2019: Full-time freelancing, year six.
January 2019 marks the beginning of my sixth year as a full-time freelancer. Am I surprised to have made it this far? Yes and no. I feel like I’ve scored a minor victory to still be standing as a freelance journalist — without having had to do that many commercial, corporate jobs, hooray! — but at the same time I suppose I was always going to try my darnedest to stick it out because there isn’t really anything else that I want to do as much as this.
It’s been some time since I last wrote a post about being a freelancer; way past time, I suppose, for a reflection on how things have been, and what I see (or hope to see) ahead. Especially since 2018 was such a big year, with so much to digest.
2018 was my first full year as Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, a platform for Southeast Asian journalism, research, art, and community-building that I co-founded with some friends. Pairing that with my freelance work has been an intense exercise — there are never enough hours in the day anymore — but it’s also linked me up with fellow freelancers in the region, and given me the opportunity to build more connections and hopefully create a space where we can look out for each other.
Last year was also the year in which I had the opportunity to attend great meetings, conferences and workshops, linking up with other editors and journalists and given lots of food for thought about where I want to be going.
The Outriders Summit, for instance, brought me to Poland (for the first time!) and introduced me to journalists doing great work in a part of the world I know very little about. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but was the start of something that I’m looking forward to exploring further.
Another great highlight, though, was Uncovering Asia, the third Asian investigative journalism conference organised by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (Newstapa), and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
I don’t consider myself an investigative journalist. I don’t think I’ve done enough digging to qualify as one. Investigative journalism also isn’t that much of a thing in Singapore, where the mainstream press is so muzzled and control over the flow of information is so tight. Also, the need to pay bills isn’t exactly conducive to investigative journalism — I don’t know any platform that would pay me a decent enough income for me to stop trying juggling too many jobs at once and actually get stuck into a story.
That said, I do want to do more impactful work, work that unearths more, explains more, deepens our understanding of things that are happening around us. So there was plenty to learn when I turned up at Uncovering Asia, and plenty of people to learn from.
Over that short period of time I attended sessions on coding, on coping with threats and harassment, on verifying fake news, on digital security, on the business of journalism. Every session I picked had some relation to my work and/or things that I’ve experienced in these past six years: online trolls and abuse, concerns about propaganda, about surveillance and safety, and — especially with New Naratif now chugging along — on keeping operations out of the red.
I spent a lot of time in those sessions diligently taking notes, but it’s taken some time to really process everything that’d been covered. Caught up in the moment of each session, it’s easy to think, “I want to do this! And that! And I should definitely be doing more of that.” But with some time and distance comes a more sensible voice. One that says, “Calm down and think about what you can really achieve with what you have.”
There were many ways in which I could have shot off in a million directions based on what I encountered at Uncovering Asia. I’ve had so many experiences of beating myself up over not doing more, or doing better, or writing this or that earth-shattering story. Yet it’s important to realise one’s limits, too, and to work hard without pushing oneself to the point of burn-out (as regularly happens in my time freelancing).
So I need some time after the workshop to really think, realistically, about what can or can’t be done. Investigative work is resource-intensive; it’s not something that I, a lone freelancer with very little (or no) funding, can really sink my teeth into in a sustainable way. Yet that doesn’t mean that lessons learned about Uncovering Asia can’t be applied — points on dealing with harassment, on digital safety, on cross-border collaboration and practice can and should be incorporated into the work that I’m already doing. And I definitely need to put more thought into the business of journalism, because we want New Naratif to continue being a platform not just for me, but journalists, researchers and artists all across Southeast Asia.
Freelancing can sometimes feel like a very lonely endeavour, especially in Singapore where the market is small and solidarity between journalists isn’t particularly strong. Beyond the sessions, events like Uncovering Asia have a lot of value simply in the way it brings people together. It’s impossible to measure the benefit or profit one gets from sitting in a room and knowing that others there share the same drive, motivation and goal, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Coming as I do from a place where press freedom is talked about but no one really seems to want to stick their neck out to properly fight for it, it’s inspiring, and strengthening, to hear from journalists in other places who do care and do want to stand up for the struggle, no matter where they are in the world.
When I first started freelancing, all I wanted to do was survive, to prove to myself and others that it’s possible to do. Now, with five years under my belt, I can’t necessarily say that I’m getting any better paid, but I do at least feel like I’m in a better space to make clear choices about where I want to go and what I want to do, and also to start creating space for collaborating and sharing with others. So for 2019, I hope not only to continue having the opportunity to cut through the clichés about Singapore and write more in-depth pieces, but also to facilitate more opportunities and growth alongside other freelancers. ‘Cos what are we if we don’t stick together, right?