What do you do when you see a crisis coming?
Freelance journalists have, for a long time, gathered online or sought one another out to talk, vent and swap intelligence about work. In mid-March, as lockdown measures were introduced in Europe and beyond in response to the coronavirus pandemic, freelancers rang alarm bells about their livelihoods. From cuts and halts to freelance budgets to shuttered clients and cancelled events, many shared stories of how work opportunities had disappeared overnight in the wake of COVID-19.
Freelancing has many benefits but it can be a lonely way to work. When many freelance journalists suddenly found themselves removed from offices and contracts or unable to travel for assignments because of the pandemic, the need for networks offering support, advice and sense of community from peers experiencing the same thing, all around the world, felt extra prescient.
Enter the Society of Freelance Journalists (or SFJ). Formed at the end of March as a weekly video chat and then Slack channel, the initial idea for our group was simply to offer mutual support. A place to talk about how the pandemic was affecting our professional lives; somewhere to vent and share plans for adapting or simply to highlight job opportunities, however scarce.
A growing community reflects increasing demand
Just weeks after SFJ’s launch, our membership was already in the hundreds. It soon became apparent that there was a much wider need for an organisation specifically for freelancers that went beyond the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lockdown had simply brought existing issues to the surface. Being a freelance journalist has never been as tough as it is today. As well as the challenges of pay on publication, kill fees and late payment, rates from many titles have remained flat or dropped in recent years.
Take the time and effort required for the preparation, research and execution of an in-depth feature, for example, which means payment can equate to an hourly rate that’s below minimum wage. Then there are all the other pressures that mount alongside these issues: dealing with extra admin, creating an online portfolio, completing a tax return, organising finances — and, not least, managing to take some holiday.
With the print industry already in sharp decline, and now a number of titles suspending publication altogether, freelancing is an increasingly competitive market. With so many journalists finding themselves either furloughed or made redundant, it’s looking likely that there’ll be significantly more freelancers — and they’re going to need a support group like SFJ more than ever.
How to get involved
In just two months, SFJ has grown to some 450 members. The group is international, with journalists distributed across more than 20 countries including the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Norway and Denmark, as well as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and China. If you’re a freelance journalist, join and introduce yourself here.
Set up by four freelance journalists — Laura Oliver, Abigail Edge, John Crowley and Caroline Harrap — the community aims to offer support in any way it can. As well as providing a safe space on our Slack channel where members can enjoy a friendly chat, we share relevant job opportunities, both full and part-time, and hold special online events on subjects affecting freelancers.
What we think makes SFJ so great though, is our members. Hundreds of freelance journalists with their own experiences, skills and valuable insights on a career path that is rarely discussed at journalism school and doesn’t come with a standard handbook. Members want to help each other: one recently ‘buddied up’ with a less experienced writer to help check a piece for them; another generously shared how they use Twitter hashtags to source new work. (On that note, SFJ also has a Twitter account.)
Convening a large — and growing — group of freelance journalists gives us a chance to better understand the needs of this sector and the ways in which a community such as SFJ can make a difference. Looking ahead, we hope to provide a collective voice for this important sector of our industry. There is no doubt that freelance journalists play a vital role in the media, bringing new voices and stories to the overall narrative and enriching its diversity, and we believe everything possible should be done to support, nurture and protect them. If we can help to do that in some small way, then at least one good thing will have opened up in a time of locking down.