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American Journalism Review
The "Cheaper Solution"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1994

The "Cheaper Solution"   

By Stephen Hess
Stephen Hess is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.     


American freelancers Alan Goodman and John Pollack were in Madrid last year and had little trouble finding U.S. clients, including CNN, NPR, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. The two journalists contend they're a "cheaper solution" for news organizations to maintain their international coverage in the face of dwindling overseas budgets.

Goodman and Pollack have a lot of company. A recent Brookings Institution study of 404 foreign correspondents working for U.S. news organizations indicates that 26 percent are freelancers.

That a quarter of today's foreign correspondents are stringers still translates into a fraction of the international news Americans get. When freelancers work for major news organizations such as the Associated Press, they are generally in countries that produce very little news. Otherwise, stringers tend to work for smaller outlets or specialty publications. Moreover, they are usually underemployed as journalists; 40 percent of those answering the 1992 survey say they also do other work.

Goodman and Pollack view stringers as "a cadre of ambitious romantics," the natural heirs of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, who found such work in other eras. But the survey, which also includes another 370 former foreign correspondents, suggests there are six types of stringers. While the categories are not mutually exclusive, neither do they describe only ambitious romantics. Regardless of type, all suffer from the same problems as stateside freelancers: low pay, no benefits, and a precarious relationship with clients. Nearly half surveyed, however, eventually found full time journalism work.

First, there's the Spouse. Spouses as sources for foreign correspondence increase in direct proportion to the rise of two-journalist families. When one journalist is sent abroad, odds are that the other seeks freelance work. Barbara Slavin, for example, an editor at the New York Times, moved to Peking in 1982 when her husband became United Press International's bureau chief. She was able to string together assignments for the Economist, Newsweek, Business Week and RKO Radio. Peter Ford, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Latin America, was shifted to the Middle East; his wife was a Latin America correspondent for a French newspaper that didn't need another Middle East correspondent, hence one more stringer was added to the stock.

Even spouses who are not journalists tend to gravitate to freelance writing when abroad. For example, Christine Chapman, a college teacher in Tokyo with her journalist husband from 1977 to 1992, also reported on cultural affairs for the International Herald Tribune.

Another category, the Expert, is wedded to a country or a region rather than to journalism. Freelance writing just happens to be an interesting way to make a living in the place where they want to be. Experts may combine journalism with translating, teaching and other tasks, or work their way into journalism through such services. This was the career path of Linda Gradstein, a stringer for National Public Radio in Jerusalem, who speaks Hebrew and Arabic, and initially worked as a translator at the Washington Post bureau. Experts, given that they are not as willing to accept assignments outside of their chosen locale, often drift into other pursuits.

"I am an adventurer," Oriana Fallaci, who became famous for her interviews with world leaders, has said. "I cannot live without adventure." The Adventurer best fits the model of the "ambitious romantic." Unlike the expert, this freelancer is footloose; the country is not as important as the experience.

Daniela Deane began her career in Rome in 1977 writing headlines for an English language newspaper and covering the Vatican for a religious news service. After marrying a British TV cameraman, they worked in London, Manila and Hong Kong. When I interviewed her in Hong Kong, where she was stringing for the Washington Post, her husband was on a shoot for Britain's Independent Television News (ITN) in Baghdad, and she was wondering about a job opening in Rio. Their rule of thumb seems to be that they will go anyplace as long as one of them is gainfully employed.

Then there's the Flinger, a person who is off on a fling. The trip might result in a serious career in foreign correspondence, but is more likely to be a short-term adventure.

The flinger is often very young and has little if any experience. But this is not always the case, as in the example of Kathleen Barnes. In her 1990 book, "Trial by Fire: A Woman Correspondent's Journey to the Frontline," she wrote:

"In 1983 I was 35 years old. I had been a reporter for a small town newspaper in upstate New York for 11 years and wife of a fellow journalist for 13 years. I studied and taught yoga to give my life some meaning. The provincialism of Watertown, New York, was suffocating."

She left her husband and took a year's leave from her newspaper. Ultimately she divorced and resigned, and spent the rest of the decade covering a revolution and coup in the Philippines as a stringer, primarily for ABC Radio.

A fifth category, the Ideologue, was sometimes sighted in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s. Bryna Brennan, then an AP reporter in the region, wrote in a paper for the Woodrow Wilson Center:

"Some of the new freelancers presented problems for the professional journalists for several reasons. They could endanger not only the credibility but the lives of the legitimate working press. Members of Witness for Peace, for example, portrayed themselves as journalists while pursuing evidence of contra atrocities in Nicaragua. Traveling in the countryside they marked their car windows in tape with the letters 'TV,' used throughout the region to identify members of the neutral press.

"In one case, contra rebels fired on a car marked 'TV' because they said they thought it was carrying Witness for Peace members, who they regarded, not surprisingly, as the enemy."

Among professional freelancers, the ideologue is often British, reflecting perhaps that country's brand of more interpretive news writing. Godfrey Hodgson, the former foreign editor of the Independent in London, prefers to call this type of journalist the "Sympathizer."

Finally, the Resident. Residents are usually natives of the locale from which they report and are often journalists on local newspapers or magazines. Other residents are expatriates, sometimes retired foreign correspondents who choose to settle outside their country of birth.

