By Hugh Naylor
This isn’t much of a post. It’s more quick-hit musings on a topic that scares me, that scares lots of people, that should scare everyone.
Those apocalyptic fires in Australia make me think of … the Middle East. This part of world isn’t known for lush forests, so fires, apart from little Lebanon, haven’t been much of a thing. Which alarms me even more, because the effects of global warming have nevertheless started taking a particularly pronounced toll on the region.
I can’t help think that the recent surge of protests in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon has something to do with climate change. Yes, on the face of it, we see protesters angered by the gangsters and kleptocrats who’ve not done such a great job at governance. Underneath this, though, has been a steady accumulation of stories over the years about drying reservoirs, worsening power blackouts and scorching heat waves, along with simmering frustrations over an inability of local officials to address these issues. (Oh, and don’t forget the mounting demands from rapidly growing populations.)
I don’t think these protests, sadly, will deliver the hoped-for – and deserved – governance that these noble demonstrators demand. I think we’ll see more of these protests, yes, but they’ll eventually hatch … ugh … I don’t even want say it because it’s so depressing.
The story that alarmed me most during my ten years in the Middle East wasn’t about the civil wars and failed revolutions. It was an article I wrote from Iraq in 2016 about record temperatures and how the country effectively shut down as a result. Iraq is hot, yes. But this was next-level hot. Even ISIS fighters found it too hot to do their thing and continue mass murdering. We’re talking the hottest recorded temperatures – ever – in the Eastern Hemisphere.
I remember interviewing a UNDP official about the heat wave, and he ever so casually threw out the term “civilizational collapse.” It was so shocking when I heard it that I didn’t include it in my article. I feared coming across as sensational, but looking back, I should have put it in there.
We’re all gonna be royally screwed by our warming climate, some regions more than others. I came away from that visit to Iraq feeling sick to my stomach, with images in my mind’s eye of collapsing Middle Eastern cities and abandoned villages, Europe-bound refugee boats numbering in the thousands, famine and, yes, more war.
Damn, I sound pessimistic. But it was just so hot. And it wasn’t just the heat. Down south, in the city of Basra, humidity was so intense that you essentially couldn’t sweat away the sizzling temperatures. So, if you didn’t have air conditioning, you boiled on the inside.
Anyway, here are a few articles from that trip to Iraq. They might be of interest as you read about Australia and what will certainly be more horrific evidence of the depressing future that awaits us:
- An epic Middle East heat wave could be global warming’s hellish curtain-raiser
- In the broiling heat, boys in Baghdad rush to the Tigris for relief
- Iraq is boiling in unprecedented heat. Here’s how locals are trying to cope.
- Snapchat Story: Scenes from Baghdad’s sweltering heat wave
By Hugh Naylor
This is a post about how to freelance in war zones, with quick tips further down.
What follows probably isn’t what you’d expect from a blog post about freelancers, so hear me out.
The Middle East in particular nowadays can be a dangerous place for journalists, and recent events involving Uncle Sam and its regional archnemesis, Iran, appear to have made reporting there even more perilous. Demand for news from the region has been intense, even in our Donald Trump-obsessed media environment. In recent years, we’ve seen the horrific consequences facing journalists who’ve braved places like Syria. I’m talking about, of course, the kidnappings and even beheadings. There’s one thing the unfortunate souls who’ve vanished forever or ended up making cameos in murder-porn videos released by the Islamic State tended to have had in common with each other.
They worked as freelancers.
Freelancing is probably more prevalent than you realize. Yes, we’ve all heard about the down-and-out freelancer roaming conflict zones, living hand-to-mouth, hopping from gig to gig, paid $150 an article by some digital-native publication.
But there’s more to it.
You see, news organizations have gotten creative with their cost-cutting over the last decade and a half, after the decimation of ad-revenue models by tech monopolies like Facebook and Google. These outlets, including the world’s most prominent newspapers, have designed a number of their their foreign-correspondent positions with efficiency in mind. What I’m referring to here is the position of the glorified freelancer.
