How freelance journalists adapted to make it through 2020

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Professional pivots, new projects, less travel, fresh opportunities: Five freelancers share how they managed the ups and downs of a chaotic year

By: Molly McCluskey, Poynter

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.

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