So You Wanna be a Stringer?
I spent five years as a stringer for various British, American and Irish news organisations in Africa. I built my portfolio up from scratch until I was the first port of call for up to a dozen newspapers and radio stations. The money was good, the hours flexible enough for the occasional 18 holes in mid-morning and the work took me from my base in Nairobi to Liberia, Botswana and Mozambique – as well as across my home turf of East Africa and The Horn.
Foreign bureaux are shrinking. The days of the linen-suited staff foreign correspondent are gone. That’s sad and probably means foreign coverage is getting patchier. But it means there are more opportunities for motivated, well-organised and professional stringers – reporters who file to multiple outlets.
Now I’m starting again in Jerusalem, and as I wait for the phone to start ringing I’ve been thinking back to the lessons learned over the past five years. So here’s how to make it as a stringer:
- Learn it – you’ve been an accounts manager in a small stationery firm in Slough and fancy a change? This isn’t going to work for you. Get proper experience at a real news organisation. Learn how print, radio or TV news works. Learn how to pitch a story. Learn how to write it, record it, file it. Learn how editors think. You don’t want to be learning on the job when the job is in 50C heat of the Danakil Depression with a deadline and gunmen looming
- Bust it – be on call all day and all night. Never say no. Don’t turn your phone off. Somone wants a story, then give it to them. They have to call someone else because you have a nice lie on the fifth fairway and they won’t bother interrupting you next time. I’ve sat on newsdesks where editors have rolled their eyes at the prospect of calling an unrealiable, awkward or alcoholic stringer. Be Mr Available
- Read it – local papers are dull: full of boring council meetings and interminable political wrangles. But if you’re not reading them you’ll never spot the nib that says a British man has been found dead in a hotel room or the second sentence that happens to mention that police are questioning two women. Lots of stringers don’t bother. Idiots
- Meet it – stories come from contacts, right? Get out and about. So the conference sounds dull, or the activist comes across as a nutter? You never know when they might come in useful. What else are you doing? Probably not much in those first few weeks. And make friends with the snappers and the wire guys while you’re at it. They know what’s happening long before you do
- Blog it – chances are you’ll have time on your hands when you’re starting out. Maybe no-one wants to buy your stories just yet. Write them anyway and stick em on your blog. It gets you out and about reporting When a radio producer needs someone in Lubumbashi in a hurry, they might just find your name on google. Tweet it too. You’re not just a writer, you’re a businessman. Advertise. I’ve got work and story ideas from twitter
- Slum it – you wanna be a feature writer for The New York Times? Forget it. Sure they might come calling, but don’t be too snooty at first. Be realistic. Take work, any work so long as the publication is not going to put off other clients. Getting editors to trust you is half the battle. Once your name is out there, albeit in smaller publications, bigger news outlets are more likely to trust you. Oh, and drop the middle initial – it looks daft
- Flog it – never, ever forget that you are running a business. Someone hasn’t paid? Chase em. Keep yourself and your expenses organised and tidy. You aren’t going to change the world, or reinvent Gonzo journalism. This is your job, your living, your livelihood – not your calling. Write stories that will sell, not ones that sound like a PhD title or a development thinktank’s press release. Make sure you get paid and don’t lose your receipts (my own particular weakness)
- Whore it – an editor wants your arse, he can pay for it. So until they pull out the cheque book and pay you a juicy retainer there’s no problem with selling your stories around. Be sensible though. Don’t stitch people up. Build relationships with editors so that you know what they want and can expect them to call when they need a hit in a hurry. They’ll want to know they can count on you. But at the same time, remember they’ll happily use someone else if they can. You find Lord Lucan riding Shergar in the Timbuktu carnival? Go to the biggest payer but remember…
- Structure it – if you’ve got a big player using you, then use them to underwrite trips, guarantee your safety and cover your back. Bad things can happen to exposed stringers. Put your big player at the top of your list. Give them the best of your stuff. Organise the demands of your other strings around them. Everyone is a winner when you can share the expenses around a bit
- Do it – it’s a jungle out there (particularly if you base yourself in the Democratic Republic of Congo). But if you are any good you’ll survive. It’s the ultimate meritocracy – no room for pedestrians. And if you work really hard, run things like a business and follow these tips then you’ll be set on the ride of your life. There’s no rewriting press releases or being stuck on diary, like you would back home. You’ll be kicking news in the nuts – and occasionally having it vomit on your shoes