I’m writing this piece in light of the many requests I receive for advice on how to work as a freelance foreign correspondent, particularly in the Middle East, and the realities of working in a perversely unstable and stressful yet rewarding career. It is partly culled from advice I have given to those who have approached me, from my social media posts on freelance journalism, and from my own mulling over of advice other wiser, more experienced correspondents have given me.
I hope it will prove useful for anyone thinking about taking a similar route. I focus on the Middle East as it’s the region in which I have experience, albeit a very limited amount. This advice might apply to other parts of the world, too, but I cannot write on the realities for journalists covering them.
At the bottom of this article, I’ve included links to resources I have found invaluable while planning stories and assignments, on insurance, risk assessments, culture and language, and news alerts. I hope others find them as useful as I have.
As a brief bit of background, I left my staff job as a desk journalist on a national newspaper in London in March 2016. I had been interested in the Middle East since visiting Syria in early 2011 and spending a couple of months in Morocco during my undergraduate degree in 2012. I wanted to do more field reporting than my newspaper job allowed. I packed up my desk, sought advice from compassionate, more experienced foreign correspondents, and got myself a press card that would prove invaluable when dealing with officials who needed some sort of proof that I was who I said I was. I did a hostile environment training course, and worked my contacts book as hard as I could to muster enough commissions to pay for travel to Gaziantep in south Turkey. At the time, the so-called Islamic State group was firing rockets into Turkish territory from land it controlled on the Syrian side of the border, and suicide/bomb attacks in the city were not uncommon. I pitched, reported, filed, got published. That June, I landed in Beirut, Lebanon, which I had recced on a holiday the previous year. I thought it would provide the best combination of a place to learn Arabic and a base for journalistic reporting. Mostly, I have been here since.
As well as freelance journalism, since the beginning of 2018 I have been studying for my MA in Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut. This has inevitably eaten into the time I’ve had available for in-depth journalism, although my hope is that the skills and knowledge I gain during my studies will feed back into my writing in the long term.
Going freelance and moving to Beirut were two of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have done some work I’m even half proud of, meeting all sorts along the way, from Islamist leaders of armed factions in Lebanon’s refugee camps, to survivors of torture in Syria, to millionaires, to doctors fighting obesity in the Gulf. I have made wonderful friends, loved, lost, and grown.
It has been extremely bloody difficult, too. Excuse the schmaltz, but it remains the case that devotion, determination, self-belief, and stamina are essential traits. I’ve not ‘made it’ as a journalist by any stretch of the imagination — how does one define ‘making it’, anyway? — but these are characteristics that I believe have helped me to persevere.
Freelance journalism, especially as a foreign correspondent, is stressful, expensive and nerve-wracking. That’s partly what makes it exciting, but also what can cause it to cripple a person, too. Think very carefully about your aim: is it being a journalist? Or is being in the Middle East per se what you’re after? I worked for a newspaper for several years before I came to this region, and I knew I wanted to be a journalist before arriving. That isn’t to say that I had a wealth of experience and definitely knew what I was doing when I started out (I definitely didn’t). But I had been doing work experience in news rooms since my late teens, and had built a rough picture of how media outlets operated, at least in the UK. From that, I tried to develop a sense of how to approach editors — what would piss them off and what would go down well, say — and how news cycles worked.
Think very carefully about your aim: is it being a journalist? Or is being in the Middle East per se what you’re after?
In short, I was a journalist first, before I was interested in the Middle East. I then really developed a strong interest in the region, partly because of Arabic, which is a language I love despite the many pens I have crushed in frustration over grammar exercises. I realised that learning it to some level of competency would not only be something I would enjoy, but would probably prove quite useful, too. If you’re keener on being in the Middle East in and of itself rather than being a journalist in the Middle East, reporting freelance is probably one of the more stressful ways of going about it. It’s undoubtedly a very interesting route, likely with fewer travel restrictions than NGO and diplomacy jobs.
But it’s essential to bear in mind that this is what can make it much more dangerous, too. No one is ultimately responsible for freelance-you except, well, you. Although there’s a very welcome trend among some news outlets that is seeing them take responsibility for freelancers almost as if they were staff journalists, it is often the case that you (rather than a security advisor or editor with local knowledge) are making the decision about whether to visit that town, go down that road, or cross that border. That decision can be very tricky, and very risky, too.
