Freelance: The Price of Freedom

Freelance: The Price of Freedom by Shai Panela. Written for

I am writing this piece with a Post-It note of my backlogs: a research proposal, three science articles, and two pitches. Not to mention my piles of papers to check (including a thesis draft) as a part-time lecturer in a university. Freelancing doesn’t sound so free after all.

I decided to go completely freelance on January 2014. On good days, I get invitations to speak about science journalism, win writing prizes (sometimes with cash), and travel to another country through a fellowship. On bad days, I don’t know what to do next or I get stuck with writer’s block.

On worst days, I’m broke, and I wonder whether I should get a regular job in the Philippines or abroad.

Since I fully committed to being a freelancer, I have been to Japan thrice, South Korea, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries. I’m currently working on my visa requirements to cover the climate change negotiations in Paris, France this December. Sounds like I’m doing something good, right? But I have been to countless hospital visits for my ailments. I also lost my father, and now I’m struggling to find a free day for a knee surgery.

Asian Scientist Writing Prize merit award (July 2015, Singapore, Photo from Asian Scientist Magazine)
Asian Scientist Writing Prize merit award (July 2015, Singapore, Photo from Asian Scientist Magazine)

Lifestyle Change

Being a freelance journalist gave me the independence I’ve always wanted. I can explore the stories I’ve been aching to write, work at my own pace, and have ample time off work to spend with my loved ones (or so I thought). Coming from regular-income jobs, the transition was scary. I had to give up the place in the city I was renting with my friends, my (almost) daily dose of lunch out and dinner out with friends, cab rides to almost anywhere and everywhere in Metro Manila, and impulsive buying of food, useless cute stuff, and clothes.

I went back to enjoying the simpler things in life: fresh air from the countryside, light and breezy commute, home-cooked meals, and watching television with my folks and pets.

Meanwhile, I went up to an active volcano, visited a nuclear reactor, rode a hydrogen-powered car, took a selfie with a CERN physicist and a world-renowned futurist, and rubbed shoulders with Nobel Prize winners and science “celebrities.”

One day I’m googling neutrinos, another day, I’m interviewing doctors who manage a leprosy research institute. I get to enter research laboratories, get advanced copies of peer-reviewed articles and ask stupid questions about how stuff works.

All of which, I don’t think I could easily do if I was still employed in a media organization where I have to give notice for leaves of absence, go online for meetings and editing duties in between conference sessions because I need to complete my “hours” for my daily time record, inform them about travel grants and scholarships, and be under bond agreements. But I also don’t get to enjoy the comfort of an easy recommendation or a company-initiated training, or get to be invited to represent a media organization in an industry-wide invitation-only workshop or seminar.

With former GMA News Online colleagues during the 2013 La Sallian Scholarum Awards.
With former GMA News Online colleagues during the 2013 La Sallian Scholarum Awards.

Gypsy of Sorts

I applied for a number of fellowships, travel grants and awards. I get accepted once for every four fellowship/grant applications I submitted. In between applications, I wonder whom to ask for a recommendation letter, or which articles I can include for my writing samples.

As a gypsy of sorts in the media industry, I try to be careful in asking for favors from editors and former supervisors. I ask myself a number of times if this person thinks I’m worth the recommendation letter, or if we are currently in good terms, or if this person is busy or not, or if the organization this editor is working for intends to send its own reporter for the travel opportunity or scholarship. I understand that regular reporters are prioritized over contributors and freelancers like me. And I believe it should be that way.

Because I get invited to speak about science journalism and science communication in schools, I always struggle to explain what I actually do for a living. Yes, I write for this publication, and this other publication which one may have not heard of yet. I also teach. I do some research for this institution. And yes, it’s called freelancing but no, I don’t think you should make me feel like I’m a second-class media person just because I don’t wear a press ID from a particular network.

Don’t “Ay, freelance” me, okay?

However, whenever I read an article I’ve been aching to write but have no resources to pursue, I tell myself, I think I should get a regular job. So I won’t have to worry about how I could fly to this remote province to interview and research. I remember one source I was talking to over the phone who told me, “I’ve read your story about our province. I believe you didn’t go here for field work. You might be surprised to know it’s a lot different from how you perceive it in your story. But it’s understandable.”

It felt like a slap in the face. I never wanted to be seen as a lousy reporter.

One of my greatest dreams is to get published in Nature, Science, Scientific American, National Geographic, BBC or Discovery. I have tried pitching story ideas to editors of these publications. I even tried pitching a story idea in a “pitch slam” a few months back during the World Conference of Science Journalists. I got rejected. But they all responded. Receiving emails of rejection feels so much better than getting ignored or getting straight to the Trash Bin or Archive folder. There was one who emailed me back: Keep pitching. My broken heart was mended immediately.

Fukushima, Japan
Fukushima, Japan

Adult Life Struggles

It’s been almost two years since I did not have an official affiliation. At least I found a way to pay my SSS, PhilHealth and PAGIBIG without hurting my pocket. Too bad I have to pay for my own health coverage. I still can’t claim my pay from this media organization because I don’t have an official receipt of my own.

But I enjoy learning and writing about science this way: independent and free. One of my college professors told me, “It’s good you found your niche.” Another mentor told me that he believes I’m doing well and that he thinks I’m going to succeed.

These confidence boosters are just what I need right now, while I’m waiting for my paycheck worth four months from a research institution which I would probably just use to pay the debts I incurred as I tried to pay my bills (phone, internet, electricity) diligently for the past few months. My insurance has lapsed already. And I don’t have savings to pay for additional expenses if I have my knee surgery anytime soon.

I’m financially broke and I wonder whether I could go on like this as I get older – I still want to build my own house and buy my own car (but first, I need a laptop battery replacement). I wanted my mom to retire and I would take over in providing our daily needs. Yet, my heart is overflowing with joy every time I see students who eagerly listen when I tell them about my experiences, or whenever I read positive comments on social media about my articles, or whenever editors and colleagues acknowledge the kind of work I do. As always, ad astra per aspera. A rough road leads to the stars.

I better get back to work.

During a science journalism fellowship, we visited a nuclear reactor in Bogor, Indonesia (2014)
During a science journalism fellowship, we visited a nuclear reactor in Bogor, Indonesia (2014)

[Entry 103, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Shai Panela.

Shai Panela previously worked as a researcher/producer for the Special Assignments Team of GMA News. She crossed over to GMA News Online where she began her passion for science journalism. She was also the head researcher for Investigative Documentaries, a public affairs show of GMA News TV hosted by Malou Mangahas.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Michio Kaku!!

    ❤ I loved this. I believe you'll do the right thing at the right time, which is to say that when the time comes that you have to "get a regular job" and you do, it's not wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bam Alegre says:

      Hi Nessreen! How about you, what is your preference? Regular job or freelance?


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