The importance of protecting freelancers

James Foley's murder thrust GlobalPost into the middle of an industry-wide debate about the ethics of working with the inexperienced, poorly paid freelancers who increasingly cover the world's wars

Coming of age Sennott says grant-funded projects are the best way to support in-depth reporting around the world. (Jesse Costa)

Last October, Charles M. Sennott, a co-founder of GlobalPost, stood on stage at International House New York and laid out his vision for coverage of the world’s danger zones. Two months had passed since a grisly video confirmed the execution of James Foley by Islamic militants, and almost two years since Foley had been kidnapped, while freelancing for GlobalPost from Syria.

In that time, Sennott and GlobalPost had been thrust into the middle of a debate about an uncomfortable truth that the US media had been ignoring, or rationalizing, for years: As embattled newsrooms retreated from foreign coverage, the job of reporting from dangerous places has increasingly fallen to eager young freelancers who are paid little and supported—in terms of mentoring, editorial guidance, supplies, etc.—even less. Foley’s death, and the subsequent killings of journalists Steven Sotloff and Luke Somers, have forced a reckoning in the relationship between news organizations and the freelance journalists who venture into increasingly dangerous situations at their behest.

When GlobalPost launched in 2008 (its site wasn’t live until January 2009) as a commercial news outlet that would cover the world, it was lauded as an answer—if not the answer—to the decline in foreign coverage. But Sennott had gradually come to believe that, with a handful of exceptions (The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.), journalism’s stricken for-profit model was unable to pay for the kind of expensive, in-depth coverage that he wanted to produce.

By 2012, GlobalPost had won a slew of prestigious awards, including a Peabody, but was still not profitable. Sennott had already begun to seek foundation grants to fund the big projects that didn’t fit into the outlet’s editorial budget. Soon, he doubled down on these fundraising efforts, with the goal of creating a nonprofit, called GroundTruth, that would do nothing but big, ambitious stories and provide mentoring and training for what Sennott calls “the next generation” of foreign correspondents. Nonprofit funding had already allowed Sennott to host fellowships for young journalists that tried to approximate the close-knit experience of working in a foreign bureau—including a pop-up newsroom in Cairo in 2011, dedicated to covering the Arab Spring—and he was convinced that this was the solution he had been looking for.

‘At really prestigious publications they’d be like: Okay, yes, stop talking. We can’t hear this, we don’t want to be liable,’ says Lauren Bohn of her efforts to pitch stories from war zones as a freelancer.

This diversion has strained the relationship between Sennott and Philip Balboni, GlobalPost’s CEO and co-founder who, though he encouraged Sennott’s quest for nonprofit funding, still believes in the for-profit approach. For now, a three-year publishing agreement allows GroundTruth’s journalism to appear under a small “Special Reports” tab on GlobalPost’s website, but that is virtually all that connects the two organizations.

Last spring, having secured $3 million in seed money, Sennott moved his small GroundTruth staff to a handful of cubicles five miles across Boston from the GlobalPost headquarters. In mid-August, the group received its 501c3 status. Five days later, the video of Foley’s beheading was released. Sennott watched it from his new newsroom, where the physical separation was mirrored by a palpable philosophical distance from GlobalPost and Balboni.

“It’s a powerful moment in our industry, a powerful moment where young people want to do this work but it’s coming with rising peril,” Sennott told the audience at International House, who were there to celebrate a reporting project GroundTruth had sponsored on youth unemployment around the world. “We need to provide them with resources and we need to provide them with training and mentoring. That is our mission at GroundTruth and we’ve never felt more compelled to do it.” The crowd cheered.

“Jim Foley was my friend and my colleague, and we’re more committed than ever right now to taking our mission to a new level,” Sennott told me, lingering onstage while the rest of the conference-goers filed to cocktail hour. “We do this with incredible sadness, but also the sense of a moment . . . . Foley and Sotloff have changed the game. Their murders have provided us with a necessary coming of age.”

When Sennott began his newspaper career in 1986 as a reporter at The Record, in Hackensack, NJ, “the resources were endless.” He had a singular, attainable goal: get to The Boston Globe, his hometown paper, which had a thriving foreign desk, and then go abroad. By the time the September 11 attacks shifted American attention to the Middle East, Sennott had just finished a stint as the Globe’s bureau chief in the region, and he was quickly dispatched to Afghanistan. In Kabul, the Globe staffed a house with photographers, fixers, and reporters. “You had the attention of your editors, you had the resources of a newspaper that was healthy, and it made a commitment to tell the story of our time,” says Sennott. “That age is over.”

