In March, when it became clear something big was happening in Crimea, Jacob Resneck packed his knapsack with a laptop, sound recorder and camera and boarded a one-way flight from his adopted hometown, Istanbul, to the peninsula on the Black Sea. There the Californian met up with a British photographer friend who speaks Russian, rented a room for a week in a Simferopol boarding house, and began reporting on one of the biggest stories of the year—Russia’s annexation of Crimea—for outlets like USA Today and Radio France Internationale.
Resneck, a freelancer, spent less than $1,000 of his own money traveling to Crimea to write and produce a handful of stories that paid around $250 apiece. He also took a serious risk. His American insurance plan wouldn’t have airlifted him to a Western hospital if he had been injured. He had travel insurance that may or may not have covered a self-employed reporter in the field. And he didn’t take a flak jacket because, well, he doesn’t own one.
“I’m not a photographer,” he says. “I don’t need to be right up there to see guys running around dodging explosions. Anyway, at that time in Crimea, if you went through a checkpoint, the separatists would say, ‘Oh, sweet, you have a flak jacket. I’ll take that.’ They had rifles, so you couldn’t argue with them.”
Resneck filed his print stories to newspapers via Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA), a Germany-based group of more than 100 international freelancers (where I work as an editor, though not on Resneck’s stories). He arranged his radio pieces through GRNlive, a service in London that hooks up freelancers with TV and radio broadcasters around the world. Both services act as go-betweens that make it easier for freelancers to land assignments rather than sending out pitches, waiting for editors’ responses, and re-pitching if necessary. “They know which client wants the story,” he says. “It’s difficult to do it yourself when you roll into a new city.”
ARA and GRNlive are among a clutch of freelancer-based ventures trying to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the old-school networks of news bureaus and staff correspondents that once covered foreign news. Often founded by expat journalists who witnessed brutal cuts amid the rise of the Internet and the collapse of the traditional news business model, they are expediting coverage in faraway places for news outlets that don’t have the resources to send staff into the field. Most act as clearinghouses for foreign editors who need copy or videos and journalists who often assume the costs and risks of setting themselves up overseas. The risks were most recently highlighted by the murders in 2014 of freelancers James Foley, and Steven Sotloff, after being kidnapped in Syria, and freelancer Luke Somers, a year after he had been kidnapped. in Yemen.
For editors, the start-ups are like temp agencies that provide on-the-spot workers on short notice, an important resource at a time when the Web has created a newshole that’s never filled. For journalists, the start-ups are a way to maximize their income in the so-called “gig economy,” the patchwork of stories, consulting work, and other short-term projects that often comprise freelance careers.
Journalist-entrepreneurs like Jeremy Walker, co-founder of the U.K.-based NewsFixed, don’t believe the conventional wisdom that interest in foreign coverage is lapsing. To Walker, it’s the best of times and the worst of times for international news. Industry cuts have forced journalists abroad to be more resourceful than ever, but that hasn’t staunched demand for foreign news or interest among journalists to go overseas, he says. He cites a recent essay by tech entrepreneur and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen arguing that the climate for journalism is rife with opportunities.
“Some of the best news about the news business is the gigantic expansion of the addressable market, a function of the rise of the developing world plus the Internet,” Andreessen wrote on the website of Andreessen Horowitz, his investment firm, in February. “So how big is it? If you extrapolate from the number of smartphones globally, the total addressable market for news by 2020 is around five billion people worldwide. However, we all have to get more sophisticated about defining and segmenting markets. It is critical to really understand the who, where, when, and why to serve that massive market effectively.”
For editors, the start-ups are like temp agencies, an important resource for the Web’s limitless newshole
Walker believes the addressable market for news includes a lot of people like him—people who frequently travel and/or live abroad. As a New Zealander married to a Yemeni who lives in London, he pays attention to events on three continents. His professional experience also told him there was work to be done hooking up editors with reporters. After working in India for The Hindu newspaper and a stint freelancing, he landed a job at the BBC. There, working overnight shifts, he often struggled to find correspondents in far-flung locales, even though, based on his experience in South Asia and the Middle East, he knew there were writers, photographers, and videographers desperate to report in even the most isolated corners of the world. Someone needed to connect those journalists with audiences who cared, he says. In September 2012, he quit the BBC and started developing NewsFixed.
