Online only

Working well from home - or not

OUR SPEAKER at the March meeting was Branch member and trainer John Crowley. He is co-author of the Journalism in the time of Covid survey, in which a third of the more than 130 journalists who responded reported a positive experience of working from home during lockdown, while two thirds said they'd had a terrible time struggled, with stress affecting their productivity.

John Crowley

John Crowley speaks

What can journalists do to help themselves survive the effects of enforced isolation and lone working?

John reported that the idea of the survey came to him while he was working on an EU project on sustainability. "At that time, everyone else was in a newsroom". He wondered: "what about the rest of us?" and that led to the survey.

When asked as long ago as last April, 77 per cent of journalists reported some kind of work-related stress and 57 per cent said the crisis had affected their productivity.

"News organisations give lip service to 'wellbeing'," John noted. "They often toss it to Human Resources (HR)," who of course are also the people who make you redundant. "Saying that you're experiencing mental health issues is often seen as some kind of failure," John regretted. This is especially true in newsrooms, "given the journalistic ethos of toughness".

Worse than that, "Newsroom leaders tend to be in their 50s, and from their cultural standpoint they are not often sympathetic" to mental health concerns. And newsrooms have never given much thought, if any, to freelances' situation working from home.

In addition to the questionnaire, for the final report John "spoke to 50 journalists off the record and 5 on the record" about their experiences. He analysed the results with Andrew Garthwaite, who is a statistician as well as a journalist.

Intriguingly, back in April 36 per cent of survey respondents said that they were having a positive experience of lockdown. Some mentioned that they were "able to see family more than they had," and others that they "didn't miss travel, or annoying editors".

But 44 per cent said lockdown stress had affected them: 59 per cent found work brought on further worries and stress.

A problem in dealing with this, John observed, is that "Journalism is an incredibly uninnovative industry. If you'd said a year ago that we'd be publishing newspapers from couches or from kitchen tables or from beds you'd have been laughed out of the room..."

As freelances we need to assert that clients have responsibilities to us: in the survey 87 per cent said, "yes, they do have some responsibility for checking in and finding that we're OK." Some, though, said that they don't want work to encroach into their space in that way when they're working from home.

Tales from the kitchen table

NUJ member Louise Bolotin was one of the freelances interviewed on the record she - also spoke at our November meeting. She NUJ member experienced feelings of "utter despair" after "job after job" booked until June fell by the wayside. "As lockdown struck, I was completely workless," she recalls: "I had no money in the bank."

The way news is broken doesn't help. Louise had seven shifts booked up until Easter 2020, when she would usually been asked to work as holiday cover. But then her manager phoned: "I could tell she had news, as she normally texts me about shifts and she was phoning me up. She said: ‘We have sent the staff home and there are just a couple of us left'. Because I was freelance, that was it, I was just let go."

"You fear that admitting you are workless will result in people not hiring you," Louise she told John and Andrew, "which is totally irrational, I know." One thing that helped was knowing that she wasn't alone: "I think knowing I wasn't the only one hit so hard has helped a lot."

A large part of the problem, John said, is that "as a freelance, you have no-one who's really going to check up on you. That's a particular problem when it's frenzied and frantic and you are worried about where the next commission is coming from."

You are not alone in these groups

Another on-the-record interviewee was Sanne Breimer, a journalist from the Netherlands now based in Bali, Indonesia. Asked to describe the structural challenges now facing journalism, Sanne said that "long-term thinking on inclusion, diversity and innovation is something that journalists just don't do a lot".

Why not, though? "If before all this you asked newsroom leaders where they thought work would be in 10 years," John suggested, "they may well have laughed in your face."

John is a trustee of the Journalists' Charity - from whom we look forward to "a big announcement about supporting young journalists, particularly freelances who want to get onto the first rung of the ladder."

He is also an administrator of the Society of Freelance Journalists channel on the Slack online collaboration service: "there are four of us and we're coming up to our first anniversary." Another, Caroline Harrap, was at the meeting.

"The point of the Society of Freelance Journalists," he said, "is knowing that you're not alone."

Lobbying

"We were asked to make a submission to the House of Lords inquiry into the future of journalism," John recalled. "We underlined the lack of understanding of freelancing - and particularly the gaps in support from the government in the pandemic and the need for training and education about freelancing as a career choice."

Slide - text below

John's slide of points to the Lords Committee - see below

Other points they raised included accessible recourse for late payment; legal support for freelances concerning contracts and terms; challenging firms that use freelances to fill in for staff positions; the need for professional development funds with a focus on accessibility and diversity - and eliminating "Payment on Publication" terms.

"Right now." John declared, "is the time to come together and deal with wellbeing. We need training in newsrooms and training for freelance journalists. As everyone here will know, we are far stronger when we organise than on our own."

Questions

Branch member Jenny Vaughan noted that "there was no slice on your pie chart for 'the pandemic hasn't made a blind bit of difference'. I work on non-fiction children's books, which has always meant working on long projects in isolation." Covid has made our lives miserable in other ways, but hasn't made any difference to my work."

John promised to think about more options in future research. He noted that "I lost all my work - a lot of other freelances lost a ton of work in April. Anecdotally, it's picked up a little bit over the summer but I wager that experience of loss would apply to a lot of people."

"We've adjusted - first of all our ability to do work has been upended, so we've had to rethink ways of networking and pitching and speaking to people; we have to find new ways of doing these things."

Member David Landau "was freelance for 14 years in BBC local radio. There is no exit programme for freelances who are let go or simply not called again. There's an assumption you'll be fine and be that resilient journalist." Clients "need to help you mentally and point you in the right direction for finding other work. It was a hard comedown when the place I'd been freelancing for so long cut me - before covid. There'd been no change in management, but there was a change in the way they presented news."

It would, David suggested, "be useful if management could speak to you - and if they could be honest and give you a little bit of advance warning - it was hard for so many of us."

John responded that newsrooms were "treating freelances awfully long before the pandemic. Particularly when we freelances find ourselves being journalism's rare growth sector, we can come together. We're not going to put up with being summarily dismissed like that after working for so long. We're not going to put up with low and slow pay. That's why we're here, coming together."

He repeated that "Journalism is uninnovative - but now that we're putting newspapers out from our kitchen tables and sofas innovation has been forced and there's an opportunity for change. The question for freelances is: what do we want now? This is an occasion to say 'enough is enough', it's a moment to come together. Talk with fellow NUJ members or come onto our Slack group. What we're so proud of is that the community is lifting us up - even if we can't yet change things materially knowing you're not alone is important."

Member Phil Sutcliffe was sure that "all these groups can be beneficial - and we need to co-ordinate our efforts". John replied that "Caroline and I are both NUJ members and I think the other administrators are too." This conversation is part of working together - "in the past all the different freelance communities perhaps haven't been in sync. Is there an event that we could all come together to organise? I may sound like a broken record but I still feel this crisis offers a moment to come together."

The requirements that the Society of Freelance Journalists put in evidence to the House of Lords committee were:

  • Highlight lack of understanding of self-employment and freelancing that undermined SEISS.
  • Education about freelancing as a career choice or option in journalism schools, including financial management modules.
  • More accessible legal recourse for late payment and ways to report firms who are consistent late payers or implement payment on publication and similar hostile terms.
  • Legal support for freelances regarding contracts and terms.
  • Review and challenge of firms that use freelaces for staff rôles and enforce lay-off periods.
  • Invest in and support professional development funds and schemes for freelance journalists with emphasis on accessibility and diversity.
  • Invest in grant schemes for freelance journalists to support struggling industry sectors, including local media outlets and under-reported communities and topics.
  • Work with industry unionns to better qualify the demographic make-up of this industry group.