Now, the glorified freelancer doesn’t look like a freelancer. This breed of journalist works full time for a particular outlet covering hot spots like Syria or the Israel-Palestinian conflict or wherever. They wear the fancy titles: Middle East Correspondent for Whatever Newspaper, but such positions have been gutted of benefits. The glorified freelancer isn’t an employee, you see, but they work like one. They don’t have company healthcare. They don’t have a 401k. They don’t have access to unions and the associated collective-bargaining perks, meaning that glorified freelancers are typically paid well below an actual employee.
This isn’t some quirk in the system. It’s deliberate. These positions have been designed as bare-bones hustle machines by editors, and these editors ask the journalists who assume such positions to cover some of the most violent conflicts of our time (i.e. Middle East stuff). I’m not going to get into all the reasons why this is not only incredibly unethical but also a possible violation of federal labor laws (because full-time freelancing like this is, well, an oxymoron).
Let me also note that when you’re a glorified freelancer, the work is steadier. You get a salary (albeit one that’s far lower than your employee colleagues). But lots of the problems facing pure freelancers also dog the glorified freelancer. Your editor can cut you loose you on a whim — no problem. If your editor is homophobic, then the gay glorified freelancer risks having his gig suddenly swept out from under him. If you’re suddenly pregnant, well, don’t hope for good will from your editors. (In fact, if you want to know how new organizations treat pregnant glorified freelancers, I suggest you follow up with The Washington Post. You’ll be in for a surprise.)
OK, so here’s the point of this blog post. I’ve reported from dangerous places in all the ways that news organizations have tinkered with infusing correspondent positions with the benefits-free attributes of freelancing. I was a pure freelancer with The New York Times in pre-civil war Syria. I was a glorified freelancer with a newspaper called The National, covering the civil war in Syria, along with two wars in Gaza and the revolution in Egypt. And again, with The Washington Post, I reported as glorified freelancer from places like Yemen and Iraq.
And what did I learn from these experiences? Approach your editors with skepticism. Don’t expect them to have your best interests at heart because, I’m sorry to say, they probably don’t. Think of yourself first. If you’re going to report on wars and revolutions, then you — and you alone — need to make sure your proverbial behind is covered. If you’re an aspiring conflict reporter or one who’s already out in the field, treading the waters of whatever form of freelancing you’re mired in, then here’s a few tips to help you navigate along the way:
1. Get War-zone Insurance
Folks, this is essential. If you find yourself wounded by one of Bashar al-Assad’s carpet bombings, it’s a safe bet your normal healthcare plan won’t cover you. Your insurer will probably tell you your policy doesn’t cover war zones … for all the obvious reasons. So if you’re all but bleeding out in the field, then you might be on your own. Perhaps whatever outlet you’re freelancing for will chip in and help you pay the cost for recovering from your amputated leg or badly burned arms, but don’t count on it. Demand your editors pay for war-zone coverage in advance of the wars you cover. If they refuse, well, then you know you shouldn’t be freelancing for them. Never incur unnecessary risks to accommodate an editor. And believe me, I know for a fact that editors these days can be all too ready to have you incur such risks for them, including your very life, despite the no-strings-attached arrangements they put you on. I’ve had editors toss me into war zones without war-zone insurance, including in Syria in 2012, where I got bombed in my underwear and had a rebel put a pistol to my forehead. Don’t be like me.
2. Get a Flak Jacket and Helmet
Look, if it’s a direct hit, you’re probably a goner. But if it’s not, shrapnel can still slice through you from meters away. Your flak jacket offers added protection from this, and your helmet, too. They’re heavy. When wearing an armor-plated jacket, you sweat like you’re in a Turkish bath. All that said, you need both. And even if you’re a freelancer, your news outlet should pay for these essentials. So ask your editor. No, demand this from your editor. And if he or she says no, then, once again, it’s not worth the risk. Note that getting your flak and helmet in order might seem like an obvious thing to do, but I’ve seen countless journalists running around the bombed-out wreckage of Aleppo and Gaza City without them. Don’t be like them.
