Last summer, my wife became NPR’s correspondent in Baghdad. I couldn’t join her there, so we decided I’d move to Istanbul, with its cobblestoned streets, abundant fresh food, humming nightlife, and gleaming airport.
We weren’t the first journalists to discover its charms. At a rooftop party a few weeks after arriving, I encountered some of the other media people based here. A pile of sausage was tended by New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks, who gestured with tongs at Ivan Watson, the CNN correspondent. They both covered conflict, same as Dexter Filkins, author of an award-winning book on Iraq and Afghanistan, who lounged on a carpet and cushions. The lights sparkled on the Bosphorus and I watched as Imma Vitelli, an international writer for Italian Vanity Fair whose travels take her from Mogadishu to Milan, embraced Peter Kenyon, another Middle East correspondent for NPR. Tipping back a cold beer, I basked in the presence of so much achievement.
As the months passed, I began making friends among another swath of journalists—the freelancers who chased assignments, breaking-news event after breaking-news event. On one hand, it has been exhilarating to see the number of people who thrive doing this; making a living as a foreign correspondent is still the dream of many who enter the profession. But I also see that, along with the thrill and freedom of the freelance life, there comes a lack of job security and free time, and the absence of the kind of on-the-ground support needed for difficult and dangerous assignments.
Jacques Jaques was nicknamed “puppy” by some of the journalists here when she first arrived in the fall of 2009.
A native of New Jersey, Jaques, twenty-five, has curly brown hair and an excited voice that spills out in a rush. She studied photography at New York University and, in the summer after her sophomore year, snagged a position as an assistant photo editor for the New York Sun, before the paper stopped printing. “When everyone went out for drinks, I wasn’t yet twenty-one,” she recalls, laughing at the memory.
Around that time, Jaques also began working as an assistant for highly decorated photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who in 2009 won a MacArthur Fellowship and who that year also helped inspire Jaques to relocate after graduation to Istanbul. Jaques quickly found mentors among the more established members of the Istanbul press corps. Not long after she landed here, for example, Jaques says she set out on a reporting trip to Kabul—“something I wouldn’t have done without help,” she adds.
Although she didn’t sell any photos from that first trip, it began what Jaques calls her “Afghanistan year.” During the spring and summer of 2010, she traveled multiple times to the country, selling photos to, among others, The Christian Science Monitor and EurasiaNet.org, a website supported by the Open Society Institute. Her money started to run out in late 2010, making it difficult to travel for work, and she began reconsidering whether Istanbul could work as her base.
She was loath to leave for many reasons, including one very practical one: “Turkish Airlines is fantastic,” she says. “They fly to crappy places. There’s a direct flight to Bishkek!”
Business began picking up again this year, after protests began to rock Tunisia. She has memories from her weeks in Egypt during the revolution—one involves waiters at a Cairo café killing a giant snake—and she also spent several days with the corps of conflict reporters in Libya. The trips netted sales of photos to CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Irish Times.
No one calls her “puppy” anymore.
Justin Vela, a twenty-four-year-old from California, says he also feels rooted in Istanbul. He sits at my dining room table in a cardigan, sipping tea, telling me about his circuitous route to Turkey. While studying at Evergreen, a college in Olympia, Washington, he cut out for South America, where he continued his studies and began freelancing for a mix of clients. He was soon filing photos and stories from Venezuela, Colombia, the former Soviet Union, and Finland.
In his first weeks in Istanbul, Vela worked as a copy editor for a corporate publishing outfit. He was at that office on the day in 2010 when nine civilians were killed after Israeli troops in international waters boarded the MV Mavi Marmara, a vessel headed for Gaza. From his desk, Vela says he saw protesters marching down a main boulevard, bound for the Israeli consulate. “I walked out the door with a notebook,” he says. Over the next days, Vela contributed reporting to The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and other outlets. “It was my first big story,” he says.
As glamorous and adventurous as it might seem on the surface, this pursuit of stories and a paycheck makes it difficult, Jaques and Vela both say, for freelancers in Istanbul to achieve a reasonable work-life balance. Vela described a recent Saturday off, “a rarity,” he says, and a sore point for his girlfriend. Jaques says her busy travel schedule makes romance nearly impossible.
“It’s a certain kind of guy who will put up with you being a journalist, and a tough badass,” she says.
Still, both Jaques and Vela say they are happy, consider themselves lucky to live in a world-class city, and to be working regularly on important stories. They also both say they cannot imagine living in the United States. Vela told me of the disconnect he felt during a recent visit to California.
“I was looking at the Pacific, and I felt like I was on the edge of the world,” he says. “America is very far away from the center.”
For older journalists in Istanbul, the measure of success is perhaps more nuanced, with the thrill of living in “the center” balanced against the sometimes steadying, sometimes frustrating concerns that come, for instance, with having a mortgage. But older freelancers I met with also seem more adept at tailoring their place in the market to meet unique interests and ambitions.
For ten years, Jodi Hilton, who graduated from the University of Missouri’s photojournalism master’s program, was an accomplished freelance photographer in Boston, making between $3,000 and $5,000 a month shooting for clients that included The New York Times, Getty Images, and The Boston Globe. In the fall of 2010, having long harbored the dream of moving abroad, she and her husband rented out their condo and traded a stable American life for one in Istanbul.
