On the Record with Elizabeth Yuko, PhD: The Press Industry in the Time of COVID-19

May 13, 2020

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‘On the Record’ is a new series where we sit down with our colleagues and friends who are often at the receiving end of our pitch emails – journalists. We will be tackling hot topics, learning and growing from their perspective and thoughtful advice.

For the first ‘On the Record’ post, Caitlin Teahan explores the impact COVID-19 is having on freelance journalism with seasoned freelancer and notable bioethicist, Elizabeth Yuko, PhD. Their candid Q&A session took place at a safe distance (video chat), at the time it was conducted, New York City was still on a strict quarantine lockdown.

CT: How do you think COVID-19 has impacted freelance journalists for better and for worse?

EY: First, for worse. I have lost my main sources of income – specifically my three main clients. For two of them, I still contribute but it is no longer a daily guaranteed income. That has completely changed everything because now, everything I am doing is based on pitches, and it has never been harder to have a pitch accepted or even acknowledged by editors. I have editors say they think a pitch is great and will assign it and then hear nothing for two months. Even a rejection at this point is nice!

CT: That rejection comment speaks to me as a PR person!

EY: Exactly! Also, so many people have lost their staff jobs and now have become freelancers. So now, am I not only competing with the pool of normal full-time freelancers, there is an extra group of people with whom I compete. Almost all publications have slashed their freelance budgets and are saying they only assign stories to staff writers … but are laying them off. I am at a loss as to where things are coming from. In terms of coverage itself it is weird, because some publications only want COVID content, other places say they want other topics but when you pitch anything else, their feedback is that the content isn’t relevant right now, which is obvious, because it isn’t related to COVID. Basically, it is a no-win situation. But it isn’t just about having less work to do. Publications I have written for, for a while now, have cut their rates. So even if you do get a yes, some are only able to offer half the usual rate – which at any other time, is a no. But right now, it may be the only thing I am doing this week so, OK. I am concerned about that because it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward and I am worried we are never going to make it back to pre-COVID rates. No one is in a position now to take major salary cuts.

Now, good things. For me personally, and very specifically me, it has been a good time to be a bioethicist. I have had a PhD since 2012 and there have been a lot of advancements in science and medicine, but nothing on a global scale that affects everyone, like this, so there hasn’t been that much interest in my work until now. All of sudden, everything we do is raising these moral questions, and everyone says, “Great! Let’s ask her!” My recent work with one particular outlet is something I am most proud of because it has been very ethics focused which is so bizarre to me (as it is not on brand for the outlet). They are on an ethics kick at the moment and it is based on what people are clicking on. That is what they want to read right now. If you had told me three months ago, I would be writing one ethics article after another for them, I would have told you that you are incorrect. In that way it has been good. On the other hand, again very specific to me, there are other publications where I normally would have been asked to write the article but am now being interviewed (as the expert). Which is fine – it is my same thoughts as if I were writing and my time – but I am not getting paid for it.

CT: That seems like a doubled-edged sword?

EY: Yes! Everything I am doing is in the hopes of getting more work in the future. Right now, live speaking isn’t a thing and paid lecturing during COVID is limited. It is something I do during ‘normal times’ so there is always the idea that this could lead to a lecture that could help pay my rent. Everything is weird right now.

CT: Besides layoffs, how do you think COVID-19 has impacted staff journalists for better and for worse?

EY: I think they have to write a lot more of their own content because their budgets have been cut. It is stretching them even thinner than they were previously. They have their normal responsibilities including the same amount of content to produce but with significantly less money to do it. I also think because everyone is working remotely, it is not like your boss is seeing you work from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. They may assume, but it is different when they see it, you are all in the office starving and it is nine o’clock. Stuff like that. So, I know they are stretched and so much of it comes down to advertisers who are pulling advertising money. It is all connected. The editors are now under pressure to produce ‘the clickiest’ stories possible, which is always the case, but right now with everything, it is more the case. Every section has been pivoting to COVID, so there is that. As someone who has worked as a health journalist for years, it is interesting that everyone else is thrown into that mix in certain capacities. In some ways it’s good and in some ways it is not great. You have had a lot of reporting for example, on new research that has an extremely small sample size or things that are preliminary findings that lack tests. Things have been disseminated that people are taking now as absolute truths, but the testing could be wrong.

CT: That can be a very dangerous game – misinformation. This could impact the quality of reporting, right? People who aren’t health journalists for example, don’t necessarily know they should look for strict methodology requirements, etc. because they have to overcompensate and keep pumping out content.

EY: Yes, it is! But it isn’t their fault either. They are under pressure, strict time constraints.

CT: This could be the tenth article today they have written, right?

