OPC Makes Emergency Grants to Freelancers Coping With Pandemic

Journalists in Hong Kong cover a confrontation between police and protesters. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

by OPC Past President Deidre Depke

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced nations across the globe to close their borders, documentary filmmaker Hassan Oswald found himself trapped in Duhok, Iraq. Oswald had been in country finishing up a feature-length documentary about a Yazidi family searching for missing loved ones. “My trip was only meant to be three weeks,” Oswald told the Overseas Press Club. “I’ve been here for two months, and the money I had so meticulously budgeted is nearly finished.”

The pandemic created a different kind of financial hardship for New York native Deborah Steinborn, a freelance reporter living in Hamburg, Germany. She said the volume of her assignments dropped precipitously. “Literally overnight, some of my regular gigs were postponed or canceled entirely as a direct result of the pandemic,” said Steinborn, the mother of two school-age children. “Pitching even to regular media clients has become challenging, to say the least. Reporting expenses aren’t being covered, freelance is not being solicited, and even when it is, the rates are far less than in the past.”

Oswald and Steinborn were two of the recipients of $750 freelancer grants from the Overseas Press Club. Designed to offset some of the financial hardship created by COVID-19, 27 grants were awarded to freelance writers, photographers, and film and video reporters abroad and in the United States. A committee of OPC governors made the awards, working from nearly 50 applications.

“Recipients told me the grants are not just helpful financially, but that they provide a real sense of comfort, knowing that there is an organization standing behind them,” said OPC President Pancho Bernasconi. “The club received appeals from very well-established journalists. It was a real wake-up call about how difficult it is for freelancers right now.”

Grant beneficiaries painted grim pictures. One had to shelve an almost completed book proposal because of the virus. “Publishers are scrambling to reschedule book releases and aren’t in a position to buy new ones,” she told the OPC. An Africa-based reporter had a three-year reporting project abruptly cancelled after being told by a publisher that all non-COVID content was being shelved entirely. He had been counting on the project to provide one-third of his annual income this year. And an early-career freelancer, who just finished a two-year graduate-level journalism program and is carrying $100,000 in student debt, has been told by multiple outlets that they’re no longer working with new freelancers because of budget and staffing shortages brought on by COVID.

The OPC grants were unrestricted, and recipients said they would use the money not just to fund future reporting projects, but to pay rent, overdue bills, and even to purchase food.

The grant program was proposed by OPC Governor and Past President Bill Holstein, who based the idea on a 1942 program for correspondents experiencing hardship while covering World War II. “I suspected that a lot of freelancers were in trouble around the world,” Holstein said. “I just put one plus one together.” OPC Governor Derek Kravitz conducted an online survey to ask freelancers about their needs and then wrote the grant application.

Once the awards were made, the club invited all applicants to create a short pitch document, detailing their locations, specialty areas, and contract information. OPC Executive Director Patricia Kranz is compiling those documents into a resource for assigning editors around the world. “We know that even as travel restrictions begin to lift, the crisis isn’t over,” Kranz said. “COVID has been financially devastating to so many newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. We’re trying to create an environment that can help correspondents survive.”

The Overseas Press Club funded the grants program with donations made during the club’s annual awards dinner. The OPC is soliciting donations for another round of grants. Donations can be sent via Zelle Quickpay to patricia@opcofamerica.org or via Paypal to paypal.me/opcofamerica.