Making it as freelance science journalists in Southeast Asia
Episode 1 | 26 Feb 2021
Science journalists are rare in Southeast Asia, and the freelance ones are likely critically endangered. The only other full-time freelance science journalists I know in Malaysia is moving overseas soon.
I fear I’m the only one left in the country — if you know of any other, please tell me.
In this first episode of Monsoon, I grab my colleagues in the region and we describe what we do and how we do it in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
We touch on many aspects of our career, some which are likely unique to us. For one, very few people know what science journalists are. Sandy, for example, has to correct people who presumes that she writes about beauty when they learn she’s a reporter.
And Dyna, who stays in northern Sumatra in a village surrounded by orchards and rubber estates, has to explain to her community how she makes a living without stepping out of her house much.
I hope this episode clears some of the confusion.
As a science journalist, we take research findings and explain it so that “your mom or a teenager” can understand it, says Sandy. We simplify the science without dumbing it down.
When much of information is misinformation, truth can easily be misconstrued. “I think that’s our job, purveying or translating science for the lay people,” she adds.
Dyna agrees. Science journalists add value because “they give the scientific perspective into the matter,” she says. In 2020, the Society of Indonesian Science Journalists, an organisation which Dyna leads, worked with the Alliance of Independent Journalists to teach about 200 Indonesian journalists how to cover Covid-19.
That’s an amazing number that shows the demand for science journalism, or at least science journalism skills in mainstream media.
What’s more unbelievable is that the training was conducted over WhatsApp! I bet nobody dares complain of Zoom fatigue after that.
More than writing
What’s in a day of a freelance science journalist? Sandy takes us (in one go) through reading, pre-reporting, pitching, reporting, transcribing, editing, writing.
Sounds like a lot, no? Imagine adding parental duties to that, which is what Dyna does with cooking for her children and teaching them at home during Covid-time.
And there’s always the need to work with the editors’ time zone, which could be 12–15 hours behind ours. I’ve had to do last minute online chats at midnight in Malaysia when an urgent question hit my editor as he/she sipped her morning coffee. The good news with that time zone difference is that we would be earning USD. No pain, no gain.
Who pays us?
Sandy and I both write about the environment and health, though she also reports on technology (e.g., battery tech for Spectrum). Dyna likes to walk into a fire and tackles controversial politics and policies related to science (e.g., publication game gone wrong).
We love what we write. And we love that we are paid for it.
We list some of the outlets we write for: MIT Review, Wired, BBC Future, Science, Nature, Nikkei Asia, Hakai, and Science News. These are mostly based in the United States and Europe.
Why do we write mostly for the West? There’s a good reason: “Ching-ching” — money! Publishers in the West seem to be demanding the most for science stories, and they pay the most too. We feel that it’s easiest to pitch them and get paid than to try anywhere else.
Aside from Macaranga which I co-run and co-fund (sob, sob), I have almost never written for a Malaysian outlet. I remember when I first pitched The Star, the biggest English daily in the country, the editor took my pitch for weeks only to tell me that she had “no time to consider it”.
That was 2014; I did not bother to pitch to a Malaysian publisher ever again.
Not a priority in Southeast Asia
Not surprisingly, Malaysian publishers also don’t pay much. In January 2021, I polled a Facebook group that has more than 700 members who self-identified as Malaysian science communicators (different from science journalists).
I asked how much were they paid by Malaysian publishers for a science feature story of 500 words?
The poll received 15 responses. Four said they weren’t paid a cent, one said less than USD12, and nine said between USD25–63.
I can almost hear a thousand sighs sweep across Southeast Asia. But I hope that publishers in Southeast Asia would hit back and prove me wrong.
What explains the the low pay rates and weak demand for science stories in the region?
Sandy thinks it’s because “news outlet in Southeast Asia lack dedicated science desks” and that research here trails that in the West. (But note that Singapore, the R&D powerhouse of the region, also doesn’t pay well for science stories.)
Dyna says some of the major outlets in Indonesia have staff science journalists. But beyond the big players, she “cannot see others publishing science stories.”
The silver lining is that we three show that it’s possible to make a living writing science stories in Southeast Asia! Just remember to turn to the Western publishers for your next loaf of bread.
And even when we can make a living off the Western publishers, income as a freelance journalist can be pretty irregular. I earned more in 2020 than in 2019, but in 2020, most of my pay only came in the last three months of the year.
I think a full-time freelance journalist must have the skill and discipline to manage cash flow.
Since we have stayed in this career for 4–9 years, despite the financial woes, we must enjoy it, right?
“You are always learning something new with every story you do,” says Sandy. She also likes the job for “giving access to people and places that we normally won’t have access to.”
Nobel laureates, government ministers, poachers, smugglers. We have spoken to them all and more.
“Having ordinary people and laypeople share their stories with you when you are a complete stranger…that part amazes me as well. It’s very humbling,” says Sandy.
Also, let’s not forget the chance to travel on the job. Dyna has gone to South Korea, United States and Switzerland on journalism fellowships or grants.
Myself, all my four visits to Indonesia were paid reporting trips. And I joined other science journalists on an elaborate tour of the CERN facility as part of the World Conference of Science Journalists 2019 excursions. That was definitely the most bad-ass trip I would never have had if I wasn’t a science journalist.