In harm’s way James Foley came to symbolize the plight of freelancers who are often forced to take unacceptable risks to cover conflict. (Steven Senne / AP Photo)

Interest in Afghanistan was already waning when Sennott returned to Boston in 2005 to take a Nieman fellowship at Harvard. Declines in advertising and circulation were forcing the newspaper industry to shrink, both in size and in ambition. The Globe was reducing foreign coverage, while papers like The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and The Baltimore Sun had abandoned international bureaus entirely. At Harvard, Sennott worried about the future of his friends and colleagues, decorated war reporters who were watching their jobs evaporate. He began imagining a digital-only enterprise that could replace some of the jobs the internet had destroyed.

By organizing reporters into a nonprofit, Sennott reasoned, he could create a business selling their work back to newspapers. As it happened, there was someone else in Boston who at that very moment was making the rounds with essentially the same idea.

Philip Balboni was the perfect partner for Sennott. As the former president of New England Cable News, he had the business background Sennott lacked, and had already weathered the upheaval that the arrival of cable wrought on television news. Where Sennott’s concept focused on the disappearance of journalism jobs, Balboni’s idea was about underserved readers—and it was for-profit. “Despite the convention that people aren’t interested in international news,” says Balboni, “I always believed that there was a substantial audience for it.” Balboni won Sennott over. He left the Globe, set aside his nonprofit idea in favor of advertising plans that seemed promising, and the two began to build GlobalPost. “We, the Founders of GlobalPost, are also acutely aware of the fact that quality journalism in America is threatened more profoundly today than at any time in our history,” read the site’s mission statement. “GlobalPost is a direct response to these forces.”

Those forces are still at work. A 2010 survey by the American Journalism Review found that the number of foreign correspondents at US newspapers had dropped from 307 in 2003 to 234—a number that would have been much higher had it included the hundreds of freelancers who have ventured abroad to take advantage of the unfilled demand for news from elsewhere. And GlobalPost was hardly alone in capitalizing on the emerging freelance economy when it staffed its nascent news organization with 65 freelance correspondents, some with a contract to produce four stories a month for a $1,000 flat fee.

In the internet age, $250 is a common story rate. But such a rate, which makes it difficult for any freelancer to earn a living, is obviously not enough to outfit a journalist for war. “You couldn’t really pay the bills just writing for GlobalPost,” says Patrick Winn, who began his foreign career in 2008 writing for GlobalPost in Bangkok, and now works full-time for the outlet. In the beginning, Sennott’s personal connections attracted seasoned war correspondents, like Jane Arraf, who were paid higher rates, and less-experienced reporters were eager to be a part of the new project.

“When I met Charlie, he kind of made it out like there’d be senior people and they’d be looking out for you,” recalls Tom A. Peter, who signed on to cover Iraq as one of GlobalPost’s first correspondents. Those mentors never materialized, he says; the structure and camaraderie of the bureau system didn’t translate to freelance life, where even established journalists scramble for assignments. Meanwhile, Peter says his editors at GlobalPost would encourage him to travel to report stories, but couldn’t always pay his expenses—a sketchy proposition when traveling cheaply means skimping on the fixers, drivers, and lodging that provide at least a modicum of protection in a conflict zone. After two years, Peter ended his contract with GlobalPost.

Even in its earliest days, however, GlobalPost was doing better than a lot of outlets just by paying something—and at least acknowledging the need to support its young journalists in the field. Lauren Bohn, who was recently hired to cover the Middle East for GroundTruth full-time, had previously supported her freelance life with fellowships—a Fulbright, grants from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, and so on. Like Peter, Bohn also had to skimp on lodging and drivers for her and her translator when covering Syria right out of college. “I was 23,” she says, “and I was weighing, ‘Do I put this guy’s life at risk and this guy’s life at risk because I want to tell this story?” She left Syria after only a few weeks. But Bohn continued to freelance, effectively learning by doing, covering Tunisian revolutionaries and Kurdish soldiers fighting ISIS. Editors, for the most part, didn’t have time to discuss her stories in advance or keep track of her movements while covering the Arab Spring—developing a relationship that might be interpreted as an obligation should things go wrong. “At really prestigious publications they’d be like: ‘Okay, yes, stop talking. We can’t hear this, we don’t want to be liable,’ ” Bohn says.

GlobalPost co-founder Philip Balboni says he now believes it may be impossible to fully protect journalists in a world that has become far more dangerous.

