Who’s Got Your Back?

Newspapers are going to the wall and freelancers in all industries are struggling as the ranks of the self-employed are swollen by the newly de-salaried. Not a good time to be a freelance journalist. There seems to be more and more competition at a time when newsdesks have less and less money to spend on stories.

The good news though is that there are lots of new outlets for journalists. Forget the traditional media and there’s a whole new world of start-ups looking for content. Video clips, photographs, podcasts can all be flogged for a few extra quid to the right sort of website. And you don’t even need to work your way up through the local and regional media, or do a training course, or endure newsroom bollockings in front of your colleagues. Anyone can do it.

This though brings its own risks. As a recent piece in The New York Times pointed out, reporters for start-up media organisations may have to be more aggressive to make an impact. It used the example of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, arrested in North Korea, while working for Current TV as a cautionary tale.

One of the risks of this kind of improvised, headlong journalism is that reporters lack the backing of large established news organizations that might have the experience and leverage to deal with foreign governments. While Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee, full-time employees of Current, have the backing Al Gore, who is a founder of the network, they lack the support system that their colleagues at CNN and the British Broadcasting Corporation enjoy.

At least they have the advantage of being full-time employees. Current may not have much experience of this sort of thing, but at least they know their responsibility to their staff. Freelancers, increasingly opting for newer organisations, are at much more risk.

Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan were kidnapped outside Mogadishu more than 300 days ago while on a series of freelance assignments. In comparison, Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, and Jose Cendon, a photographer, were released after 40 days in captivity.

The kidnappings in Somalia are all about the cash. By and large, despite scare stories to the contrary, Somali gangsters are businesslike pragmatists rather than mad muzzahs. They want cash in hand rather than rolling heads on youtube.

The problem for Amanda and Nigel is that there is no-one to pay for their release. Family and friends have struggled to raise the ransom. The Australian and Canadian high commissions in Nairobi refuse to pay. And without an employer to foot the bill, the two are likely to remain captive for some time to come. I hope there is a fast resolution but I’m not optimistic.

I don’t know what arrangements they made with the media outlets they were stringing for. My own rule for places like Somalia is to make sure that one of my organisations is prepared to take responsibility. I want to know that I’m on their insurance and that the resources of one of my outlets will be deployed to get me out. Of course, the main idea is not to get into trouble in the first place, but if I do then I want someone to have my back.

That means travelling for a portfolio of clients which includes at least one old-fashioned, media house with deep pockets. I do plenty of stuff for other people – websites, radio stations and papers with smaller budgets or less idea of the risks of Africa – and while they may chip in with expenses I’m under no illusions about their commitment to me. 

New media offer tremendous opportunities for freelancers like me, but they don’t come without risks.