Freelancing abroad in a world obsessed with Trump

January 30, 2018
Photo: Josh Wood

Sulome Anderson is one of the most impressive young journalists of our time. The daughter of Terry Anderson, the former AP Middle East bureau chief who was kidnapped by Hezbollah militants in 1985 and held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years, Anderson has made a career of freelance reporting from hostile territory among hostile people. A native New Yorker, the 32-year-old has found herself the front lines of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. She’s interviewed members and fighters of Hezbollah, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Harper’s, and Foreign Policy, among others. And in 2016, she published her first book, The Hostage’s Daughter, which won critical acclaim, two International Book Awards, and a Nonfiction Book Award. The book has also been optioned for film.

But despite it all, Sulome is moving back home, after a year she considers the worst in her journalistic career. Reporting from abroad, she says, is no longer sustainable.

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“I can’t make a living reporting from the Middle East anymore,” said Sulome in mid-December. “I just can’t justify doing this to myself.” The day we spoke, she heard that Foreign Policy, one of the most reliable destinations for freelancers writing on-the-ground, deeply reported international pieces, would be closing its foreign bureaus. (CJR independently confirmed this, though it has not been publicly announced.) “They are one of the only publications that publish these kinds of stories,” she said, letting out a defeated sigh. (Disclosure: Sulome was a classmate of mine at Columbia Journalism School from 2010 to 2011.)

In 2015, Sulome published 16 major feature stories, while also writing her book. In 2016, she published 12, though she was busy doing publicity for her book. In 2017, the total dropped to nine stories, though she was reporting and pitching full time. She now plans to spend her time focusing on her next book, which is about radicalism in America.

Sulome blames a news cycle dominated by Donald Trump. Newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs simply have less space for freelance international stories than before—unless, of course, they directly involve Trump.

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According to a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Trump was the focus of 41 percent of American news coverage in his first 100 days in office. That’s three times the amount of coverage showered on previous presidents. This laser-eyed focus on Trump has left little room for other crucial stories.

Sulome is moving back home after a year she considers the worst in her journalistic career. Reporting from abroad, she says, is no longer sustainable.

“Trump has been a ratings magnet on TV and in print,” says Rick Edmonds, the Poynter Institute’s media business analyst. “There’s a pretty clear indication that aggressive reporting on Trump is giving The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others a boost. A large portion of the population thinks he’s a maniac and wants to read about him every day. That tends to reduce attention on the rest of the world.”

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Foreign news coverage has been taking a hit for decades. According to a 2014 Pew report, American newspapers even then had cut their international reporting staff by 24 percent in less than a decade. Network news coverage of stories with a foreign dateline averaged 500 minutes per year in 2016, compared to an average 1,500 minutes in 1988, according to a study by Tyndall.

“Clearly it’s harder for international stories to end up on front pages now,” says Ben Pauker, who served as the executive editor of Foreign Policy for seven years until the end of 2017. He is now a managing editor at Vox. From his own experience, Pauker says, it’s simply an issue of editorial bandwidth. “There’s only so much content an editorial team can process.”

Pauker points to one bright side for foreign news under the Trump spotlight: Coverage of Russia and North Korea have increased significantly. Though even in those stories, the angle of the coverage leans heavy on the Trump, and lighter on the people, politics, or culture that define these countries and thus America’s relationship to them.

“When he does touch foreign news, those stories get covered, and covered well,” says Pauker. “The places that Trump couldn’t locate on a map are the places that are suffering.”

Before the 2016 election cycle, Sulome would pitch a story once, maybe twice, before finding a home for it. Now she pitches anywhere from three to 10 editors before a story gets the green light, if it gets picked up at all. “In the past if a story didn’t get picked up it was a rare thing,” she says. “Someone would usually take it eventually. Now it’s become really, really hard.” At least five of her stories never made it to print in 2017. In 2015, that figure was one or two at most.

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In October 2017, Sulome thought she had landed the story of her career. The US had just announced a $7 million reward for a Hezbollah operative believed to be scouting locations for terror attacks on American soil—something it had never done before. Having interviewed Hezbollah fighters for the last six years, Sulome had unique access to the upper echelons of its militants, including that specific operative’s family members. Over the course of her reporting, Hezbollah members told her they had contingency plans to strike government and military targets on US soil and that they had surface-to-air missiles, which had not been reported before. Convinced she had struck gold, she was elated when the piece was commissioned by a dream publication she’d never written for before. But days later, that publication rescinded its decision, saying that Sulome had done too much of the reporting before she was commissioned. Sulome was in shock. She went on to pitch the story to eight other publications, and no one was interested.

“That really took the wind out of my sails,” she says. “And that’s kind of why I came back and said I’ll just start working on my book. I’ll go back to the Middle East on trips if I find someone who wants a story, but I’m not going to live there and do this full-time, because it’s really taking a toll on me.”