James Foley built his career within this climate. His first stories were from Afghanistan, and then trailing rebel armies during the Libyan civil war. Though Foley hadn’t gotten into journalism until his mid-30s, he worked with the gusto of youth—spending long stretches of time in war zones, filing stories close to the front lines. He quickly made his name in video, stringing together harrowing footage that he often posted unedited. Foley didn’t seem to be chasing intimacy with his subjects so much as a stunning proximity to war. He filmed incoming missiles and machine-gun fire, cast off casually by teenage fighters standing just a few feet away. In one video, he leaves his camera running as he flees, alongside Libyan rebels, from government forces. The footage bounces through the dust and grass as Foley sprints, capturing the splitting sounds of heavy fire, dangerously close.

Foley had already paid a heavy price for such risks. In 2011, during a battle in Libya, he’d been shot at, and his friend and colleague was mortally wounded at his side. Foley leapt up amid the gunfire to surrender to the Libyan army, which held him captive for 44 days. This was the beginning of GlobalPost’s long and painful odyssey with Foley. Shortly after his release, he was back at the front, where he covered the fall of Tripoli and the capture and killing of Muammar Qaddafi. His coverage helped GlobalPost win an Overseas Press Club award in 2012. When he arrived in Syria, Foley’s professional identity was deeply tied to GlobalPost.

Tracey Shelton is one of GlobalPost’s most decorated reporters, having won a George Polk Award, an Overseas Press Club Award, and a Peabody during her tenure. But in 2011, Shelton was covering the Libyan civil war as a stringer for The National, an English-language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, where she says she had little contact with her editors. “With The National it was very much a business transaction, as long as I kept filing stories,” she says. That was fine with Shelton, until she arrived in Benghazi late, checked into a hotel, and awoke in the middle of the night to a group of men breaking into her room. They intended to kidnap her. Tied up in her sheets, without any contacts in her new city, Shelton tried to think of the last time she’d emailed anyone with her plans. She couldn’t remember.

The knowledge that no one was coming for her gave Shelton extra incentive to slip her restraints and escape. Badly beaten and having lost all her money and equipment, she emailed her editors at The National to ask for a few extra days on her stories. They were sympathetic, but had no obligation to her and she lost the string.

Shelton was saved when an editor at GlobalPost offered to take her stories from Libya. By the time Shelton joined GlobalPost, three years after its launch, the outlet was more organized and more connected to its reporters in the field than it had been early on. “It was different with GlobalPost, because they were always keeping track of where I was,” she recalls. Even as a freelancer, her editors approved all her travel in Libya, and upon her return the organization paid for a conflict-safety course. Sennott personally chipped in to buy Shelton a flak jacket before she went to Syria.

Since those early startup days, GlobalPost has made moves to better support its reporters, paying higher rates in conflict zones—often double the rates for regular stories, according to Balboni. And in 2010, the outlet began converting some of its freelancers to full-time salaries, rather than per-story rates. Balboni wouldn’t disclose specifics, but one freelancer confirmed receiving a standard rate of $500, without expenses, for news stories from Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. “If we cannot afford the resources needed to manage the risk of a proposed trip, then we do not commission it,” Balboni wrote in an email. “Approved expenses may include fixers, translators and the safest means of transport as determined with the reporter.”

Still, GlobalPost has yet to find a business model that can fully alleviate the precarious, isolated existence of the modern freelancer abroad—though not for lack of trying. Since its launch, the outlet has cycled through a number of models: It was an early adopter of native advertising, but that never took off; interest in a membership program, “Passport Service,” was lackluster—it drew fewer than 500 subscribers, leading Balboni to drop subscription rates from $199 to $29.95 and tack on chats with correspondents, travel videos, and tourism tips as extras. Advertising still provides the bulk of the site’s revenue, as well as syndication agreements with 23 news organizations, including NBC and NPR. He won’t share current figures, but, Balboni says, “In terms of profitability, that’s still in the future.”

Both Sennott and Balboni acknowledge that GlobalPost’s rates, even now, can’t provide the same resources that the major newspapers had in their heyday. “We surely cannot afford to pay the highest rates in journalism,” Balboni wrote in an email. “But no one has ever questioned the caliber of our work or the passionate commitment we bring to it.”

Sennott, though, saw what he considers a solution in 2011, when he used a grant to pay for an investigative series on Kosovo’s mafia by an old friend, Matt McAllister. “Here’s a Pulitzer-Prize winner that I can suddenly pay a fair rate—for a driver, a translator,” he says. The two worked out a rate of more than a dollar a word, “not that great,” says Sennott, but better than GlobalPost could afford to pay for projects at the time.

