The panel for the Macleay College’s International Reporting Conference on freelancers in the field all seemed to agree on one thing: the importance of doing your research and building a network.
Kathryn Haynes of The Irish Times and the University of Limerick said the increasing reliance on freelancers is changing the media landscape.
“We take journalists, especially freelance journalists, for granted,” she said, adding that freelancers are now being used to “fill the vacuum created by the economic reality of the industry”. In a world where “captive journalists have become good propaganda”, safety has never been more paramount for journalists – and without the support of an organisation, Ms Haynes said, freelancers are more at risk.
“There are more opportunities for freelancers, but they’re going without protection,” she said. If freelancers are paid an appropriate amount, Ms Haynes said, they would be more likely to spend money on adequate safety measures, such as hiring a fixer and buying safety gear and insurance. As it is, most are paid $70 per article, which doesn’t begin to cover the $1000 needed per month for insurance, or the $50 per night for a bed.
“Cover the story, don’t become the story,” Steven Viney advised. A former correspondent for the Egypt Independent and a stringer for an international news agency in Egypt, Mr Viney was present when the Arab Spring revolution began in 2011. As a witness to the chaos that followed, Mr Viney knows the risks freelancing in the field presents.
“[With] Journalism and freelancing, it’s all about choices,” he said.
“There’s two sides. [There are] those who see the big dollar sign, they see something crazy, and they run into danger. They go to the frontline and start selling their photos.”
Mr Viney said he’d seen first hand the kind of danger freelancers have put themselves in for a story (“I’ve seen people lose eyes”), but noted there was a market for this kind of reporting.
On the other side of the coin, he continued, there are journalists in high conflict areas who integrate and “write long form feature stories to give insight”. He said this form of journalism was rare, and the reporters usually have a solid arrangement with the New York Times for these insightful pieces.
“There are two sides, not everyone can do that. One is very safe and one is very dangerous,” he said.
“You want to be somewhere in the middle.”
The death of James Foley at the hands of ISIS last year isn’t the benchmark for freelancers in conflict zones, Mr Viney said.
“Most freelancers, you won’t hear about their death,” he said, hinting at the morbid reality for reported who head into danger zones unprepared and unsupported.
“I wouldn’t recommend going to places you’ve never been before. Get accreditation, get a press pass, get yourself known and register with the embassy in case something happens,” Mr Viney advised, adding that it was important to have your payment agreement in writing.
Former Financial Times Latin American correspondent and current lecturer at Macleay College, Mark Mulligan agreed.
“Before you go to these places, secure some sort of string… or retainer,” he said. With the current economic landscape in media, bigger and bigger holes are opening in danger zones, he said, and therefore there may be more opportunities for freelancers.
“There is a lot of competition and if you are desperate to make a name for yourself, you will take risks. At least stay in touch with embassies, get yourself on lists… whatever structures are still in place, make yourself known,” Mr Mulligan advised.
“Do your research and build a network; figure out what’s going on… connect with local journalists, they could save your life,” Mr Viney said.
When it comes to the stories, Mr Viney again said it was all about choices.
“Stories can be as big or as small as you want them to be. Be responsible,” he said. Mr Mulligan agreed.
“If you’re based in a foreign country, you have to cover the main stories [for your organisation]. It doesn’t mean you can’t go behind these… and find a good human interest story. There’s always travel stories. The trick is the mix,” he said.
“Keep your eyes open.”
According to both Ms Haynes and entrepreneur Ronan Healy, freelancers need to be more entrepreneurial.
Mr Healy, an entrepreneurship lecturer at Macleay College, said the changing media landscape meant journalists working for themselves couldn’t rely on mainstream media to pay their way.
“Freelancers need to get creative, especially in circumstances where they can’t be paid,” he said.
He said suggested crowd funding and micro donations as a way forward in the world of freelancing.
“Seek smaller amounts from larger audiences and [from] people who are willing to invest in your business and service. Look for opportunity and generate income,” Mr Healy said. – Naomi Winner, with additional reporting by Memu Conteh
Top photo by Rebecca Hopper.