EY: Totally. I absolutely don’t blame them. When I was a health editor in a previous on-staff role, I had no staff writers. I wrote the content and anything I didn’t write I assigned to freelancers – with a very small budget – and the freelancers I worked with received an extensive document from me that was essentially a training. It would share things like: if you see a study make sure it has these three things or if it involves a doctor, make sure it is this type of doctor versus this type. Not everyone has that type of background or training, which can perpetuate things. But alternatively, this gives other journalists work debunking the bad reporting! So, it is a weird, weird cycle.

Personally, I have been getting nonstop phone calls from family and friends about who to believe, trust. Because everything now is so weird and unbelievable, even far-fetched things seem remotely plausible. I don’t blame them for wanting to cling to something, but staying on top of that sort of thing is a lot of work.

CT: With so many press no longer on staff at publications, do you feel there will be an influx of freelancers? Will that impact your business?

EY: 100%. Even without layoffs, the budget cuts alone (to freelance budgets) have made everything more competitive.

CT: So really, it’s multiplied by two. You have experienced freelance budget cuts and there are more people in the freelance pool. It is a true scarcity.

EY: Yes! Yes.

CT: How has the pandemic changed what you write? Are you considering beats that you hadn’t beforehand? 

EY: Usually when you pitch you have to sell yourself and your idea: why now, why I am the person to write and why people care about this. You still have to do all of that, but you also have to account for how COVID fits into this. Even if the story has nothing to do with the pandemic, you have to justify the idea and someone spending money on it by saying how it fits into our current situation. Travel is the most obvious example of that. I was finally getting more travel-related work and that all just … you know. But now general publications that have travel sections have pivoted. A notable news outlet was very public about switching their travel section to a home section. I submitted travel articles to a national consumer magazine long before the pandemic and now they are just not running them. I have several travel articles in limbo that were commission and submitted before the pandemic that just never ran. You don’t get paid until it runs! So, it isn’t like I am just losing work now, but I am not being paid for work I did in some cases months ago. One publication did pay me for an article they decided to hold, for which I am very grateful, but that is only one out of many.

When it comes to beats, I have dabbled in writing about architecture and design but really in the historical context. I had written a few things over the past maybe four years. I think the topic is very interesting but have absolutely no training in that area. It isn’t something I do regularly but because the aspect of design that I focus on is at the intersection of health, whether it is public health and an environment or design within homes, that tiny area that I do know, is all people care about. For example, I wrote an article about how infectious diseases have shaped the modern American bathroom.

CT: THIS IS SO COOL. Please write a book!

EY: Thank you! People are really interested in learning about this. I did two NPR interviews about it, one with the Australian Broadcasting Company. For some reason it has just totally blown up! I am working on a similar story now. For me, it has been an area that was a teeny tiny part of my overall beat to a much more prominent part of it. But all of a sudden now, I am getting TONS of pitches from interior design brands. So many. But I am really only writing about historical context, so I don’t really have any use for it.

CT: You don’t want to know about the latest in rugs, is what you are saying?

EY: Yes, exactly. It is historical. I try to say it in a nice way. Yes, I am writing about bathtubs but, from a hundred years ago, so … there are some brands that are relevant then and now. One of my favorite PR people works with that brand and we talk about their history, etc. but because they happened to be an industry leader then and are still around. So for me, it is this design space. I think because I do not have any formal training on this subject the way I approach it is different. I am working on the history of the home office in America right now. There is no history on this, so I have had to take it apart piece by piece. It is definitely different.

CT: Please make this book. I will read this book.

EY: It is good! But maybe I need more background. And here is the PR perspective – I am not ‘unpitchable’ but because I am not doing anything new, it is difficult. Unless you have an architectural historian, which no one is, it is tough.

CT: As quarantine starts to lift and we begin to come together, what do you predict will change in terms of your work?

EY: I don’t think it will. Because I have been working from home or remotely for a year now or while traveling, this is how I have been used to working. In that sense, it isn’t that different. One thing that will be harder after this is over – it has been so much easier to get interviews with people because everyone is at home all of the time. A lot of people are bored. That does not hold true when I am interviewing public health experts – they are NOT bored. Other people tell me to call them any time, they can talk for hours. That is not the norm! I have been able to get stuff done faster because sources have been responding to email more than usual and are more agreeable to interviews. It is just faster. They don’t need to check with a person to check their schedule. People have been more accessible, in a good way. Also, depending on who I am interviewing, it is probably pretty beneficial to them to get exposure right now. It is another kind of win-win situation.

CT: Thank you for taking the time! Always good to chat.

EY: Thank you!

For information about Dr. Elizabeth Yuko’s bioethics work or journalism, head to elizabethyuko.com.