Another story, which she pitched just before the Kurdish referendum vote in September, was commissioned by a major news organization.  Sulome arranged travel to Turkey, where she would cross the border into Kurdistan. Yet to do that, she needed an official letter from the news agency that was sending her there. Despite several emails communicating this to the editor, he never responded. Not willing to take the risk of crossing the border without it, Sulome canceled her trip. She pitched it to other outlets, but no one was interested. Not only did she eat the travel expenses to Turkey, and see an important story go untold, but she also fears that she lost credibility with her disappointed Kurdish sources, who she had told she was doing this story for this major American news outlet. She’s still never received a response from that editor, or anyone else from that news organization. There was no explanation or apology.

The publications’ decisions to cut her stories loose weren’t directly blamed on Trump, Sulome says, but the experience and the difficulty she had placing the story after it are indicative of a wider problem.

“Open any American news outlet and it’s just Trump, Trump, Trump. When that’s the case, there’s very limited space for news that’s not about him. It’s just intuitive that foreign coverage would suffer.” As a result, she continues, “Everybody wants to write for these places, yet there’s a shrinking amount of space for [freelance] work, so we’re all just competing over scraps.”

According to Nathalie Applewhite, managing director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the lack of international coverage has become a real problem for Pulitzer grant recipients. Those grants, she says, were established to address the earlier crisis in which news organizations were closing foreign bureaus and could no longer fund big foreign reporting projects. “Now we’re seeing an even bigger challenge,” she says. “We’re providing the monetary support, but the problem is finding the space for it.”

Grant applicants, Applewhite adds, are finding it harder to get commitments from editors to publish their work upon completion of their reporting. And stories that already have commitments are sitting on the shelf much longer, as they are continuously postponed for breaking Trump news.

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“We heard from one freelance reporter who was reporting on a conflict and was told that unless the story directly related to Trump, there would be no room for it,” Applewhite tells me. “Our reporting is purposely not breaking news. So when you have such a busy breaking news cycle, it’s going to be difficult to place those stories that are more evergreen.”

According to Pauker, the flood of news from the White House and Americans’ desire to read about it has necessarily led to a different editorial calculus. “I think it raised the bar for stories from some of the far-flung corners of the world,” he says, reflecting on his stewardship of Foreign Policy in 2017. “Not necessarily stories about war, disaster, or elections, which are still just as important to cover, but some of the softer human interest stories, or cultural, zeitgeisty stories.”

As the daughter of two former Middle East-based journalists, Sulome knows what it used to be like for people like her. “I grew up surrounded by foreign correspondents, and it was a very different time. There was a healthy foreign press, and most of them were staff. The Chicago Tribune had a Beirut bureau for example. So when people say we’re in a golden age of journalism today, I’m like, Really?

When her father was kidnapped by Hezbollah, Sulome recalls, the AP took such good care of her family and did everything they could to free him. “For six and a half years, they never lost interest and kept taking care of my mom and I. Fast forward to James Foley (who was kidnapped and murdered by ISIS). James Foley didn’t have those protections. He was a freelancer getting paid average freelance fees, which is like $300 a story. How do you take care of yourself? You can’t pay a fixer or something to watch out for you.”

“There’s always more of a response when I have a Trump peg,” Sulome says.

The divestment from foreign news coverage, she believes, has forced journalists to risk their lives to tell stories they feel are important. Now, some publications are refusing to commission stories in which the reporter already took the risk of doing the reporting on spec. Believing that this will discourage freelancers from putting their lives in danger, this policy adds to the problem more than it solves it.

“There’s always more of a response when I have a Trump peg,” Sulome says of her pitches since Trump’s election.“Why are we giving in to this man’s narcissistic dream?” she would like to ask editors. “When people lose sight of what’s going on around the world, we allow our government to make foreign policy decisions that don’t benefit us. It makes it so much easier for them to do that when we don’t have the facts. Like if we don’t know that the crisis in Yemen is killing and starving so many people and making Yemenis more extremist, how will people know not to support a policy in which we are attacking Yemenis?”

Applewhite agrees that this exclusive focus on Trump and other domestic issues could be detrimental to Americans’ understanding of the world, and our ability to make sound political decisions.

“Of course we need to understand what’s going on in our own country, but we are not disconnected from the rest of the world,” she says. “Whether it’s environmental, ethnic or religious conflict, these are issues that may seem far away, but if we ignore them they can have a very real impact on us at home. International security issues, global health scares, and environmental crises know no borders, and I think we ignore them at our own peril.”

Though Sulome still believes in the importance of journalism, the lack of appreciation for freelance foreign reporting has been demoralizing. The added stress of competing against Trump’s Twitter storms has caused her to question her career choice for the first time in her life.

“Honestly, if it continues like this, I don’t know if I can put myself through this. It’s a very stressful job to begin with,” she says. “And to go through that and then have to deal with the added highly stressful element of not being able to get anyone to take the story you put so much time and effort into, it almost makes you lose hope.”

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Yardena Schwartz is a freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC. Previously, Yardena was a producer at NBC News in New York.