Freelancing Through Upheaval

The following post first appeared in the March/April 2017 edition of Quill, the bi-monthly magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. 

Upheaval, by definition, uproots. Practices and institutions that that once felt secure suddenly seem flimsy. Even if you didn’t like them to begin with, you may find yourself wishing for them again, for the familiarity. Upheaval, by its nature, isolates.

When in doubt: flowers. I try to keep a fresh bouquet in my office year-round. It elevates the mood of what can otherwise be a lonely room. (photo © Hilary Niles)

Independent journalists work in a constant state of upheaval: We work without roots, often alone. Rewards abound for the risks we take. Yet freelancing through the current upheaval amid Pres. Donald Trump’s transition to the White House has thrown many for a loop.

Cara Strickland, a Spokane-based freelancer and former restaurant critic, writes mostly about food, drink and faith. For now. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to look back on during this time,” Strickland says. “I want to take time to write things that matter, to me as well as to the world.”

Strickland is in good company considering a shift in her mission. Trump’s election brought Hazel Becker out of retirement. For a few years, she’d taken only hourly editing clients. Now, Becker is back to freelance reporting, largely as a show of solidarity. “I have great respect for journalists who are persevering in the face of difficulties getting the information and access they need to do their jobs,” Becker says. “I want to stand with them as a professional journalist doing what we do in the best way we can, working under strict ethical standards that I have adhered to throughout my career.”

But beyond such existential dilemmas, despite snipes that undermine the press and aside from problematic access to government, freelance journalists in times of upheaval face our own logistical challenges by virtue of our location outside a newsroom.

A few of these challenges are outlined below, crowdsourced from two online freelance groups. They’re presented with solutions synthesized from the freelancers themselves; my experience; insights from freelance journalist and writing coach Rebecca Weber; and advice from Raymond Joseph, a veteran reporter from South Africa since 1974, who recently joined Weber for a webcast interview about “Freelancing in the era of Trump.”

1. Editors’ inboxes have morphed into black holes through which only the highest-profile, heaviest-hitting, urgently breaking scoops survive.

With much at stake and news flying furiously, editors are struggling to keep up, too. As always, follow up on your pitches, and consider editors’ needs. Most are not likely to assign high-profile political stories to freelancers, Ray Joseph cautions. That’s especially true for contractors an editor has not worked with before. Plus, newsroom resources may have been re-arranged to handle the current onslaught.

So, pivot. Instead of breaking news, illuminate the implications of pending policy changes. Explain what it means that federal uncertainty is leaving states and businesses in limbo. Hit the streets and work social media to find human stories — then tell them from the bottom up, Joseph advises. This reporting is harder for newsrooms to devote their resources to, when top-down news is so consuming. Fill that gap.

2. There’s no market for light features.

This may be true, particularly for certain outlets or specific beats. But anticipate “Trump fatigue” and pitch accordingly — whether it’s a fresh angle on current events, or an unrelated story to offer momentary escape or rejuvenation.

3. I’ve never done this type of reporting before.

As Cara Strickland says, the current political and social upheaval feels like everyone’s beat right now. “I’ve read amazing pieces lately from people who I know as food or relationships or faith writers,” she says.

This may work for certain topics or in essay form, but be cautious of wading casually into political or policy reporting. If you decide to branch out in this direction, do so systematically: Read widely, source carefully and contextualize fully to avoid getting played and inadvertently misleading your audience. Then when it comes to pitching, be picky. You want to work with reputable editors you trust — not those who are learning the beat alongside you.

Ray Joseph also offers logistical advice for American reporters who may be unfamiliar with reporting through upheaval. First: hone your verification skills. “Don’t rush in to be first,” he says. “No one’s going to remember who was first … but they’ll remember that you were wrong.” Joseph recommends FirstDraftNews.com as a repository of training resources.

He also suggests anticipating your editor’s concerns about verification by demonstrating rigor in your submission. Embed links to source materials; include footnotes to say how you know what you know; be open with your editor about your sourcing and reporting process. Such protocols may be familiar to investigative reporters, but in this era of skepticism amid alternative facts and fake news, they should be adopted by all.

4. Reporting through upheaval is stressful.

Responses to my inquiry show that upheaval’s toll on freelancers is multifaceted. Ubiquitous uncertainty complicates many business considerations (about health insurance, where to live) and throws a wrench in our pitching routines. For those in the thick of presidential and policy reporting, the heightened stress and emotional impact of many stories can be severely draining.

Self-care to stay strong for the long-haul becomes essential. Look for inspiration in great reporting from turbulent times throughout history and around the world. This includes communities close to you whose longstanding challenges you may only just be learning to recognize.

Also, carefully tend to the business side of your reporting. There’s no sense adding financial woes to an already stressful situation.

Most important: Resist isolation. SPJ’s Freelance Community is one of several vibrant online forums where independent journalists around the world share resources, celebrate successes and help each other through tricky situations.

Freelancing is lonely enough. Don’t try it alone.