Articles - 25th February 2020

Catastrophe: How do you freelance during an international disaster?

Words by Marianna Cerini
Illustration by Sophie Standing

They say freelance life is one big rollercoaster. Personally, that’s never felt truer than over the past nine months.

Let me backtrack a bit: I am a lifestyle and travel writer based in Hong Kong. I went into freelancing full-time in September 2018 – a career change that’s been challenging and rewarding in almost equal measure, and something that, halfway through last year, I thought I was beginning to get good at.

Then, in June 2019, the first of a long series of anti-government protests rocked the city, triggered by the possible introduction of an extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be deported to mainland China under certain circumstances (Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, and supposed to maintain its own system of laws until 2047).

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. They continued doing so for the whole summer and into autumn, when the bill was finally withdrawn; then winter, as protesters became increasingly frustrated with what they felt were abusive policing tactics, and angry at China’s tightening of its authoritarian control over Hong Kong. Demonstrations turned violent. The economy shrank.

On my end, work got slower. A story I had filed to a travel website in May (pre-protests) about abandoned historical spaces in Hong Kong never ran. An editor I had pitched a lifestyle feature to told me the idea was great, but that they had put Hong Kong coverage on hold for the time being. I couldn’t blame him, and I still don’t; from an ethical standpoint, suggesting Hong Kong as a ‘must-visit’ city started to feel increasingly wrong.

The clashes are still taking place. Since I returned to Hong Kong after the Christmas break, though, they are just a side issue.

Since mid-January, the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan has been making much bigger international headlines. As it has spread, a number of nations have advised against any travel to the region. Airlines across the globe have cancelled their flights to China, essentially putting the country into forced isolation. Some have halted their Hong Kong routes, too, given its geographical proximity to the mainland (though they needn’t do so). The epidemic has been declared a global health emergency from the WHO, and it’s likely not going to fade away any time soon – if anything, it might affect more people across the world in the coming months.

It’s a dramatic situation, and I am in no way dismissing it. But as a journalist who specialises in culture and arts, guides, and destination-led stories,  I can’t help but wonder: What happens next work-wise?

If Hong Kong was “not a priority” for many lifestyle and travel publications before the disease, you can imagine where it stands currently. “We’re not covering Hong Kong, China or Macau at the moment,” told me an editor who preferred to remain anonymous over email. “We’re actually not planning to run anything for the next few months,” said another.

I don’t just write about Hong Kong. But I live here. I was banking on reporting on Art Basel, a major art fair held every year, but that’s now been cancelled. Other ideas I had feel irrelevant, even inappropriate, given the situation.

And so, frustrated and, frankly, deflated, I am trying to figure out what’s the best way forward.

So are other freelancers I have spoken to.

On the phone from Beijing, where he’s mostly staying indoors these days, freelance travel journalist and China specialist Tom O’Malley tells me he’s had to cancel a few stories that would have required him to travel across the country. “It hasn’t been a big deal so far — I have other projects I can rely on and have been freelancing long enough to have a steady roster of clients and editors,” he says, “although if the panic keeps going till March, April, or even longer, it might become an issue.” To avoid that, O’Malley is planning on pitching himself for different guidebooks around Asia, from Thailand to Mongolia, and up his editorial and commercial work outside travel writing.

Local tourism boards are also another outlet he’s keeping in mind. “I’ve been working on a project for the Shenzhen tourism bureau for the past months, and [after news of the coronavirus] I assumed they might want to press pause on it. But they’ve actually been really responsive, so that’s still going on. I guess they – and similar offices — will definitely need and want editorial support, especially after this crisis.”

Kate Springer, an American journalist who’s been freelancing in Hong Kong for the last five years and built her name as a local expert with a number of international travel publications, has also been bearing the brunt of the recent crisis, and reassessing her focus. “For the past four years, I’d say 50 percent of my travel writing has been linked to Hong Kong. But as the city has come under the spotlight as a complicated place to visit, and now with the fear around the coronavirus, I’ve really had to regroup.”

“Several guidebooks I would normally work on have been postponed,” she continues. “‘Inflight magazines’ content, which I do a lot of, is also being majorly affected.  I am learning to navigate this new landscape.”

Springer has done so by slightly switching gears. She’s worked on a few service journalism pieces for instance –an explainer about what travellers to Hong Kong should know about the protests and visiting the city; a piece on how the coronavirus might affect tourism globally. She’s also leaned more into her regional travel writing, pitching stories about other destinations in Southeast Asia. “I’m basically shifting the way I brand myself,” she says. “From Hong Kong writer to Southeast Asia journalist.”

Copywriting and client-based projects, which she’s always been doing alongside editorial, have also kept her afloat. “I think diversifying the breadth of work you do is essential as a freelancer. Especially when something like this happens.”

Or when a terrorist attack makes the place you write from a no-go destination for a while. Emma Boyle, a freelancer based in Sri Lanka since 2003, saw tourism drop drastically after the Easter bombings last April ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Colombo, leading foreign offices to issue travel warnings against the country. Had she only been relying on travel writing, she would have hit a major wall. “But I’ve always been adamant in never putting all my eggs in one basket,” Boyle says.

Like Springer, she placed more emphasis on her copywriting and marketing assignments, which she does regularly for a boutique travel company. She also changed the way she wrote about the country. “I usually review hotels for The Telegraph, but in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, they asked me to write a commentary on the situation. I turned towards news reporting briefly, which isn’t what I usually do. I didn’t exactly love it – hard news isn’t my beat – but it was important to me to let people know that Sri Lanka was open.”

I understand Boyle’s perspective – though I can’t say I have done the same here in Hong Kong.

Back in June, I worked as a stringer covering one of the first protests. It was a fairly peaceful gathering,  and I felt I was making myself useful. But as the day progressed and the clashes got increasingly more violent, I began regretting getting involved. I had no press badge, no training, really on what do during a riot. It was an amateurish mistake to accept the job (and for the editors I work with to not think it through).

As much as I, too, believe it’s essential to share the information I have access to – about the clashes, about the coronavirus – I just don’t feel it’s quite my place to go out there and act as a breaking news reporter. For me, that’s not a viable alternative to doing a travel or humanistic feature about my city.

“As culture and travel writers, we don’t have the support system a foreign correspondent has,” Springer agrees. “I think it’s irresponsible to assume we can just slide into that particular branch of the journalism ecosystem. That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course – another freelancer might find out she loves reporting from the frontline —  but for me,  jumping into hard news might not be the wisest option when you haven’t done it before.”

O’Malley shares similar feelings. “Would I go to Wuhan for a story right now? No. And that’s fine, because that’s just not the type of journalism that I do. I am not a New York Times reporter. There are other ways to keep working and staying relevant. Just keep your scope broad and your work varied, but around what feels most comfortable for you.”

Eventually, things will return to normal, or change and you’ll just adapt to the new circumstances – be them more commercial work, more region-wise pitching, more service or human-focused stories.

In Sri Lanka, where the travel ban lasted six weeks, Boyle saw business starting to slowly resume this past December, with reservations increasing alongside a growing demand for hotel reviews and destination content.

“Last year was a bit of a write-off, but hopefully we’ll get back on track soon,” she says. Here’s hoping that happens on my side of the world, too.


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