“It was one thing to be a big fish in Boston,” the dark-haired Hilton says, staring into her coffee cup. “I wanted to see what it’d be like to be a fish in Istanbul . If I didn’t try it now, I’d risk never trying.”
The last thing Hilton says she sought was a staff job that would root her in a single place, working for one set of editors. From her base in Istanbul, she’s planned and executed reporting trips to southeast Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Italian island of Lampedusa. After so many years of taking assignments in New England from busy news editors in America, she’s ecstatic to be making her own choices about where to travel and what to shoot. But after almost a year, Hilton says her typical monthly income is often half the $4,000 she needs to live comfortably. “I’m less stressed than ever before,” she says. “But I should’ve done this ten years ago.”
A second married freelancer, the bearded and ever-smiling Yigal Schleifer, moved to Istanbul in 2002 with a long list of contacts at the classic regional papers in the US. One of his first assignments was in northern Iraq—for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That sounds pretty crazy now, right?” he asks.
Almost immediately after he had arrived, these smaller papers began slashing expenses, including cutting back on freelance coverage. The shift was really fast, Schleifer says. Instead of panicking, Schleifer says he saw the changing marketplace as an opportunity. He started hunting for clients who wanted in-depth, unique coverage from Turkey where journalists “could really dive into the stories,” he says. His eventual mix of clients—The Christian Science Monitor, various Jewish newspapers and magazines, EurasiaNet.org, the German wire agency DPA—allowed him to focus for years on even the obscure corners of Turkish foreign policy and politics, topics the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette may not have welcomed. (Schleifer recently moved to Washington, DC, where his wife has taken a new job. He continues to cover Turkish foreign affairs.)
Making a bare living paycheck to paycheck, most of the freelancers I speak to say they are conscious of money but believe passionately that their work is doing good for the people they write about.
Nichole Sobecki, twenty-five, got hooked on the life in Beirut in 2007, where she interned for the English-language newspaper The Daily Star. A slim, dirty-blonde New York native, Sobecki entered Tufts University in 2004. After her freshman year, she attended a workshop with longtime Associated Press foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum and VII photo agency co-founder Gary Knight, who suggested Sobecki intern for The Daily Star. That’s how she made it to Beirut, armed with a Tufts research grant to study Hezbollah.
Nearing graduation, Sobecki heard about GlobalPost, the online news organization co-founded by longtime Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott. At the time, GlobalPost had approximately sixty correspondents. Sobecki applied for a job and was asked where in the world she wanted to be based. She described meeting at an Italian restaurant with Sennott, who spoke with enthusiasm about under-reported news in so-called “second world” countries like Brazil and Turkey. Sobecki moved to Istanbul in November 2008.
“It took me a year to really get that momentum going,” she says. She felt lucky to have the foundation of GlobalPost, which gave her access to a supportive editor and a small, steady paycheck. “I’ve never missed my rent payment,” she says.
GlobalPost typically pays correspondents $1,000 a month for four stories. Some assignments, such as ones that involve travel to conflict zones, may earn the correspondent more money.
While it is not a staff job with the same pay and perks, Sobecki praises GlobalPost for encouraging her to focus on Turkey, which she considers a significant topic. “Other bureaus have neglected Turkey’s story,” she says. In the nexus of tensions between the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, Turkey deserves more attention, Sobecki believes. “Things you see on a global scale are playing out here every day,” she says.
After her first year in Istanbul, Sobecki says she started to pursue stories beyond the country’s borders, not only for GlobalPost, but also freelancing for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian. These assignments found her visiting more and more dangerous places, like Libya—the risks of which Sobecki knows well. In March, her boyfriend Tyler Hicks disappeared covering the country’s civil war, along with Addario and fellow New York Times journalists Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell. “I was witness firsthand to what an incredible force the Times could be in gathering their resources and doing whatever they could to get them out,” she says. The group was released after six days.
I ask Sobecki how, as a freelancer and a GlobalPost correspondent, she resolves questions about her own risks and rewards. In response, Sobecki points out that her Libya replacement, James Foley, was detained in Tripoli for forty-four days before being released. (Another freelancer who disappeared in Libya, Anton Hammerl, is now reported to have been killed.) Sobecki says that Sennott and the GlobalPost staff did “everything” to free Foley. “I feel lucky to have GlobalPost behind me,” she says.
I ask her how 2011 is shaping up, with the Arab Spring of revolutions, Japan’s earthquake and nuclear disaster, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. She sees it as a test case for her career and for the industry at large. “We’ve had more news in the last three months than all of 2010,” she says.
Multiple, big-news stories are a challenge not just for GlobalPost as an emerging force, but also for larger news organizations, Sobecki says. “Everyone’s running to cover stories the way they deserve to be covered,” she says, back in Istanbul long enough to pack for a trip to Berlin. “But you never have all the resources you want to tell all the stories you want to tell.”
Correction: This piece originally misspelled the last name of a photographer living in Istanbul. She is Monique Jaques, not Jacques. CJR regrets the error.