In early March, as things started shutting down in New York, I was worried.
I’m a full-time freelancer. My income is volatile. I pay several hundred dollars a month for health insurance and get no sick days. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, I wouldn’t have qualified for unemployment benefits should I lose work or get sick.
I’ve long associated a full-time job with stability, health insurance and a guaranteed paycheck. Having watched as Vice, Conde Nast, Vox, BuzzFeed and media outlets around the world have cut jobs, slashed salaries, instituted furloughs and shut down, I see that I was wrong. Freelance life is volatile, but so is full-time life in journalism. The New York Times estimates 28,000 people working staff jobs in media have been laid off, furloughed or seen pay cuts as a result of the pandemic.
If I had one full-time job right now, I’d be worried about losing it. Instead, I have about a dozen part-time jobs.
I’ve lost a few gigs over the past several weeks, but I’ve also added new ones and am always looking for new projects. I still have about a dozen clients, and I know it would be incredibly unlikely to lose all of them at the exact same time.
As a freelancer during the pandemic, I’ve felt more empowered and secure than I expected. But I’ve had to pivot.
Last year, about half my freelance income came from travel writing. I went on safari in Africa, learned how to roll cigars in Cuba, climbed a glacier in Alaska and wrote long weekend guides to cities I love. I would have been researching travel stories in Europe right now if not for COVID-19.
Now, I’m doing more audience development work and writing more about business and economics, topics I covered during the Great Recession.
Because I have a few different lines of business — travel writing, business journalism, journalism training and audience development — and transferable skills, I feel professionally diversified.
Don’t get me wrong, things have definitely slowed down and my projected income has slipped. There are days when I freak out and have to remind myself to focus on other things that need my attention, as Jen Mizgata, the Online News Association’s director of programs, wrote for Fortune.
She recommends taking inventory of clients who may have work down the line, updating contacts and brainstorming about future projects and potential collaborators. This is one of the best bits of advice a freelancer — or recently laid off journalist — can take.
I’m not expecting new travel assignments any time soon, but I know people aren’t going to stay off the road forever. Down the line, I’d like to write stories about getting back to travel. I don’t know what this would look like or who I would pitch, but I’ve got time to invest in figuring it out.
Pandemic advice for freelancers
- If you’re just getting started, check out studyhall.xyz. For $4 a month, members get a weekly roundup of editors looking for freelance pitches and access to a listserv where members talk about everything from publication guidelines to chasing down late payments. Facebook and Slack groups that cater to your beat or region are other good places to look for freelance opportunities.
- Think about who you know. This is where the work you’ve put into maintaining your networks over time can really pay off. Reach out to your networks to find out about their needs and projects you may be able to help them execute. Let people know you’re looking for work.
- Make the most of what you know. Is there an immediate need for coverage of an area that is or was once your beat? Are their industries that need strong communicators in crisis? These could be great freelance opportunities.
- Be proactive when seeking work. Not all freelance opportunities are advertised. Identify immediate needs for which your work is a solution. Make a strong pitch and be clear why you are the best person for the work.
- Be intentional in the way you invest your time. Today’s free time can become the foundation of tomorrow’s dream job. I’m spending mine learning about search engine optimization and looking to pitch the kinds of stories I want to add to my portfolio.
- Self-employed people are eligible to apply for pandemic unemployment. This is a safety net we’ve never had access to before. If you lose work, apply. Remember, your freelance earnings could lower the amount of support you receive.
Meena Thiruvengadam is a freelance writer, audience development consultant and journalism trainer. She is a graduate of the Poynter-ONA Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and led teams at Bloomberg News and Business Insider. She got her start as a local newspaper reporter covering a night police beat in Texas.