Be prepared to cope with shifts in the media landscape that are beyond your control — and probably that of your editors, too. These changes will likely have a knock-on effect on the amount of work commissioned. Publications go under, change hands, switch editors, alter their approaches and evolve in their interests. I’ve lost contact with some editors as they’ve moved on; I’ve gone without decent sources of income as publications have gone bust or cut their budgets. I’ve built other relationships to find new outlets to work for. Not keeping all one’s eggs in the same basket — for fear that basket might fall and all the eggs will break — is a constant effort of building and maintaining relationships with other journalists and contacts.
Since I arrived in Beirut, editor and reader interest in Syria and Lebanon — the two countries most often covered from here — has waxed and waned. That inevitable ebb and flow, as other parts of the world dominate the headlines for better or for worse, will at some point or another affect you. It might mean that even if you are dead set on doing “hard” news, there will be little interest and you’ll find yourself taking on other kinds of journalism, or copywriting or communications work, which you find less rewarding but which pays the bills.
Cities that are fun places to live like Beirut also fill up with journalists. That means there is a wonderful and supportive community of people going through similar stresses, working on similar issues and with whom you can share ideas — and wine. But the rules of supply and demand inevitably also mean there is more — mostly non-aggressive — competition for the stories on offer and you’ll likely have to work harder to sell your ideas at the price you want. Journalists have been basing themselves in Lebanon since goodness knows when, and that makes it harder to come up with ideas that someone before you hasn’t already had.
Realise that the pay is bad. To make a modest living, you have to be pulling in a decent number of commissions every month, given that the fee per article is often cripplingly low, and in the case of opinion/comment pieces, sometimes non-existent. Getting those commissions is not guaranteed at all: you need to think about how you will connect with the right commissioning editors, and how you’ll convince them that you are the best person to write whatever you’re offering. All this doesn’t account for time off — planned or unplanned. I remember having a panic one summer after a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning left me bedridden and unable to even check my phone for days, let alone write anything to earn any money. That left me with not only a string of missed calls from Hezbollah’s press office over a story I’d been working on, but also a deficit for the month’s earnings because I’d not worked for five days. Be prepared to hone your pitching and selling skills, to accommodate the sometimes-overwhelming number of stories you’ll need to file to earn a modest income. I love pitching, although I wasn’t necessarily good at it at first and sometimes now still send out a pathetic sales line. It’s an essential part of freelancing and growing to like, or at least tolerate it, is crucial to the ability to find work.
Factor in the bureaucracy. Payments can sometimes take months to land in your bank account, and sums transferred from foreign bank accounts will arrive minus transfer fees of, say, $10-$15. When standard story pay currently hovers at around $300–400 for 800–1000 words, it’s not silly to fret over such a point. Unfortunately, often through no fault of the editors you interact with, budgets are sometimes cut and fees fall even further. I panicked last month when a regular client cut $150 off their standard payment per story. It drove me to thinking long and hard about how much time I’d realistically be able to devote to researching each article. On the one hand, I have to be able to make a living by putting out enough pieces each month to bring in an income. On the other, I don’t want to publish in my name without having spent time researching and investigating my lines of enquiry properly, and feeling confident in what I’ve written. Lower fees make that output-versus-depth calculation even harder.
Realise the cost of working. Reporting in the Middle East can be incredibly expensive.
Having some savings is a good way to start because you cannot expect to make money at first. Think of your work as a business: even if your stories aren’t corporate puff pieces, as a freelance journalist, you are self-employed business person. You need to factor in time for admin, which will run the gamut from filing your own tax return — potentially clawing your eyes out in the process — to chasing late payments and buying and maintaining your own gear. The latter might be as simple as ensuring you have enough notebooks, pens and batteries for your dictaphone, or as complicated and stressful as upgrading editing software, and fixing cameras, lenses and recording devices.
Realise the cost of working, too. Reporting in the Middle East can be incredibly expensive. For example, I didn’t cover the offensive to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016–2017 because fixers were charging — as was fair given market forces at play and the risks they were taking — hundreds of dollars a day. It would have been a money-loser, given how many news outlets do not cover freelancers’ expenses. I’ve balanced out expensive-to-report stories that I’ve passionately wanted to work on with some lifestyle features that tend to pay more, or analysis pieces that don’t entail high reporting costs. But inevitably, if you want to make some sort of mark, you will find yourself wanting to go out to report stories that are simply going to cost money to get under your belt. The reality is that you may only break even or even lose money at first while getting some bylines in your portfolio.