3. Make Sure You Have the Means for Therapy
Odds are, if you’re in a war zone, you’re gonna get traumatized. You’re likely to see violent death. You’re likely to see horrendous suffering. Even the stories told by those who are suffering in war zones impact you. I’ll never forget interviewing a father whose son was decapitated by an Israeli airstrike. The kid was dead and buried by the time I interviewed his dad, but it got to me. For years, that kid — a kid who I never met — featured prominently in my nightmares. But here’s the thing: therapy works. And your news outlet should make it abundantly clear to you that in return for trudging into the depths of hell, they’ll pay for therapy. They should make it an option before you even enter a war zone. If they don’t, then demand it. You’re the one who’s putting the proverbial neck on the line, not them.
4. Demand, Demand, Demand
Again, don’t be shy. Tell your editors what you want. Scream it atop roofs. Make it abundantly clear that because you’re risking it all, you demand certain perks. If you find yourself in a glorified freelancer gig with a newspaper, then demand they hand over an extra $8,000 in cash, in addition to your salary, for half-decent healthcare. Don’t listen to their excuses for why they won’t do this. After all, if you’re a glorified freelancer, this boils down to your news organization freeloading off your labor. There shouldn’t be such a thing as a glorified freelancer, but alas, in this day and age, when the gig economy has overtaken the media industry as thoroughly as it has, it happens. So you have to ask yourself whether you want to expose yourself to extreme violence for a news organization that thinks you’re good enough to die on some battlefield but not worthy of healthcare and a 401k. Sorry, but editors think this way, even if they don’t outright tell you it. So tell your editors you want things: more money, more time off, therapy, whatever. If they don’t like this, then that’s their problem. You’re not a charity. You’re performing a service that’s worthy of solid compensation (especially if you’re in conflict zone).
Just don’t be a fool and think editors will have your back. This isn’t 1995, when news outlets had fattened-enough budgets to care. We’re in the gig economy, folks, and your interests — your life — must take priority over the guys sitting at their desks, safe in the newsroom.
OK, that’s all for now. More to come!
- This is a no-frills essay about news organizations hiring full-time “freelance” journalists to report in dangerous places, and how this can be exploitative.
- A number of prominent news outlets hire freelancers who are asked to work full time and, essentially, exclusively. In effect, they become employees without employee benefits.
- The full-time freelancer saves news outlets money in terms of benefits not paid (no company healthcare, no 401k, etc) and tax perks.
- Some full-time freelancers report from conflict zones and journalist-arresting dictatorships, compounding the problems they face.
- News outlets like the The Washington Post had me report for them as a full-time freelancer during my decade in the Middle East, where I experienced PTSD, substance abuse and depression. I was interviewed about this by a British tabloid, which I explain farther down.
- The trend of full-time freelancing translates to news organizations offloading the costs of journalism onto the journalists.
By Hugh Naylor
It was the sudden bitterness I remember experiencing the day Jason Rezaian was released from Iranian prison.
I was walking to the grocery near my apartment in Beirut, Lebanon when one of the editors on the The Washington Post’s foreign desk emailed with a request that I get to work, pronto, to see if I could obtain a comment from an official in Tehran. Turning back to my flat, obedient as ever, I could practically taste it. No, it wasn’t a bitterness about the end of Jason’s 544-day ordeal at the hands of an authoritarian regime that drapes its cruelty in an Islamic facade. His newfound freedom left me, like all his colleagues, breathing a sigh of relief.
It was that “Free Jason” pin attached to the lapel of the particularly powerful editor at The Post, the man who spoke in a mortician’s monotone and ever so enthusiastically joined his colleagues in calling for Jason’s release.
I thought of that “Free Jason” pin and wondered whether, like me, Jason got denied company healthcare by that powerful editor. When Iranian agents burst into his home in Tehran in 2014, arresting him and his wife, Jason probably didn’t have a 401k, either. Like me, he had the fancy title — Correspondent with The Washington Post — but he also likely didn’t have access to the newspaper’s union.
Those of us who worked as The Post’s full-time freelance correspondents suspected Jason was one of us, a fellow “contractor,” as the editors referred to our benefits-free arrangements. If he was, the editors certainly didn’t announce him as such. It would have looked bad. After all, even though correspondents like me represented the newspaper’s “Haves-nots,” our trappings (deliberately) looked no different from the “Haves.”