Balboni encouraged Sennott’s interest in looking into foundation grants, and by the spring of 2011, it had become his full-time job—and all he could talk about. At a meeting that April at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, a student named Kevin Douglas Grant offered to show Sennott around. During the tour, Sennott told him about his project. “‘I know we just met, but let me tell you what’s going on,’” Grant recalls Sennott saying. “It was exciting to have this old-school newspaper guy just leveling with me.’” By the end of the tour, Sennott had asked Grant to apply for a job with him. A month after graduation, he drove cross-country with his girlfriend to help launch GlobalPost’s Special Reports division, which would later evolve into GroundTruth.

Being a war correspondent has never come with guarantees of safety, but in the past the title alone provided a certain kind of protection. Reporters could move like medics through conflict zones; a “press” sign emblazoned across a flak jacket would deter targeted fire. Even militant Islamic groups considered reporters as an odious necessity. The Taliban and Hezbollah may not have liked Western journalists, but still they gave them interviews and hosted press conferences. Journalists wanted a story, Islamic extremists wanted to be understood—and the only way to spread their message was to deal with the reporters. The value of this exchange extends to rebel groups: It’s why members of the Syrian Free Army went to such lengths to court and protect the journalists who came to cover the earliest days of the civil war—why they searched for Foley in the weeks after his kidnapping. Keeping journalists safe was vital to ensuring they continued to come.

As digital media have matured and become more widely accessible, however, there’s increasingly no need for journalists to serve as intermediaries, and that shift has put lives at risk. Last year, Al Qaeda launched a Twitter account. In response to the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement, the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram posted YouTube videos—the same way that ISIS broadcast the executions of Foley and Sotloff. In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that, during the war in Iraq, nearly two out of every three journalists who died were victims of targeted killings. At least 70 journalists have been killed since the start of the Syrian civil war, and that number doesn’t include the dozens thought to be held by kidnappers. “In some parts of the world journalists have become targets just because they’re journalists,” says Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director. “Threats to safety no longer stem only from being caught in the crossfire, it’s also deliberate targeting for ransom and political gain.”

Kidnapping has become a major revenue stream for extremists. A New York Times investigation found that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have captured at least $125 million in ransom payments since 2008. And captive journalists make good propaganda tools. In November, ISIS released the seventh installment of “Lend Me Your Ears,” a series of “news” broadcasts featuring British journalist John Cantlie, who was kidnapped along with Foley.

Places like Syria, where the risks are considered unacceptably high, are becoming all but off limits to Western journalists, except for the occasional quick in-and-out trip. Last year, the death toll of journalists dropped in the country, not because it’s less dangerous but because fewer foreigners (and Syrians) were still reporting there. Editors who accept work from freelancers in conflict zones have to weigh how much responsibility they are willing to take on. After the death of freelance journalist Marie Colvin in Syria in 2012, while on assignment for The Sunday Times of London, the paper announced that it would no longer accept work from Syria. Since longtime correspondent Jill Carroll’s kidnapping in Iraq, The Christian Science Monitor won’t work with reporters in conflict zones without a contract, insurance, and a prior relationship. “We don’t know how they think, how they work,” says Amelia Newcomb, the paper’s international editor. “Those intangibles that make a difference.”

When James Foley went into Syria, he wasn’t dispatched by GlobalPost but was instead operating as an independent freelancer. “Because of our prior relationship with Jim, we did take some stories from him in Syria,” says Balboni. “But Jim made his own decisions and his own travel plans and was a fully independent correspondent.” Just a few weeks before he was kidnapped, Foley acknowledged that the economics of freelancing caused him to take more gambles. “It’s the freelancer’s conundrum, taking bigger risks to beat staffers,” he told a Newsweek reporter. “I think it’s just basic laws of competition; you need to have something the staffers don’t, but in a conflict zone that means you take bigger risks: go in sooner, stay longer, go closer.”

To minimize risk during trips to Syria after the kidnap threat emerged, Liz Sly, The Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief, would limit her time in the country to two or three days—go in, get the story, get out. But traveling for a isolated story takes a budget that a single freelance story almost certainly won’t command. The first time Sly met Foley, at the LiWan Hotel in Antakya, he was just coming off a 44-day stretch of reporting from Aleppo. “That’s a long time,” she told me. “People will notice you. They’ve got time to put a plan together, time to trail you, time to see if you have a pattern they can disrupt.” Austin Tice, a Georgetown Law student, planned to stay in Syria even longer—the full three months of his summer break. Tice soon began selling stories to The Washington Post and spoke with Sly on Skype, seeking advice on working in war zones. She told him that staying for long periods was not a good idea. In August 2012, Tice stopped communicating with friends. Aside from a single video showing Tice blindfolded, kneeling on a hilltop in the desert, no one has heard from him since.

