How to navigate freelance journalism in hostile environments. Tips from an old “pro”
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. 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.
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, back in the day 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!
I’m doing some marketing for my dad here. Yeah, it’s shameless, but it’s just that he’s such a wonderful nature photographer. Really, he is. He’s been at it for over 50 years now, and his feed never ceases to surprise me. (I’m Hugh Edward Naylor IV, and he’s the III, by the way. It sounds regal, yes, but it’s actually not. Just a bunch of hillbillies who’ve kept the naming going for far too long …)