It was almost one year ago that photojournalist and Restrepo director Sebastian Junger lost his good friend and colleague, Tim Hetherington, to a shrapnel wound suffered while covering the conflict in Libya. Photojournalist Chris Hondros was also killed, and two other photographers were injured in the incident.
The tragedy inspired Junger’s latest project, RISC—Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues—an initiative to train and equip freelance journalists with emergency medical training. RISC holds its inaugural three-day workshop in New York Wednesday. The 24 freelance journalists participating are asked to pay only the cost of travel and food.
Junger’s initiative is inspiring and much-needed; but the fact that he, a freelancer, had to found it, should give the media industry some pause about the gaps it has left its growing corps of foreign-based freelance journalists to fill.
This rise in both freelancers and the need to keep them safe was no more apparent than at “Covering the Globe,” a four-speaker panel co-sponsored by CJR with Thomson Reuters last week. Freelance, or “gig” correspondents, panelists said, need to be versatile, and (ideally) widely published. They, as Columbia Journalism professor Howard French, one of the panelists, put it, “piece together a lifestyle based on a basket full of strings, with a variety of people that may cross several platforms.” If they have insurance or hostile environment training, it likely came at great cost. If there is someone on the street that is creeping them out at 2 a.m., they can call a friend.
This is starkly different than the situation of a correspondent who works for a major, well-funded media outlet like Reuters. They contribute reporting, analysis, images, or video to a news product that is produced by a multimedia team. They have benefits, hostile environment and security training, and the moral and logistical support of managers back at headquarters in New York, whom they can call if they feel unsafe. This scenario is growing rarer in an increasingly gig-based economy.
This transformation has been long in the works, the result of media fragmentation and the reality that a gig journalist is all that most outlets—i.e. those not financed by a financial data product—can afford.
“It’s not, ‘Will I send one person or will I send three people? It’s ‘Will I send one person or will we not send anyone?’” said NBC correspondent Mara Schiavocampo, describing the decisions outlets—both with correspondents and without—are weighing about foreign stories. It is perhaps telling that even Schiavocampo—who got her start covering international stories as a multi-platform gig journalist “when technology was cheap and small enough to fit in an overhead bin”— “doesn’t want to lose her edge on self-sufficiency.”
Schiavocampo should be any media company’s dream: she writes, she shoots, she edits, she tweets—a one-woman band. But of course, this is less a dream than a new industry standard.
French, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post, said this is the landscape he tries to prepare the next generation of journalists to enter. “The conversations I’m having with students is about how to become a gig journalist That’s what you need to do to survive now.”
This one-man band model certainly produces efficient journalism—Schiavocampo said she has learned to streamline her work process so that she only asks questions once and leaves note taking to her video camera. But does it produce good journalism?
Schiavocampo admitted that her work ends up being good-enough journalism: reporting that produces, say, a strong video piece that is supported by an informative, if bland, text piece. The video is the main product, while the text story is value-added.
This is a shrewd mindset for journalists who need to compete for jobs and attention in the market, but media leaders should realize this poses some problems that compromise the quality of the product. Storytelling in print is a very different art than storytelling by video. And reporting with camera will elicit very different information than reporting without one. Is “good enough” coverage better than nothing? Probably, but that’s not a standard to strive for.
What’s not great for journalism overall is far worse for the foreign-based freelancers who are being paid less to do more.
“The person out on line is constantly being asked to do more simply to stay afloat…without the benefits that existed in the past. I’m not sure how we end up reconciling that with a sustainably good quality news production that also respects people’s lives and livelihoods and safety,” French said.