Lots of news organizations nowadays do what The Post has for years done with its correspondents, compensating a number of them more like freelancers despite working them like actual employees. Although classified as freelancers, you see, these kinds of correspondents usually report exclusively for a single news organization. They work full time, often on weekends, and regularly pull off overtime because news doesn’t fit a nine-to-five schedule. Their editors delegate assignments and issue demands that can’t really be rejected because, even though formally freelance, full-time freelancers would risk losing their gig (emphasis on the word “gig” here).
Editors in these scenarios aren’t your clients or a one-off interaction for a particular assignment — they’re your bosses. So you pretend like you’re an employee, even when reporting in war zones and journalist-arresting dictatorships.
Heeding the demands of my “employer,” I tried my best to reach Iranian officials on that January day. No success, as expected, but I was focused more on Jason, anyway.
I’ve never met him. He seems like a nice guy. To this day, I wonder whether the money saved from (possibly) denying Jason healthcare went toward a salary increase to that powerful editor, the one who speaks in a mortician’s monotone. Maybe the savings from not offering him and others a 401k were diverted toward refurbishing the offices of Executive Editor Marty Baron. (Just a few months before Jason’s release, after all, the newspaper began moving into its gleaming new newsroom on K Street.) Maybe, I wondered, The Post won an Overseas Press Club Award for a lengthy investigation that was financed by the extra cash from preventing a number of its foreign correspondents from joining the union and, therefore, receiving the right to fair pay.
In the United States, it’s technically illegal for employers to use freelancers like employees. If your work for a particular organization closely resembles that of an employee, then the federal government and legal precedent say you should probably be compensated like an employee. (Note that journalists in America very much face the problem of full-time freelancing.)
But here’s the thing. When you’re a journalist abroad, when you’re hovering far away from the federal government’s remit, the legal avenues for demanding employee rights aren’t as readily available.
“Sorry, pal, but the Labor Department can’t help you when you’re in Tehran or Beirut or wherever.” That’s what Department employees tell you.
In this era of anemic ad-revenue models, decimated foreign bureaus and non-existent attention spans, editors today are obviously rather bottom-line obsessed. So, to cut costs, they’ve camouflaged a number of correspondent positions with the fancy titles while gutting them of the meaty (or, I’d argue, basic) benefits.
It’s a salty pill to swallow when you watch The Post’s union battling Jeff Bezos over improvements to benefits that you, the full-time freelancer, don’t have. The union people would decry their treatment by the world’s richest man, but didn’t seem to care much about advocating for those of us suspended in the paper’s “Have-not” category. You wanted to scream at them for help, but that risked getting you in trouble, maybe even fired by that powerful editor who wore the “Free Jason” pins.
It seems like a bum gig, the way I’m describing it. But with so many down-and-out freelancers roaming our broken media landscape these days, you could see why the takers for such positions could quickly fill Madison Square Garden, probably twice over. What they’d lack in compensation, the world’s endless supply of ambitious freelancers would make up for in prestige by affiliation with an elite news organization — or so goes the thinking.
As for me, well, it’s disheartening to realize that your news organization essentially freeloads off your labor — the kind of labor, might I remind you, performed near an Islamic State-held Fallujah or in Sanaa as civil war kicks off in Yemen. More precisely, the freeloading is off the ability of full-time freelancers to save for retirement or put a downpayment on a house.
It’s more than just denying benefits. When compared to employees, full-time freelancers offer way more flexibility in terms of hiring and firing. Their flimsy contracts can be shredded not just on a moment’s notice but also for any reason, legitimate or otherwise. If your editor is racist, then he can just scrap his contract with the lone black freelancer. No explanation required. Or if your editor wants to brandish what he thinks are his woke credentials, then he can do the same to a white-male freelancer. No problem.
(If you want to get a sense of how ruthless this no-strings-attached system can be, I suggest you ask editors at The Post about their policy towards full-time freelance correspondents who are pregnant.)
