When I started freelancing the news business was changing, and that was even before the Internet was the cause. It was too early for that to happen. Back then it was the BBC that was slowly suffocating what had been one of the oldest, largest and most reliable sources of foreign news, World Service Radio, in its quest to move into television. In the early 1990’s I’d hear words such as “multiskilling,” as reporters started being trained in how to use video cameras.
In many ways, this was the beginning of the end. Or seen through the lens of today, it was the start of a journey that hasn’t ended.
In those days, news organizations had big budgets and paid good salaries to staff reporters, though they were starting to rely on freelancers like me to do much of the work. I’ll never forget the bureau chief of one of the big TV news agencies with his two suites in a luxury hotel, one for work and one for play, all on an expense account. He had a blast and still delivered.
I was covering the war in the former Yugoslavia. It was a mad time. I was 22, with no real grasp of the risks. There was no hostile environment training and no insurance. Journalism was a trade; we learned it as we worked. Passion for the story drove us, and money was a welcome byproduct. My editors cared only that I was on the scene with a phone connection and could file. It was hard work; when a story broke, I’d call all my clients, half a dozen regulars, to persuade them the story was worth running. I’d file, and if I was lucky I’d send the same piece again with a different sign-off to each of my clients. Then I’d wait and hope they would pay.
On quiet days I wasted money on phone calls as I’d try to persuade an accounts person that I really did the work and deserved my payment. It wasn’t easy since I couldn’t get angry and risk being labeled as a problem correspondent and see my client list shrink.
After I spent seven years on that story, I decided it was time to come home. My editors were happy to meet for a drink, but work was hard to come by. Budgets were already under the knife.
It was then that I was struck with moment of genius, or so I thought. In Bosnia, I learned how the Web was being used for instant communications when I saw students keeping in touch via e-mail across the frontlines during the war. So I figured that freelancers could use the Web to pitch and sell stories with somebody in the middle to chase payments for them. Back in London, I did the dot-com thing, and like so many others I pretended that I understood the business and I raised some money. But I blew it on the wrong things, and soon the bubble popped.
Whether it was vanity or blind stupidity or the tenacity I acquired in Bosnia, something kept me going. I could see that budgets were shrinking at news organizations, but I also knew that the appetite for well-sourced, reliable foreign news reporting wasn’t. And so I set out to create Global Radio News (GRN) and for 10 years the business has played the critical middleman role in connecting broadcasters with proven reporters. We’ve faced some competition, and we’ve adapted to the changing marketplace by using technology to streamline our services.
Designing a New Newsdesk
Now GRN has embarked on an initiative to fill the vacuum left by the hollowing out of newsrooms. Not too long ago those at the newsdesk knew where every reporter was at any time, whether on the frontlines of a battle or on a stool at a bar. And they knew what story a reporter was covering and how. They were usually the ones to give reporters their next assignment. Now this function falls to desk editors, one job among many.
This is where GRN steps in. We do what newsdesks used to do and more. We suggest stories, using ideas we pick up from daily messages sent to us by reporters working in all parts of the world. Widespread reporting about the famine and brutality in Darfur started with an alert we received from one of our reporters who’d been there. In some cases, we even help to direct coverage.
GRN tries as much as possible to use journalists who live where the story is taking place. Local journalists have the gift of institutional knowledge and this can set them apart from those who parachute into a story, though the old-timers can also be ready to leap in given the expertise they carry inside of them. When they were foreign correspondents, they settled in a region of the world and got to know their way around; they were ready when news broke. In this tweeting generation of journalists, deep digging isn’t valued so this kind of ingrained knowledge doesn’t grow. Of course this is understandable at a time when it’s the rare news organization that invests in having a reporter watch a story until it becomes news.
GRN’s role is to support reporters by finding them and investing in them before a story breaks in their backyard. When it does, we connect broadcasters with a person who is ready to do the job.
Connecting Reporters and Broadcasters
During the uprising in Kyrgyzstan this spring, we watched the story develop for a few weeks. Then one morning Tim Judah, a reporter we’ve worked with for many years, called us to say that his son Ben was in the capital, Bishkek, and he’d written about the troubles in that country. We immediately pushed Ben’s name and whereabouts out via the daily alerts we send to our clients. We then set about organizing his insurance, knowing that bookings would start to come in soon. And they did.
Broadcasters watch our alerts as they are deciding whether they want to cover a story and if so, how. Are they willing to spend the money to send a staff reporter? Or will they take a chance on a reporter like Ben who is there, knows the story, and can start to file immediately. A number of our clients—CBC, CBS, France 24, Fox News, Deutsche Welle, and RTE, among others—chose to use him so for several days he was a busy man. And as he handled his reporting assignments, GRN took care of the sales and marketing of his work, billed the broadcasters, and paid him.
As protests escalated on the streets of Tehran last summer, Saeed Kamali Dehghan picked up reporting assignments after other broadcasters had been forced to leave or had their movements severely restricted by the authorities. Given his local knowledge, Dehghan, who was writing for The Guardian, started to be used extensively by other news organizations, including broadcasters. Writing recently in The Observer of this experience, he recalled how his assignments increased:
One day, I was on the back of a motorbike. A friend was helping me to get from one place to another in Tehran and my agents, GRN in London, called and said: ‘Saeed, in five minutes you have to go live on CNN.’ With no broadcast experience, I was suddenly live on TV for the first time on the back of a motorbike in the middle of a city in chaos. They loved it and I gave more than 50 live TV interviews to different broadcasters in June alone, most of the time appearing anonymously.
Insisting on Fairness
Our business works by providing a service for broadcasters and reporters. Given the danger inherent in foreign news reporting—especially in conflict zones—we use our agent role and leverage to insist on a solid level of protection for reporters. Our approach comes out of our belief that no broadcaster should run a story, picture or video done by a reporter who is not insured. To accomplish this, we’ve established a program whereby all of the reporters who work through GRN carry insurance when they do a story that has been assigned to them through us.
If a broadcaster wants reliable, high-quality reporters, it must be willing to treat them fairly and do all they can to keep them safe. And what they pay has to be commensurate with the use they want to make of the reporting they receive; put simply, they can’t own the rights forever if they pay little to produce it.
Seeing that these obligations are met doesn’t happen easily, but GRN has fought similar battles before. When we were starting out we insisted that broadcasters pay for even a brief phoner with a reporter; making that standard procedure required a fight. The broadcasters presumed that reporters would be satisfied just to be asked to talk on their news program, and that would be enough. It isn’t.
To take these next steps, we created a package designed to support the work that our foreign news reporters do. We call it “GRN Assignment Insurance.” Through this program, we assist reporters in securing the insurance they need by helping to cover its cost with a guarantee of work. We also help in arranging their visas and press cards. We book work and facilitate payment within 30 days. We also advance funds on confirmed stories and help reporters get discounts on the tools and services they’ll need in the field.
The cost to the reporter is our commission, their loyalty, and a small fee paid to belong to GRN. As agents, we earn money through commissions that vary. Broadcasters pay rates that are determined by their size and location, but reporters earn the same percentage of the fee whether the broadcast outlet is enormous or tiny. Our same rigorous professional standards always apply.
We know that a reporter working on his or her own would earn more for each job, but with us they benefit from our economies of scale and the practices that we insist be in place for them. In 10 years, we’ve only had a handful of reporters leave GRN and head out on their own. Ours is a model of organizing and running the business of foreign reporting that fits its time while also holding on to the journalistic values that guided reporters in the past.
Henry Peirse is the founder and CEO of Global Radio News (GRN).