Reality Bites

I’ve turned in a feature, scheduled lunches with editors, emailed to say I still exist. I’ve panicked, at 4 am, about whether I can line up enough work to pay the bills. I’ve fretted over health insurance and worried about how I’ll access journal articles. I’ve weighed the pros and cons of a conference in Mexico—just how much airfare are those geneticists’ PowerPoints worth?—and another in Oklahoma. I’ve used packing as an excuse to put off pitching.

I can’t hide from the truth anymore. The writing on the wall is as clear as a Chauvet Cave bison painting in Herzog-narrated 3-D: I’m officially a freelancer again. My lovely, once-in-a-lifetime year as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow is over, and now I’ll have to earn my living like everyone else. It feels a bit like I’m emerging from the past, from a time when journalism was a thriving profession, back into the present and its harsher realities.

I don’t mean that journalism fellowships are stuck in the past. The Knight fellowship offered training in every aspect of multimedia reporting, from audio and video production to data visualization. Surrounded by MIT’s future-makers, we had access to all areas of cutting-edge science. The emphasis was very much on looking ahead.

But let’s face it: Journalism fellowships are a bit of an anachronism, and an irony-laced one at that. As newspapers across the country scramble to make ends meet, foundations built by newspaper empires are thriving. Fellows are doted on, pampered, given access to vast university resources—yet our overriding concern is how we’ll make use of these gifts in the real world given shrinking newsrooms, shrinking word counts, shrinking salaries. A growing proportion of applicants for journalism fellowships are freelancers, a telling sign of the times. (Is it pure math, a reflection of freelancers’ growing ranks? Or are staff reporters worried their jobs aren’t secure enough to withstand a nine-month leave? A little of both, I think.)

These fellowships, though, have always been opportunities for mid-career reflection. Am I proud of the work I’m doing? (Sometimes.) How can I make it better? (Data-driven reporting, for one.) Am I happy in my job? (Yes, if you call it a “job.”) Should I be doing a different kind of reporting? (Don’t think so.) Or a different kind of work entirely? (Heavens, no!) Many fellows change jobs or beats or media afterward. Others return to their lives reinvigorated. I fall into that latter group. After nine months away from freelance journalism, I miss it. So the good news is I’m doing what I love. The bad news, of course, is that I can’t pay my mortgage with happiness tokens.

So I’m also rattled. What if I can no longer earn enough money? In my early years as a freelancer, there was always a safety net—at least a mental one. If I couldn’t make it work, I could always get a staff job someplace. But now that safety net seems full of very large holes. So here I go, back at it. I’m available for work, starting June 3.

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