Resident freelancers, as a rule, write few stories, either because they are semi-retired or have other jobs, or because they are living in places that are not interesting enough to Americans to justify a full time correspondent. Samuel Sarpong, a Ghanian journalist, writes 10 stories a year from Accra for the South-North News Service; expatriate George W. Hamilton, who has lived in Vienna since 1979, says he makes a living freelancing off the "modest demand" for news about the Austrian economy and by writing the Austrian sections of Fodor guidebooks.

At the other extreme, of course, is the locale that makes a great deal of news – the war zone – where adventurers (and sometimes flingers and ideologues) flock, attracted to a cause or to excitement, and always to the opportunity for advancement.

Dangerous places create special problems for journalists, and especially for freelancers, who work without the support or comfort of an organization. Although news organizations accredit freelancers, they don't pay health or life insurance.

Peter S. Green, a freelancer working out of Prague, argues that "U.S. news organizations should sign a code of conduct agreeing to contribute to danger insurance for stringers." (Green's health policy costs him $1,000 but has a $2,000 deductible.) Bill Kovach, director of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard and the former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, agrees that publications should assume responsibility for freelancers they send to a combat zone. "It would seem to me," he says, "as a moral matter, you have the same obligation to help a freelancer in these circumstances as you would a full-timer."

Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's chief of correpondents, says, "We don't have a signed legal obligation, but we try to be supportive and do for our freelancers much as we'd do for our full time staff." Newsweek is currently providing its stringer in Bosnia, Joel Brand, with scarce supplies, a flak jacket and helmet, and access to an armored car, she says. Editors are in frequent contact with him, keeping track of his whereabouts. "We're interested in whether his travels are relevant and worth the risk," she says. "In the end we defer to him, though. We never pressure him into situations."

Frank Smyth reported on the Kurdish uprising in Iraq in early 1991 and later wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review on "the use and abuse of stringers in the combat zone." He points out that the relationship between stringer and news organization can be complicated "by the fact that the line between a legitimate journalist and an intelligence operative is – sometimes – blurred."

There is a history of journalists working for the CIA and other intelligence services. But while stringer-as-spy may be the extreme case, editors should worry about whether foreign-based freelancers have hidden agendas (see "When Pictures Drive Foreign Policy," December 1993). The trend toward using more freelancers also raises questions about a news organization's ability to stand behind the integrity of its product.

In the pecking order of foreign correspondence, the stringer starts out from what the Washington Post's Julia Preston calls "flat zero." The opinion of Nomi Morris in Berlin is typical: "Freelance correspondents, even the most professional and relied upon, are treated terribly by news organizations, both financially and editorially." More subtly, Sarah Gauch from Cairo writes, "When they need you they're great and when they don't they're horrid."

Fees are often $50 for a radio spot, $75 for a newspaper photo, and $100 for a 700-word article. Still, Alan Levy, who has been reporting from Central Europe since 1967, recalls, "I had to go to small claims court every time I landed in New York to collect overdue payments." Another freelancer estimates that he spends half his time on "administration," soliciting work and keeping track of who uses and has paid for his articles. Moreover, given the size of the market and competition, many freelancers have to master two journalistic styles as they put together clients in the United States and Britain.

While a third of the freelancers in the survey have only one or two strings, reflecting the part time nature of some categories, others manage to land enough clients to earn a living by finding noncompeting news organizations – such as the Boston Globe, the Sun in Baltimore and a U.S. and Canadian radio outlet – and then recycling the research. For example, Ian Katz in Buenos Aires estimates his yearly output at 50 articles for the Miami Herald, 25 for the Economist, 12 to 15 for the Sunday Telegraph in London, 20 to 25 for the Tampa Tribune, assorted contributions to Time, and occasional work for the Voice of America, Detroit Free Press and San Francisco Chronicle.

As might be expected of a group that includes adventurers and flingers, American freelancers, when compared with staff correspondents, are on average younger, more likely to be at their first post abroad and to have been there for less than three years. They are less likely to be married, but when they are, they are more likely to be married to another journalist and to have a working spouse. Freelancers are more apt to be women and to be of a higher socioeconomic status. While their educational backgrounds are similar, freelancers claim higher proficiency in the languages of the countries where they are based.

Are these freelancers the wave of the future? A long list of distinguished foreign correspondents started as stringers. Daniel Schorr. Elie Abel. Stanley Karnow. Robert Kaiser. Elizabeth Pond. Allen Pizzey. Or Caryle Murphy, a freelancer in Luanda until arrested by the Angolan government, after which she was hired by the Washington Post to cover Northern Virginia politics, and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for her reports from Kuwait during the weeks following Iraq's invasion. Or Sheryl WuDunn, who was a contract worker (or super stringer) at the New York Times until she won the Pulitzer for reporting from Tiananmen Square. She was then hired full time. Of all those in the survey who first went overseas as freelancers, 48 percent eventually found jobs in the mainstream media, although not necessarily as foreign correspondents.

There always will be an abundant supply of freelancers, not only because there always will be spouses, experts, adventurers, flingers, ideologues and residents, but also because freelancing fits other worldwide trends, such as an increase in part time work, growth in self-employment, and a higher proportion of working mothers. The question of whether there also will be a greater demand for freelancers, however, will depend on the state of the news business and executives' judgments of how much foreign news the American public wants.

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