Douglas Jehl, The Washington Post’s foreign editor, says the kidnappings have made him “more careful” about accepting work from reporters in conflict zones who he doesn’t have a relationship with. “If someone is working for us we have an obligation to keep them safe, and that involves a big institutional commitment.” I asked Jehl if today he would publish Tice, or another young journalist with limited experience pitching stories from a war zone. “No,” he answered. “Not under the circumstances in which he went in.”

After Foley was captured on the battlefield and released by the Libyan government, his parents were understanding of their son’s decision to remain in conflict reporting. But after his death, their comments betrayed regret. “I think that we take journalists for granted sometimes,” Foley’s father, John, told the members of the press who gathered on his front lawn. “They—particularly freelance people—they risk their lives. They have no resources, no protections, not a major network.”

In 2013, GlobalPost began to scale back its reliance on freelancers, and focused instead on developing 13 full-time “senior correspondents” who are exclusive to the organization and given a competitive salary, if not benefits. The experience with Foley has made GlobalPost editors more careful about where they permit their reporters to travel. Balboni says he now employs a risk-assessment service, which the company uses to evaluate the political situation in an area before accepting a story. Tracey Shelton left one of GlobalPost’s full-time positions to freelance, in part, because she found it increasingly difficult to get travel to risky places approved by her editors.

They have become even more cautious when taking work from freelancers with whom they haven’t worked before, procuring short-term insurance, covering expenses, and maintaining closer communication. “Anyone who’s working with us in a conflict situation is kind of at the same degree of risk,” Lizzy Tomei, the site’s managing editor, told me. “There aren’t two different policies.”

In many ways, obligation is the antithesis of a freelance contract, but Balboni argues that the realities of war zones require rethinking that relationship. “If someone offers you a story—it’s so easy and you can use it,” says Balboni. “But you have to be responsible and I think that’s the change that [news organizations] have to get to.” GlobalPost hired the security group Kroll to investigate both when Foley was captured by the Libyans, and again when he was kidnapped—in an effort that reportedly cost millions. (Balboni wouldn’t reveal what it spent.) The money, though, doesn’t take into account the personal toll. “I worked on Jim’s case in Syria every day for 636 days,” Balboni says. “It never stopped. And that changes your life.”

Balboni’s experience taught him that nothing can fully insulate a journalist from the realities of a more dangerous world. It may simply be impossible to assure the kind of relative safety today that correspondents once had, no matter a newsroom’s resources. “Some news organizations have a security person that goes into the field with the correspondent,” Balboni says. “That is certainly a nice addition but it isn’t any guarantee that you’re going to be protected.” After all, NBC correspondent Richard Engel was traveling with a security guard when his team was intercepted by a pro-regime militia and held in Syria for five days.

For his part, Sennott believes that these challenges should be met with the very thing that the digital age stripped from newsrooms: “more resources, more training, more mentoring, more of a sense of being on a team.” Though GroundTruth is still figuring out the scope of its mission, Sennott has grand plans to fill in these gaps. He’s planning more group fellowships to bring young reporters into his orbit and give them something of the newsroom experience. In 2015, GroundTruth expects to add several full-time reporters and raise money to work on big projects with dedicated freelancers. “At GlobalPost the mission is to produce great news stories,” he says. “At GroundTruth, it’s part of our mission to mentor, too.”

The problems plaguing the coverage of far-flung stories of war and crisis are much larger than a clash over business models at a startup. The future of such coverage will be determined not by two men who have faced the worst that the current reality brings. It demands an industry-wide reckoning with the fact that newsrooms need to do all they can to ensure that the reporters who risk their lives to do those stories have what they need to produce great journalism and come home alive.

The urgency couldn’t be greater; the horrific deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff haven’t deterred the ranks of eager young journalists determined to be part of the long and distinguished tradition of war reporting. “I frequently get emails from people who want to go into freelancing and want to move to the Middle East,” says Bohn. “There are so many young people, who are like: ‘Should I buy a flak jacket? I’m graduating from journalism school and I think I’m going to move to the Syrian border and start reporting. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ ” 

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. This story was published in the January/February 2015 issue of CJR with the headline, "The Reckoning."