Over the course of my career as a journalist I’ve survived an airstrike, been abducted at gunpoint, stepped through brain matter in the aftermath of bombings, and had many other close calls. And yet when people ask me about the stress of covering wars, more often than not what comes to mind is the two and a half years I spent working in Afghanistan when I paid about $30,000 out of pocket to cover basic work expenses that were never reimbursed.
My experience was by no means unique. I have friends who won journalism’s top honors reporting in some of the most dangerous places without any financial support from their employers. They paid their own way to work as freelancers in foreign wars, sold work that won the highest professional accolades, but they made less than fast food workers.
That’s because a cash-strapped news media has created an unofficial business model that supports independent reporting by leaning on freelancers willing to eat their own costs and effectively pay for the privilege of working—all while risking their lives.
In the wake of ISIS's executions of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, both freelance reporters, it’s time for the media to reconsider that model.
Both Sotloff and Foley were excellent journalists, but neither were well-known reporters with extensive bodies of work. Foley spent almost just as much time in captivity in Libya and Syria—more than 600 days—as he did working as a journalist. Prior to his abduction in 2013, Sotloff had just begun publishing regular articles with Time magazine.
And yet, freelance reporters like Sotloff and Foley are at the core of every foreign story. From 2003 to 2012, newspapers axed 16,200 full-time newsroom jobs and magazines cut 38,000 jobs. A survey conducted by the American Journalism Review of 10 major newspapers and one chain found that between 2003 and 2011 the number of foreign correspondents dropped from 307 to 234. But in 2011 that number would have been much lower had AJR not also included contract reporters, who often perform the same duties as staffers but without the same benefits or pay. Freelancers working on a story-to-story basis are left to fill the void left by laid off staffers.
About a year ago, I found myself talking shop with a well-established correspondent almost two decades my senior. I lamented shouldering such heavy costs while working as a contract reporter in Afghanistan. He tried to offer me some advice. “When I was freelancing, I always made sure an organization would pay my expenses before I’d make a reporting trip,” he told me.
It was a bit like getting advice from someone in 1980 about the best way to send a letter in 2014. The world in which he started his career no longer exists. Were I, or any freelancer I know, to heed that advice, none of us would have been able to make it as reporters.
I began working as a journalist in late 2005. I moved to the West Bank, crashed at a friend’s apartment, and lived off $2 a day. I sold stories to an English-language daily in the Middle East where non-native English speakers occasionally edited unintelligible sentences into my stories. I received about $100 per story, enough to cover my costs but not even enough to maintain a $2-a-day lifestyle. After several months I started a long-term embed with the U.S. military in Iraq. The military provided food and a place to sleep, so I managed to live off the $4,000 I made that year freelancing mostly for the English-language daily, but also a national U.S. paper as I began to learn the ropes.
My beginnings are likely a familiar story to anyone who has managed to build a career as a reporter. What’s changed is what people like me are working toward. As I’ve moved up the ranks, I’ve worked for well-known, well-funded newspapers in roles ranging from staff to contract writer to freelance reporter. These organizations usually paid a living wage, but after nearly ten years as a journalist, paying to work remains an inescapable dilemma.
For years, I viewed my expenses as the operating costs faced by any small business. As long as I earned enough to make a living, I didn’t complain. Also, like many freelancers or contract reporters, I’ve often been hesitant to ask for better wages or demand newspapers cover reporting costs. No matter how long you’ve worked with a newspaper, there’s almost always someone younger and more eager who may not be as experienced but who can do the job good enough and for less money. Over time, the arrangement took a mental toll. Spending roughly a third of my earnings on expenses meant that to live and work in Afghanistan, my net pay was about the same as a janitor back in the U.S. I did make a profit and live comfortably, and I understood my main employer wasn’t in a position to provide me anything more, but after a time the arrangement wore me down.
Other lines of work might call this paying your dues, but in an industry that eliminates more jobs than it creates, what are people like me working toward? In many regards, I’ve reached the upper-tier of working journalists. I made a full-time living reporting for major news outlets and I forged a long working relationship with The Christian Science Monitor, which provided me with a contract and covered many of my expenses over the years. I was largely attracted to working with the organization because of the resources I’d seen it invest in reporter Jill Carroll, who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006 while on assignment for the Monitor as a freelancer. In my years of working with the paper, I found they maintained a reasonable commitment to working fairly with freelancers despite budget limitations.
But for most reporters, the media has restructured in such a way that there now remain only a handful of foreign reporting positions with benefits and financial stability. Landing such a job requires not only talent and experience, but luck. Sometimes even a Pulitzer Prize isn’t enough to keep someone on the dole, as in 2009 when an Arizona reporter accepted the award months after being laid off.
If freelancers are essential to providing coverage in far-flung locations for a perpetually retracting media, employers must find a balance that allows them to make money without demoralizing those who they rely on to do the most dangerous work. Had Sotloff and Foley survived, it’s difficult for me to imagine the risks they took would have rewarded them with stable, long-term careers. Even the best newsrooms in America seem unable to offer that, but it doesn’t stop them from working with freelancers who continue to take the risk despite uncertain rewards.
Tom A. Peter has reported for The Christian Science Monitor and others. He is currently a Robert Novak Journalism fellow.