While nearly every industry is facing layoffs due to the coronavirus epidemic, journalism is bearing a particular brunt. The New York Times estimated in April that 36,000 workers at news outlets had been laid off, or had their positions reduced, since the beginning of the outbreak. Legacy publications and new media alike have slashed their rosters, and national and local outlets are being forced to make difficult decisions about who will stay, and who will go.
But as dire as these figures are, they fail to provide a complete picture of the devastation to the industry, because they fail to account for freelance journalists, many of whom have seen their livelihoods vanish overnight, and who do not have unemployment and other protections.
The true cost to journalism is much greater.
One only has to look at the recent articles bemoaning media layoffs to see a disturbing trend: Nearly none account for freelance journalists or contractors.
The New York Times article makes no mention of freelance or contract workers, on which the New York Times, like so many outlets, has relied, particularly in the higher-risk foreign assignments.
In its media layoff round-up list, Forbes — which has long relied on unpaid “contributors” to fill its content — makes a nod to freelance budgets being slashed at just one outlet.
When the impact to freelancers is mentioned, it’s told through the perspective of a few journalists, as in this CNN article which fails to mention that last year, CNN told their freelancers that they wouldn’t be paid until 90 days after invoice, which is typically after publication.
To report on freelance journalism, and journalists properly, media outlets would have to contend with their own relationships with their freelancers, their complicity in the current state of the news media, and how the erosion of salaries, employer-paid health insurance, unemployment insurance, formal employment networks and other protections have placed these journalists at unprecedented risk during the coronavirus epidemic.
Despite this, many freelance journalists are still reporting, albeit without the protective gear and crew that staff journalists would have, in similar situations, for the pennies on the word pay many will receive for their work. Or worse, they’re expected to provide it themselves, out of pocket, if they’re able to find a place to buy it at all.
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But, as their work dries up and their safety nets fail, they have neither quit nor been fired; and so, when it comes to the toll of the coronavirus on our profession, they are simply … not counted.
There are no solid figures for how many people are currently working as freelance journalists, nor are there any for how many of them are now out of work. Two surveys conducted by the Freelancers Union of their members in March (5,247 respondents) and April (3,163 respondents) found that 80% of respondents who self-identified as journalists had lost work by end of April, whether that’s having pending contracts canceled or in-progress work being halted, while only 67% reported having lost work a month prior, at end of March. 51% of journalists who responded to the survey in April reported having lost more than $5,000 in income since the crisis began. Journalists represented 13% of the survey respondents.
While this measures a fraction of the work lost, it’s impossible to measure work never attained — the articles not assigned, the pitches not responded to, the work that never materialized, the fellowships and grants canceled — because of the coronavirus.
Study Hall, an online media community that offers resources for freelancers, has compiled an ongoing list of outlets that have stopped commissioning freelance work; those that are still commissioning, albeit on a restricted basis; or have reduced their rates.
To those not familiar with the freelance journalism industry, the list of commissioning outlets can be misleading. As someone with a decade of freelance experience, an expansive network and a strong portfolio of legacy bylines and fellowships, I, too, have recently, and frequently, had pitches rejected by many of the outlets on the list, even before the crisis. This is part of the hustle of being a freelance journalist.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, however, I have seen six months of assignments, speaking engagements and trips vanish because the things I was meant to be reporting on, like conference and lectures, and field-based reporting, were suspended indefinitely. Laboriously-crafted grant applications have been rendered moot after funding rounds have been canceled or suspended indefinitely. Returned emails are a rarity, even from editors with whom I’ve worked, and rejections are so frequent, they’re becoming demoralizing. Four months in, there’s no telling when, if ever, my normal workload will resume.
I’m not alone.
Whether due to the recent coronavirus pandemic or years of being slowly, steadily squeezed out by shrinking rates; overburdened and unresponsive editors; staff layoffs that create new freelance competition; or pay that comes too late to pay rent, or not at all, many freelance journalists and media professionals are finding our profession simply too untenable to pursue. And there’s no way to measure the toll on our mental health that this all can take.
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For 10 years, I have supported myself entirely on freelance work, usually journalism, without the trust funds or wealthy spouses that so many writers confess are the secrets to their financial success. During those 10 years, I have been punched in the face in Northern Ireland, have reported while gunfire rang out in Congo, have learned only when safely out of a refugee camp in Jordan that I had been close to a bombing, and most recently, was exposed to the coronavirus while on a story.
I’ve accepted $300 for a 2,500-word investigation that took me two years to complete because three outlets folded under me in the course of reporting it, and I needed it to be placed so I could sleep at night. For a yearlong investigation, I was paid $350 at a legacy outlet (now also laying off staff), but was required to buy errors and omissions insurance for $500 and sign a contract that I would pay the outlet’s legal fees if we were sued. I was later told that the story, subsidized by a fellowship, ultimately wouldn’t receive an award because “freelancers don’t fill tables at the awards gala.” My work has frequently been stolen and run with another byline, or reprinted without my permission or any additional pay, with a frequency that makes my blood boil.
Three years ago, I sold an article to The New York Times and was thrilled. We went through edits, had a publication-ready article … and the editor vanished. She ignored repeated emails and phone calls, and eight months later, she finally had a mutual acquaintance tell me to sell it elsewhere, without an explanation or a kill fee. I ultimately sold it to Pacific Standard, a great outlet that shuttered in 2019, (and has since had its archives purchased by Grist). I was paid $400. The process took over a year.
I have also, on occasion, been paid fairly, on time and worked with kind and generous editors. While these three things seldom happened simultaneously, like any bad relationship, those moments of grace kept bringing me back.
For 10 years, the slights and hardships paled when compared to the work. The long days and fretful nights, the risk, the worry — always the worry — paled when compared to the righteousness of it all; the dogged pursuit of the truth, the belief that I was telling stories that needed to be told, that might help people in some way, to understand each other, and the world around them, in a way they might not have before. I believed in it so fervently that I was willing to, and did, sacrifice a great deal: stability, traditional advancement, a job loved ones would more easily understand, and often, my own peace of mind.
That belief in the work is something that freelancers and staffers share, it binds those of us in the profession we love.
Yet, as freelance and staff journalists alike all sag under the weight of the burden on our industry, as we worry about work and rent and mortgages and kids, as we believe so firmly in the necessity of reporting that some of us do it for free during the crisis, many freelance journalists are being ignored by the very news outlets that relied upon us for years.
When the crisis has passed, and our profession begins to dust itself off and rebuild, the real toll of the damage that’s been done will never fully be counted.
Molly McCluskey is an award-winning freelance foreign correspondent and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and many more. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey.