Women journalists on surviving the financial fallout of Covid-19

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On January 30, the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak as a global pandemic. Weeks later, many countries around the world began adopting measures to contain the novel coronavirus by imposing lockdowns and urging people to work from home to prioritize their health and safety. While many organizations in different industries managed to make the transition, others had a hard time adjusting to this new normal. Journalism was no different. An industry that was already struggling to financially sustain itself globally, had now encountered a pandemic.

Many print, electronic and digital media outlets had their business affected due to Covid-19. Some resorted to pay cuts and furloughs, while others had to layoff or fire their employees. Eventually, the decisions of these media outlets left many journalists and media workers ambiguous about their job security. With less or no other avenues to seek refuge, it gradually became challenging for professionals, especially freelancers, in the global media industry to sustain themselves financially

In April, The Coalition For Women In Journalism spoke to Indian women journalists who shared their fears about the industry’s financial decline following the spread of coronavirus. A Bangalore based journalist Pallabi Munsi stated that an already deteriorating state of the media industry worsened after the pandemic.

“For the past decade, India’s newspaper industry has stood out as a rare beacon of hope for the print media, which has seen sharp declines in readership in the West… Now, the coronavirus is threatening to do what the Great Recession of 2008 couldn’t: deal a crippling blow to the industry,” she said.

Another Indian journalist, who used the pseudonym Bia, was asked to go on leave without pay, along with 44 other employees at her organization.

“I was told three days before I was forced to take leave without pay for an indefinite period. Personally, I found it to be very humiliating and insulting. I was shocked and it took me 48 hours for it to sink in,” she said, while sharing her ordeal with CFWIJ.

Women journalists in Pakistan, too, have suffered in terms of their income. Delayed salaries and layoffs have aggravated the situation for most working in the different media houses after Covid-19 struck. According to the Center for Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ), at least 230 women journalists lost their jobs and suffered a blow to their income following the financial effects of Covid-19.

Women journalists also shared their tales of exploitation by media outlets. In April, ELLE UK called for women documentary photographers/photojournalists to work for them in exchange for a “small fee” and “expenses”. Their request triggered many journalists, particularly freelancers, who started condemning their exploitative call. During a time when having a stable income was a challenge, it was appalling to see publications like ELLE UK to abuse the services of professionals in the industry and also put their safety at risk, while they work on the ground.

Fast forward to July, not much has changed. Women journalists around the world continue to struggle financially and make ends meet, all accredited to Covid-19. Considering how the novel coronavirus has had a negative financial impact on the lives of women journalists across the world, CFWIJ spoke with a few, based in the U.S. and Canada, to understand their financial struggles and how they have been coping with the pressures imposed by Covid-19 on them.

The damage post-coronavirus

Rasha Guerrier, the founder and executive producer of the Jesse Louis Productions, had to file for unemployment after Covid-19 impacted her financially.

“I had to go through a process of deferring a bunch of payments that thankfully gave me a couple of months of relief for payments I just didn’t have the money to pay,” she said.

Rasha was in the process of building a video production website for ABC7NY and had to leave. Even though she did create the website, the plan to build an initial team of video correspondents fell through and Rasha began covering independent stories that can now be viewed on her own website, which is separate from the station.

“I now aim for the website to be a portfolio allowing producers to submit their work and also provide location rental spaces for creatives to bring their stories to life,” she said.

Denise Cathey, based in the Rio Grande Valley, covers immigration and life along the U.S.-Mexico border as a full-time photojournalist for a daily. However, even her full-time employment leaves her uncertain about her financial future.

“I had made a plan to start working on putting money into upgrading my equipment, since most of it is five to eight years old and starting to show it. But that had to be shelved entirely because I need to be able to have some kind of emergency fund if the worst does happen. I’m pretty much just crossing my fingers every time I’m pulling out my gear and hoping that nothing goes wrong because at this point I can’t afford to fix anything,” she informed CFWIJ.

*A, a Canadian journalist, works as an advertorial features writer for the last 10 months. When taking up the job for a staff position, A* settled $9,000 less than what she had asked for. Even though she has not been laid off due to Covid-19, its financial impact has prevented her from earning a raise. She currently makes only $2,080 as net pay, which she said is not sustainable according to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“So having to work and getting as much as everyone else who isn’t working is disheartening. When I asked for a raise (regardless of Covid-19 because I’m way past probation), I was told not yet and maybe in the fall when things go back to normal but who knows if that will happen,” A* told CFWIJ.

She added that her department is just herself and the editor, because another staffer left at the end of 2019. “They were never replaced so my workload increased without a pay,” she said.

Ashley Hayes-Stone is Sacramento based photojournalism student. She is due to start her first semester at the San Francisco State University this fall, but has been freelancing for the past two years. Ashley has her stories published in the Sacramento News and Review — an alternative weekly, which ceased the publication of its print edition in March and laid off freelancers. She was completing her associate degree in journalism and was working as a student worker for the campus newspaper, while her hours at the paper were cut as well, so Ashley had to try to find work elsewhere. To keep herself afloat, Ashley has been writing for different websites and businesses but finds it difficult to keep herself motivated.

“I’ve been living off my savings until I can find some work. I have applied to a few reporter positions in the area but I have not received a response… I battle with depression and anxiety; therefore, I have to fight to get out of bed to find stories, so I can pay my bills and save up to buy school supplies for fall. To be honest, it’s highly discouraging to keep going when you keep hitting these walls but it’s that or drown,” she responded in an email to CFWIJ.

Another Canada based journalist B* works as a full-time multimedia journalist in Victoria and will be soon exploring her reporting chops at a new workplace in August. For B*, working during a pandemic has not been easy and its financial implications have been evident on the outlet where she works.

“The company I work for ended up moving to a work-share model meaning we were working 20 per cent less, and getting paid 20 per cent less. I am relying on EI to top up some of my missed income. In my case, that means I’m working four days a week instead of five,” she said when responding to our question.

B* also did some freelance work on the side for extra income. She said, “I also did freelance work for the company I work for (for some other publications) but as soon as COVID-19 struck, all freelance work was cancelled, so my extra income was lost. I should also note that just because we’re on work-share, doesn’t mean layoffs can’t still happen.”

Controlling the financial damage

In order to control the damage to their finances, these women journalists have had to make a lot of sacrifices and take difficult decisions. Rasha, who was originally living in New York (NYC) with a roommate, had to move back to her home in New Jersey (NJ) and sublease her room to save money.

“Even though my parents had filed for unemployment as well as small business owners in optometry, they had enough saved to hold our family through. However, due to COVID, the person who was subletting my room moved back to Cali, so I was on the hunt to find someone else to take over paying the rent for my room in NYC while being home in NJ. Finally, I was able to find someone to take over,” she informed CFWIJ.

Denise, too, immediately turned towards controlling the damage post-Covid and opted to save as much as she could to help herself in the future with an emergency fund, if and when needed.

“I was lucky enough to get a stimulus check, so I put that in and thankfully have only had to use a small amount. I immediately cut back on all spending that wasn’t absolutely essential. So basically, (I just spend on) food, gas, rent, and bills. I also chose not to renew the lease on my apartment and moved to a cheaper place, while it was a lot of money to spend upfront I’m hoping if things get tighter it’ll be easier to manage,” she said.

A* began to UberEats on evenings and weekends to cover her expenses and build an emergency fund.

“Since I’m working from home, I’m not using my car so I figured I can make extra income off my vehicle. My strategies are to spend more than I make by cutting non-essentials and budgeting for groceries,” she wrote to us.

Ashley shared that she was living off of the meager income money received while working at the school, but filed for unemployment and is waiting to receive her checks.

“Until then I’ve been living off my savings which are slowly depleting every month. I spent all that time saving and it’s just gone within a few months. To be honest, I really didn’t have much of a strategy. I just try to pay my bills and drive into my savings to cover me. I was worried about money on top of finishing my last semester at my community college,” she informed us.

B* is content with the fact that her students loan payments have been put on hold until September — the reason she has managed some savings. But she also decided to take up some much-needed lifestyle changes.

“I stopped getting takeout, made coffee at home and relied on the EI top up to cover some of my lost income. I had to stop seeing my therapist for a bit so I could save money and put subscriptions to the gym, news outlets, etc. on hold,” said B*.

While the present is more about surviving, the future also remains uncertain for most women journalists.

Rasha is currently unemployed but is pulling through with the help of employment checks. She also runs two additional small businesses — one in the e-commerce industry and another in location rentals. She is also in the process of getting certified as a licensed financial analyst, after which she will work as an independent contractor. All of these streams of income are still not enough for Rasha to sustain her financial needs because they are gradually building.

“However, moving back home to NJ and thankfully filing for unemployment allow me to use this time to invest, save, build, and strategize effectively for what’s to come.

Denise has managed to sustain through her full-time photojournalism job and some freelance work on the side. “At the moment, it is enough to pay all my bills and save a bit,” she said.

A* said that the gig economy is helping, while B* is getting by.

“I live in Victoria, British Columbia. Here, the rent is astronomical, as are other costs like gas, groceries and insurance. I’m living paycheck to paycheck, and have had to apply for repayment assistance for my student loans as well. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’ve taken some loans from my parents at times too,” B* stated.

She has continued her work as a multimedia journalist, while Ashley looks out for stories, pitches them to local publications and does freelance work.