About a year or two ago, The Post had about a half-dozen or more freelance foreign correspondents reporting at any given time, according to conversations I’ve had with people either still at the paper or who have since moved on. (I’m not citing their names or precise status because they could get in trouble.) A few have given precise numbers of full-time freelancers — including the lucky number seven — but it’s hard to know because, for obvious reasons, such information isn’t made readily available to the public.
Seven doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you factor in turnover in these positions over the years, then the number of journalists who’ve cycled through this form of gig journalism is probably dozens and dozens. And if you factor in other news outlets that have used full-time freelance correspondents, too, then we’re probably talking in the hundreds.
All of these journalists have amounted to one thing: solid savings for their news organizations.
Think two correspondents for the price of one.
Think all the great content for half the cost.
The savings come from, of course, refusing to pay for company healthcare and retirement. There’s also a tax benefit for news organizations that, lo and behold, the freelancer (or, in IRS lingo, the “independent contractor”) ends up having to pay.
What a bargain.
Here’s a rough estimate of the annual savings for a news organization that uses one full-time freelance correspondent. Note that the benefits might vary from news outlet to news outlets, and that this estimate is pretty bare-bones:
- $7,000 less per year spent on company healthcare.
- $10,000 less per year spent on 401k matching.
- $20,000 less per year spent on salary. (Because full-time freelancers don’t have union access, their ability to bargain for fair pay is non-existent.)
- $4,000 in reduced taxes.
- I’m not including here company-provided perks, like laptops, housing allowances and such because, really, all full-time freelancers want are employee basics.
So that’s about $41,000 per year. If you have seven full-time freelancers on hand, then that’s about $287,000 a year. It might not look like a huge amount, but when reaped over the course of ten years, that’s nearly $3 million. That’s certainly more than enough to finance a Pulitzer-winning investigation or three.
So what do these savings mean for the full-time freelancer? You’re not on the brink of starvation like one of those underpaid Walmart employees who’s forced to rely on food stamps. It’s more like putting off important medical procedures because of what you’d pay out of pocket, or relinquishing the dream of homeownership, because:
- The health insurance that you’re required to buy for yourself is generally cheap and therefore awful, so you avoid using it and incurring the extra costs. (In my case, I had to pay for a hernia-repair procedure in Lebanon out of pocket because, instead of the The Post’s healthcare, I had to buy a cheaper version that I could afford. What saved me in this case was getting the Indiana Secretary of State’s office to intervene on my behalf in the matter.)
- The pay is enough to cover your rent, do some travel, have some fun, but not much more than this. (Which is why full-time freelancers cling to their positions, because one wrong move, and they’re unable to keep up with those student loan payments.)
Over my nearly two-and-a-half years with The Post, I saved its editors hunks of cash. So have the others. And so did Jason, I suspect, though he’s now definitely an employee — and a deserving one, at that.
After Jason’s release, I’ll admit to wondering if getting arrested by an authoritarian regime is what it definitively takes to get employee benefits. The Post, after all, never gave me or any of its full-time freelancers a criteria for how to become an actual employee. It was all based on the whims and favoritism of the higher-ups, from what I could tell. Most freelancers never made the transition to employee, and some have hovered in freelancer limbo for the better part of a decade.
My situation was tough. I had PTSD by the time I joined The Post, partly because my previous employer, The National, also treated me and its other foreign correspondents as full-time freelancers. (I’ll write more about this soon.)
I worked hard, for a time, at least, and complied with every demand of my editors. I worked weekends for them, along with 12-hour days and when breaking news, well, broke. A suicide bomber blew up right next to the compound where I stayed in Baghdad. US embassy staff evacuated when I was in the Yemeni capital because it got too darn dangerous. I pressed ahead back then because my relationship was, in practice, exclusive and full time with The Post — if I didn’t obey editor demands to pounce on a story, then my job would have been even less secure. I’ll admit, though, to feigning interest in covering war zones to my editors and colleagues while actually clinging to my home office in Beirut. It’s one thing to cover war, you learn, but it’s entirely another to do so knowing that you’re seen as cheap labor.