Think about your subject matter. If you have a deep passion for US foreign policy, you might be better off in Washington D.C. (I can’t say for sure — I’ve never visited) than Beirut. Humanitarian issues draw journalists moved by wanting to raise awareness of desperate suffering, but the reality is that there isn’t an enormous market for such stories — there is only so much human sadness the average news consumer can take. The UAE has a plethora of lifestyle publications and business outlets focusing on aviation and tourism, but that’s not for everyone. Remember that you may well have to pitch to more niche publications, because most of the big TV news channels and newspapers have fixed correspondents, and you don’t want to go treading on their toes. That means you can’t expect to be writing for the biggest outlets, and certainly not from the moment you arrive. The good news is that more specialist outlets can show greater interest in quirky stories or more fine-grained detail for smaller audiences that might not appeal to a broader readership. As long as you can convince editors that you’re the person to write what you’re pitching — a good reason for specialising — then niche outlets can be a good money-making stream.
There are days when being a freelance journalist is truly petrifying. I often wonder whether or not there is really a future in relatively independent journalism that pays a fee writers are able to live off, without subsidising by way of more lucrative jobs. I love this job, and I work with some brilliant editors whose fault it is not that the industry is unsustainable. The truth is that I don’t think I will be able to make a living purely from writing and radio in the long term.
If you have lots of hobbies that take up significant chunks of time at regular intervals, or interests that cost a lot to keep up, the unpredictability and time demands of freelance foreign correspondency might not be the best fit.
It used to be the way that people would freelance for a bit before getting a staff job, but there are simply so many more journalists now — something I see as a positive overall— that that is not the norm. On the one hand, the rise of digital journalism, podcasting, social media-driven platforms and the web in general means that there are many more outlets to write for than there were 30 years ago. On the other hand, my fees aren’t rising in line with inflation.
I realise that this advice may sound negative and cynical. I’m trying to paint a realistic picture of how things have been for me. Freelancing is tough and stressful but also incredibly fun, interesting and rewarding. Other journalists may have different experiences that draw a more uplifting image. For me, the reality has been not having much spare time. If you have lots of hobbies that take up significant chunks of time at regular intervals — a three-hour orienteering session every Wednesday at 4pm, for example — or interests that cost a lot to keep up, the unpredictability and time demands of freelance foreign correspondency might not be the best fit. When you’re not working, you’re probably going to be looking for ideas (for work), reading the news (for work), or maintaining those contacts I mentioned that may help you find new outlets (for work) when others dry up. To do it, you have to really love it.
That said, unless you actively want to break down, having some sort of leisure activity unrelated to journalism is essential. I would be an ill-tempered sod without running, so I make sure that my trainers and I hit Beirut’s seafront promenade — the Corniche — as often as we can. And a solid support network of friends and family is priceless. A release — or coping mechanism? — even better than running is going out with friends, forgetting about WhatsApp voice notes and edits and laptop screens, amid chinking glasses, and laughter.
The Rory Peck Trust — invaluable tools and advice for freelance journalists.
Reporters Without Borders — information on press freedom, risks to reporters and more
Frontline Freelance Register — resources for freelance journalists working in hostile environments and otherwise.
AKE Group — hostile environment training courses.
International Federation of Journalists — for press cards.
BBC Arabic — news and features in Arabic, great for practising.
Reuters world news wires — for up-to-date information.
Twitter — say what you like about it — it’s still brilliant for networking and news gathering. Create your own lists to focus on specific topics.
Women Know MENA database — brilliant resource for connecting with knowledgeable journalists, analysts, experts and advocacy workers on the region.
NPR radio training resources — invaluable tools and advice for learning how to report radio programmes.
George Orwell — “Politics and the English Language”. The rules of writing well.
Al Bab — news and resources on the Arab world, including links to political and social histories and language resources.
Al-Maany — Arabic-English online dictionary.
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office Travel Advice for Lebanon (see other countries in region too).
Raseef 22 — features adopting a refreshingly non-Europe or -Western centric angle on the Middle East. In English and Arabic.