“It doesn’t pay much but I’m willing to do it. I want to be a photojournalist, but I have been writing more to make more money instead. Even though it’s not editorial, I have been thinking about offering to do portrait sessions and weddings to make some extra cash,” Ashley said, and added that it is enough for now, but she hopes to get her unemployment checks soon.

“I just appreciate the fact I get financial aid which pays for my tuition because if I didn’t have that I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” she wrote when responding to CFWIJ.

Keeping up with mental health amidst the uncertainty

The past few months have been challenging for one’s mental health and women journalists have not been able to escape the psychological pressures after Covid-19 took over the world. Fears of one’s safety and health continue to haunt, but the fear of financial uncertainty has taken a rather heavy toll.

“Not getting an income hit and triggered my anxiety a lot, especially with my handling expenses, bills, loan payments, etc. On top of COVID happening during the death of George Floyd, Breoanna Taylor, and many other young black people due to police brutality amid the #BLM Movement, as a black woman, all of these emotions and feelings felt heavy, Rasha said. She added that prayer and the support of loved ones pushed her through and reminded her that she was not alone.

Denise, too, said that she experiences an endless feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop and no idea when or if it has already happened.

“You go from being able to plan for things, to just having no real ability to know what you are going to be doing two weeks or two months from now. The anxiety is just insane, there’s just no real point of stability so you can pull yourself out of it,” Denise said, while sharing her apprehensions with CFWIJ.

A* has been stressed about her finances, but particularly about the social pressure of having achieved everything during her mid-20s.

“I thought I was on my way to building my finances and career, but I feel like that’s been put to a halt. I feel like I’m in limbo and worry if I’ll lose my main source of income and a job that’s helping me gain experience,” she shared her concerns.

Ashley battles with anxiety and depression. Seeing the amount in her bank account decrease and not hearing back from potential employers has left her depressed.

“I have a hard time motivating myself and feel guilty for not photographing more or writing more,” she said.

B*, on the other hand, constantly worries about being laid off.

“We were already working with reduced staff and reduced hours but the pressure to put out the same amount of content and keep our readership was higher than ever. I was worried that if I didn’t work at 120 per cent, I’d lose my job and income,” she said.

B* added that if her job is lost, she would potentially have to move back to Ontario to live with her parents.

“I can’t afford to live in B.C. without income and because I’ve been paycheque to paycheque, I have no savings. I was in tears almost every night worried about if I’d make it through… I watched businesses close, watched my friends get laid off and was so stressed that I was having night terrors. The worst part is there’s nothing to be done about it,” she said and added that the uncertainty increased her anxiety.

An uncertain future looms over

Covid-19 has forced everyone to live in the new normal by adapting to lifestyle changes and surviving despite the challenges. People around the world are still struggling to live this different life. In the midst of lockdowns and changes in work life, industries have suffered financially, but individuals have borne the brunt exponentially.

“I already knew that I was going to be struggling, whatever happens, I’m going to keep doing this (photojournalism) as long as I can get the work. I might have to switch to full freelance in the future and maybe get a stable part-time job outside journalism. But I love what I do too much to fully pull away at this point. It’s too much a part of me to not fight for it in any way that I can, for as long as I can,” Denise said about her future, given the long-term effects Covid-19.

A* said that she feels safe from getting laid off because her department has just two people, including her.

“I think my future at my job can be long lasting, as long as I can make a reasonable salary and time can only tell with that. My future career wise is open but I’ve learned to never settle for less than you are worth. Once I live under what I make (which doesn’t always happen in a month), I think I will be okay financially,” she said.

A* added that her company isn’t helping younger generations because it’s not profitable enough. She said that when compared to an old colleague with eight years of experience, she would have been laid off because she has only spent a year at the job.

“My company isn’t doing much to make sure we’re okay financially, there is talk of making us go part-time but that hasn’t happened yet. I think young people, especially of color, need to be uplifted in media jobs and in staff positions, I think editors who are coming up to retirement need to pave the way and uplift us, give us a chance to have the same financial opportunities they had,” B* said when asked by CFWIJ about what her company was doing to ensure financial security of its employees.

B* said that she is employed for at least another year and has planned personal budget cuts to save, in case her contract is not renewed next year.

“I’ve already started thinking about other avenues I can take like going back to school or switching to communications. I love journalism with a passion but it’s breaking my heart seeing it fall apart like this. I also realize that my loved ones are struggling financially too, and if I ever want to be in a place to care for them or help them, I have to make more money. I don’t think that will be possible as the economic fallout from the pandemic may last years,” she said with not much hope about the future.

Ashley is hopeful. She wants to find stories and pitch to as many publications as possible. But she signed off on this note:

“Journalism is an industry that’s not made for the weak and I’m learning that very quickly.”

Some names in the story have been changed to protect the sources’ identities

This story was originally published in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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Journalist | Researcher

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