I tried to push ahead even as I found myself slipping, struggling with substance-abuse problems, finding it harder and harder to work. I don’t know if it’s accurate to describe my use of Tinder in Beirut as one of an addict, but it certainly felt like it. (I should note here that lots of Western journalists, both men and women, straight and gay, white, brown and black, dated and hooked up with lots of Lebanese people. Some married Lebanese partners. I almost did, too, then my now-ex left me for a former boyfriend, a wealthy businessman. It was a different time back then, back in 2015 and 2016, before it got really bad there.)
I won’t get into my issues with depression in the Middle East, but it was bad.
Recently, I recounted some of these issues in an interview with a British tabloid, and people weren’t pleased. Close friends criticized me. “How could you go to a tabloid? And all these women? And the cocaine? Doesn’t look good, Hugh.”
Fair enough. I pitched the idea about full-time freelancers to other media outlets, but the response? “Thanks, Hugh. We’re gonna pass, but please pitch other ideas.” You might dis the sensationalism (and I myself am not a huge fan of the tabloid article’s headline), but at least the tabloid covered the bigger issue at hand. If I could go back in time, I would do the exact same thing again.
That’s not to say I’m proud of my behavior. Not at all.
My decision-making back then was off. I should have been spending my money on therapy instead of drugs and booze. In fact, I made some awfully unnecessary, reckless expenditures that put a damaging dent into my savings (and I intend to write about this, too). But in my warped logic, it made sense at the time. I thought I could just grin and bear the psychological stuff, power through the problems like a man. Rather than pay out of pocket for therapy — because, to my mind, this was an expensive outlay — I thought I’d go to the gym or take a run or get so blind drunk that I’d forget my problems. Let me emphasize: therapy was an expensive outlay, but one I should paid for back then anyway.
Also, I should add that I didn’t want my editors to know about my problems. I didn’t trust them, except for one, Tiffany, and I’m not sure why I didn’t tell her. I should have because she’s both an excellent editor and a wonderful person. I guess it’s because, when you’re a contractor, the bullies lurking in the newsroom can smell your weakness. The more ruthless ones look for reasons to pounce because, hey, office turf wars and ego-driven squabbles … they happen at any organization. If the bullies knew I had problems, I reckoned, then there was a good chance they’d have tried to have me canned. That was my logic, and I think the correct logic, at that, given what’s happened to other full-time freelance correspondents since I left the paper.
I resigned from The Post in late 2016 and left the region traumatized, exhausted, wanting to do nothing more than sleep on a couch for a month straight. I returned home after having spent a decade witnessing intense things — airstrikes, dead kids, bomb-severed body parts, a rebel pistol placed on my forehead — and this manifested, embarrassingly so, when I got slurring drunk in front of my parents at dinner party thrown in my honor.
Back in America, I slept on an air mattress for about a year, doing little other than watching Game of Thrones and smoking joints here and there. I signed up for business school but dropped out because I couldn’t concentrate.
Fast forward to now, and I’m doin’ pretty damn well. No more drugs. A drink or two at the weekend. Which is how it should be, if you ask me. I’m really enjoying work. Civilian life is relaxing. I’ve got a support network and have received the right treatment. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience all that I’ve experienced, even if it involved some of life’s scarier and darker and more harrowing aspects. Lucky to be alive, what with getting bombed in Syria and Gaza — repeatedly.
I haven’t felt happier.
A year ago, I started the process of writing a book about my experiences in the Middle East. And it was during this process I realized that I — along with so many others of my generation — endured journalism’s version of the gig economy. So many others have gone through what I went through, often experiencing even far worse circumstances.
It was during this process of kicking off my book research that I experienced a flashback to a moment of clarity, when I knew I had had enough of both The Post and gig journalism. I was sitting across from that particularly powerful editor who used to wear the “Free Jason” pins. We were at a restaurant in Washington ordering lunch, and with that mortician-like monotone of his, he told me I could stay on in my role — that is, as his full-time freelancer. No employee status. No benefits. Then he changed topics, telling me how he wanted me to cover one of the bloodiest, most dangerous battles in recent Middle East history: the Mosul offensive against the Islamic State.
At that very moment, I recall my mind’s eye seeing another pin fixed to his lapel. It read: “Hugh Naylor — Washington Post Cannon Fodder.”