December 16, 2020

Many freelancers had high hopes for 2020.

We entered the year armed with strategic plans, outlets we wanted to conquer, grants queued up for exotic reporting abroad, and new side projects just gaining steam.

Then the pandemic hit.

For those of us who had planned to spend months abroad, or whose living situations were suddenly upended by travel bans and quarantine orders, the year brought not only professional challenges but personal ones, too. Many freelancing parents who suddenly had to become full-time teachers, coaches, IT support and tutors for their children found the demands of maintaining a fluctuating workload too difficult to juggle, and stepped back from work altogether.

Formally diagnosed or not, several of us had what we and our doctors suspect was COVID-19 — causing even more challenges as we navigated a career that doesn’t provide paid leave or health insurance or deadlines that can be put off until we’re recovered. And as outlets laid off staff, and their freelance budgets shrank, and more journalists competed for fewer assignments while juggling personal, professional, and physical and mental health challenges, all of us felt the toll.

Mythili Sampathkumar, a freelance journalist, editor, copywriter, and consultant based in New York City, is adept at surviving as a freelancer in New York. She entered the year with reporting trips and contract work lined up and felt optimistic about the year ahead.

In the span of 10 days, Sampathkumar lost approximately 70% of her income for the year due to pandemic budget cuts. She also had a mild case of what she believes was COVID-19. With the help of one steady client and relief grants from journalism organizations, she was able to weather the worst of it.

“Once I got back on my feet physically and mentally and we realized this pandemic would drag on, I had to change strategies. I pursued copywriting gigs much more and set my rates higher without being unrealistic,” Sampathkumar said. “I also picked up research and administrative work as well; bylines aren’t as important as contributing to good work for me.

“I’m certainly not struggling in terms of income but ultimately what the year pushed me to do is apply for full-time jobs in and adjacent to journalism. The uncertainty about what comes after 2020 was just too much.”

That uncertainty was something that Tatiana Walk-Morris, an independent journalist and content writer based in Chicago, felt as well. While she didn’t have to dip into her savings, she did spend a lot of time cooking and doing client outreach in the early months of the pandemic as the industry contracted. She lost a family member to COVID-19 and had another family member who suffered a health issue.

“It was hard to balance and stay productive, managing different projects, when there was also so much going on personally,” she said. “Somehow, I managed to keep my business going and save myself.”

For Walk-Morris, the year of the pandemic and racial unrest reminded her of the importance of the work — and the need to allow for rest. She’s planning to take some time off around the holidays to enter 2021 with the imperativeness that propelled her through 2020.

“But 2020 reminded me of my sense of urgency. It’s important that I contribute to conversations we’re having in a meaningful way,” Walk-Morris said. “We are first-draft historians and this year reminded me of the importance of getting out there and telling stories that need to be told.”

Wudan Yan’s year began with a nascent coaching business and a new podcast, The Writers’ Co-Op, which she started with fellow freelancer Jenni Gritters. The Seattle-based journalist already had a fairly diversified income stream that included copywriting, institutional writing and journalism, and it helped her navigate the tides of 2020, even doubling her freelance income over the year. Though she had several field assignments lined up that were canceled as the pandemic took root, Yan discovered something unexpected.

“2020 taught me how much more profitable it can be not to travel, and instead sit at your desk and multitask all day,” she says. “When you’re doing fieldwork, you’re only working on that project.”

Staying in place brought Los Angeles-based journalist Lucy Sherriff some new perspective, too. She started looking closer to home when several of her international reporting trips were canceled. “Not being able to travel, I’ve found amazing, local stories I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said.

Sherriff is in the U.S. on a visa and her eligibility for unemployment insurance was a “grey area,” she said. When an editor she knew reached out with work, in a move echoed by many of us, the long-form investigative journalist didn’t hesitate to start churning out quick-hit, breaking news pieces, even though it ultimately burned her out. “It was exhausting work, but basically, it saved me,” she said. “I just had to do whatever I had to do to stay afloat.”

Doing whatever she needed to do put Sherriff on sound footing as the year ends. So much so, she noted, “I made more money this year as a freelancer than I did as an editor at Huff Post after six years.”

I entered 2020 at home in California, in the middle of several investigations for a fellowship that had me traveling the full length of the U.S.-Mexico border. After a year of personal, professional and health challenges, I’m ending it on the other side of the country from where I started, in Washington, D.C., where I arrived in July after a mid-pandemic, cross-country road trip, with one suitcase and a two-month plan.

I’m entering 2021 with a new book, a few pitches waiting on editors’ desks, a contract for another book waiting on mine, and a new appreciation that any, or all, or none of this, could come to fruition. I don’t know what the world will look this time next year, or where I’ll be, or what our industry will throw at us. I don’t know if, in 12 months’ time, I’ll even still be a journalist.

None of us can say for sure. But one way or another, 2020 reminded each of us that we’ll figure it out. We’ll adapt. We’ll slow down when we have to and hustle harder if need be. We’ll come up with new ideas, find new opportunities or create them, lean on each other, and pivot and rebound.

Because if freelancers could make it through 2020, we can handle whatever comes next.

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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,…
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