “By the time I had submitted my story, that had completely changed the picture of what happened in state government.”

While he doesn’t exclusively focus on health news, he has reported on rural hospitals in the past, so that experience helped when he wrote about how they’ve been struggling to survive during COVID-19. Still, he said he’s had to learn a lot about the business of health care on the fly, which is made even more arduous because the area he covers — Appalachia — encompasses multiple states, each with their own set of laws and regulations. The details for how these hospitals will get federal coronavirus relief is also constantly changing.

Adams said it’s sometimes been more challenging to find sources during lockdowns. He used to venture out to hospitals but now has to go through public relations people, which he says can be limiting. Sources often aren’t in their offices, and can be harder to reach by email.

Since he quit his last newspaper job more than seven years ago, he has adapted to workingalone. But COVID-19 has made it more difficult than usual. 

“Freelancing is already sort of an isolating experience, especially when you’re in a rural community like I am,” he said. “During the pandemic that’s intensified even more, with physical and social distancing. Some of the emotional ups and downs are easier to navigate in a newsroom setting.”

He tries to stay connected, either through Facebook groups or by corresponding with former colleagues, which lately, he says, has taken the form of long-form email conversations.

Another thing he misses from his newspaper days is having access to archives that aren’t always available online.

He’s not alone. Brenda Gazzar, a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles, told me she wishes she had newsroom tools like LexisNexis and Pacer. But she’s got around that by finding less- expensive options — like WhitePages.com — or having the news organization she’s writing for look up information for her.

At times, she finds herself longing for the camaraderie of her pre-freelancing career.

“I do miss working in a newsroom. You run into people and share what you’re working on, and they have ideas and sources for you. Everybody’s a wealth of information,” she said. “It’s spontaneous, communal, more organic. I do have to make a little bit of effort to reach out to people now that I’m a freelancer. People may be a little less likely to share resources with me, since I’m not full time on the team.”

Gazzar is also participating in the 2020 California Fellowship and had to switch up her project — from investigating deaths at group homes to examining COVID-19’s toll on L.A. County nursing
homes — but hasn’t experienced some of the issues, such as a drop in pay for gigs, that some of her freelancer friends have.

“I’ve actually had people still wanting me to produce (stories), and I couldn’t do it because I was working on that project,” she said. “I’ve actually had to accept less freelance work.”

Carolyn Crist, a Georgia freelancer who specializes in health and medicine, says she lost some business at the beginning of the pandemic. But after reading a blog post suggesting that freelance writers reach out to all their clients right away, she landed gigs that have kept her busy ever since.

“I went from being panicked to now having too much work,” she said. “A large number of people have lost a lot of work and haven’t been able to recover. Some people — I would assume the
health writers — have more work than they did before the pandemic.”

She said she also knows some California freelance journalists whose opportunities have been limited by the state’s AB 5 law, which says that freelancers who submit 35 or more pieces to a given news outlet must be considered part- or full-time employees.

But Crist has kept busy.

“A lot of us have found that as coronavirus news continues, we continue to do a lot of work and are even reaching burnout, as I am,” she said, but added that she still enjoys the flexibility, independence and variety that comes with being a freelance journalist (I second that).

“Freelancing — this is what I am meant to be doing.”

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