Journalism during COVID-19: Part 1
In late March, as I started to feel the impact of coronavirus on my freelance business and watched my father's small business struggle, I wondered what people in other industries were going through.
I decided to ask.
I'm starting off my COVID-19 small business/job series with a former professor of mine, mentor, and friend: Carolyn Crist, a freelance journalist. I met Carolyn while I was a graduate student at the University of Georgia, when I took her Introduction to Health and Medical Journalism class. Since then, she's continued to help me with my freelance hustle, and I've watched in awe at the successes she's had as a self-employed/freelance journalist. When I asked her if she'd be interested in speaking with me for this series, her first response was, "My story may not be the most compelling." But I think differently. Carolyn's story is a great example of an industry that was positively impacted by the effects of coronavirus. The amount of stories she has produced recently and opportunities that she's been given speak volumes about her work ethic as a journalist.
I'm so happy to share my Q&A with Carolyn below!
So what are the publications you’re consistently writing for nowadays?
The main ones that I'm doing right now are Reuters, which has been around for a while, WebMD, which is really my big thing right now (I’m doing that every day), and Parade.
Okay, so tell me more about the Web MD one.
Oh, man, this has been great. Right at the end of March, a fellow freelancer contacted me and said WebMD was looking for daily news reporters and asked if I was interested. I said, “Heck yeah!” I needed something more regular, and I was also really worried in mid-March about what was going to happen with freelancing. The news team at WebMD started a latest updates page for coronavirus, and they needed some dedicated reporters for that, while they were covering other news; they wanted a briefs page. Our group of two or three reporters and editors will post two briefs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and two in the evening. These are usually like 300-400-word blurbs that we take from other news outlets or if an official organization (like the FDA or CDC) posts an announcement, we’ll do a brief on that. In April, it was the White House daily press briefing every day. It's recently shifted a little since there's no longer a daily press briefing.
Tell me about your role as a freelance correspondent with the Association of Health Care Journalists?
I'm writing about being a freelance journalist for that organization from the healthcare journalism perspective. They’ve wanted somebody to cover freelancing for a while because about a third of the members are freelancers. I started that back in November.
So I'm going to backtrack for a moment and ask why health and medical journalism? You started at a daily newspaper after undergrad and then came back to the University of Georgia for your master’s degree in health and medical journalism. Why that field in particular?
I think the funniest thing about our careers is figuring out how to tell our own narrative. When I worked my first newspaper job, I was working so hard that I actually got really sick my first year out of college, and I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease – a platelet disorder. It's a very rare bleeding disorder where essentially my body was eating its own platelets, and whenever I was bleeding, it wouldn't clot. There's no known cause - no known cure, like a lot of autoimmune diseases. My blood doctor told me it was probably stress related. When I left my job at the newspaper, my autoimmune condition went into remission. But anyway, after that experience, I was working as an administrative assistant in the honors program at UGA; I did that for a year and was basically trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I decided to look back at grad school. As a program administrator, I went with a group of the students to South Korea for their spring break, and while at a nuns’ monastery, we were all doing meditation, and I realized that I wanted to do journalism again. So that's when I decided to go back to grad school. Covering health seemed important because it influences so much of our life and having that autoimmune disease really changed my life, so I thought writing about health would be important.
That's interesting. I mean, you're right. I guess in the moment you don't really know how things are shaping your future until you look back and say, ‘Oh, those were the steps that led me to where I am today.’
Exactly! When I was working for the honors program, I knew Pat Thomas in undergrad because I did a little bit of work with her. I went and met with her because I knew she led the graduate program. My question to her and some of the other journalism professors was essentially ‘What do I do?’ I know I miss journalism, but I don't want to go back to that stressful lifestyle. I decided then that I wanted to do freelance. Pat had done freelance for two or three decades during her career. I remember her telling me, ‘Come to grad school and take two years to build up your freelance clients. It won't hurt you to focus on a niche like health. Plus, you've learned how health influences every aspect of life and every beat.’ When I graduated in 2014, I was able to freelance full-time.
What were your thoughts, as a journalist, when COVID-19 started becoming more prevalent in the news?
The embarrassing part is that I wasn’t really paying attention to the story at first. For some reason, I wasn't thinking about it as something that would turn into a pandemic, which is funny because I covered the Ebola news a few years ago, but it never really came to the US in a serious way. So anyway, I wasn't really paying attention until the beginning of March, and then my brain caught up and realized this was going to change everything. I think a lot of people had that kind of crazy world-bending realization in mid-March, where we said, ‘How do I grapple with this?’ As everyone was changing in mid-March, I lost some work, but then I started quickly picking up work. I'm in a couple of freelancer Facebook groups, and one of them shared a calming post, reminding us that now was the time to send out emails. I just started emailing everybody. Because at that point, the only regular thing was Reuters and I really just needed to pitch. Interestingly enough, a lot of it didn't work out, but a few did, and I think that's what got me through the end of March .
What was your inspiration for the types of topics and things that you were writing about? Were you looking for gaps in the things that were being covered?
My fiancé, friends, and I were all discussing how coronavirus was going to affect certain things. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be crazy for the service industry’ or ‘This is going to be really difficult for people with autoimmune diseases like myself.’ I took my own personal fear, which was about my autoimmune condition and what to do, then I thought about publications. For the Society of HR Managers, I wondered what HR managers needed to know about immunocompromised employees, so I wrote a piece about employees with high-risk concerns. Essentially, I took all of the questions that I was asking myself, that I was freaking out about, and put them on paper and wrote down all of the publications that I had some kind of connection or contact with, and then I put the story ideas and the publications together to come up with an idea that I then pitched. Everything was moving so fast that a lot of editors weren’t requiring formal pitches because they wanted to get all the aspects covered.
When it comes to COVID-19 or any other major health concern/important topic, what do you feel your duty is as a journalist? (A very cliché question!)
No, I think that's so important, especially during this time. I feel like my duty is to get the correct information out there. I think this one has really been wild to me and tripped me up because there's so much misinformation out there about the virus itself, treatments and therapeutics, the potential for a vaccine, whether people should even be concerned. In many cases, it's along party lines. I think politics has really messed this one up in a way that we usually don't see with a health story. You know, you don't normally think of heart disease as politicized, but I think coronavirus has been really politicized from the beginning. I think my duty is to get the correct information out there, and I do that by citing the most official sources possible.
Do you have any other projects or things you’re working on? I know the book you co-authored is coming out this year, so anything else?
When my brain was dealing with all these crazy questions regarding COVID-19, it really shifted a lot of my priorities. In 2019, I was getting over the closure of a previous business, so the beginning of this year, I really wanted to start new projects. I had a podcast; I wanted to do online marketing and an online course. When COVID-19 hit, I had to stop and focus on the present and the most immediate thing. I stopped all my extra projects. I'm just focusing on the day-to-day. I think it's been important for me to come back to journalism because journalists are most needed in times of crises, and this is a time of crisis. As the “news” of COVID kind of goes away—whether we have a vaccine, people get sick of the news, advertising revenue remains low, or we just kind of get into the fall and people are recovering from the panic—I do think certain opportunities in journalism will dry up, so I'll probably move back to other types of writing. But I think this time has changed what I want to focus my freelance work on. I think it's taught me to look for more balance, look for what's important in the moment, and find a way to move forward.
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