“On one level, everyone wants to cut down on foreign reporting because it’s costly,” says Walker, in a Skype interview from his office at Seedcamp, a venture capital fund at Google’s start-up incubator in East London’s hip Shoreditch district. “At the same time, foreign news is increasingly relevant to people’s lives. We live in a very globalized world. People are living in places they weren’t 15 years ago.”
NewsFixed has six employees who connect more than 1,000 journalists with editors at outlets like Al Jazeera and The Economist using a database that’s part online classified ad platform, part social network, and part content management system. Journalists upload profiles and story ideas that editors can search using criteria like location, experience, and expertise. Walker declined to say how much money he’s received from Seedcamp, but the fund gives as much as $250,000 to its ventures and provides mentoring and other help, according to its website.
Walker views NewsFixed as a tech solution to the imbalances on foreign desks—editors under intense pressure to deliver unique foreign coverage on budgets too slim to send anyone in the newsroom abroad but who have enough funding to commission freelancers if they only knew whom to call. He and his staff don’t edit stories. His only quality control is vetting journalists who join the site. Everything else is the client’s job, though NewsFixed can also handle payments.
Cathy Otten, a British journalist in Iraq, says the start-up landed her assignments with Al Jazeera and Sky News. Without NewsFixed, she’d have been an untested reporter sending e-mails to editors she’d never met. NewsFixed smoothed her way to assignments. NewsFixed also provided at least a modicum of security for Otten during the recent blitzkrieg rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS—the terror group that killed Foley—by simply keeping in touch with her, a job once reserved for bureau chiefs. “Over the summer, NewsFixed was really great at sending out updates and checking in during the ISIS story,” she says. “It was nice that they were involved and had that concern.”
ARA is more hands-on, acting like a co-op, providing editorial guidance—copy editing and crafting pitches—to member reporters on behalf of clients like USA Today and The Washington Times. Its connections between editors and writers arise from relationships built by longtime international freelancer and managing editor Jabeen Bhatti and eight full- and part-time staffers. Launched out of a small attic space in 2008, it now has an office in Berlin’s expat-friendly Kreuzberg neighborhood and runs as a nonprofit.
Working for ARA and GRNlive has helped Resneck achieve the freelancer’s goal of routinely repackaging reporting for more than one venue. ARA steers him to whoever wants his copy immediately. That print reporting then gives him bona fides to provide broadcast outlets with news via GRNlive. “They can show that I’m on the ground and say, ‘Hey CBS radio, this guy just wrote a piece for USA Today or The Washington Times. He’s close to the action. Do you want to have him on your program?’ The agency takes a bit but I get paid,” Resneck says. “I come from a newspaper background. As much as it breaks my heart to admit this, I couldn’t make a living only writing.”
Brooklyn-based Storyhunter takes a similar approach. Founded in 2012, the start-up launched a new website this summer that uses algorithms like online dating sites to match editors’ needs and journalists’ story ideas, drawing on the input of more than 3,500 videographers and documentary filmmakers that co-founder Jaron Gilinsky says have signed up for the service. He views Storyhunter as a management system to replace foreign editors’ Rolodexes and Excel spreadsheets of names, numbers, and e-mail addresses.
Editors and journalists rate their experiences with each other after they have completed projects, letting others know whether a story went well or not, and why, in the same way customers rate their experiences with landlords on the Airbnb apartment-sharing service. Storyhunter also arranges payments, offers clients editorial services, like video editing or scriptwriting, for a fee, and provides work insurance to reporters while they are on assignments commissioned through the site, a huge benefit given how freelancers often go to hazardous locations with little or no protection against unforeseen mishaps. Gilinsky declined to describe his funding, saying only that he’s raised about $1 million through private investors. So far, he says, Storyhunter’s clients include Al Jazeera Plus, MSNBC.com, and Fusion, the ABC-Univision joint venture.
Fusion digital news editor Jared Goyette says Storyhunter gives his operation a pool of videographers who plug holes in the footage they take from their ABC and Univision partners. During civil demonstrations in Venezuela in February, for example, Storyhunter produced extra contextual pieces that complemented Fusion crews who were covering day-to-day events. “You need that on-the-ground presence to do anything with any authority,” says Goyette.
Most of the start-ups take small cuts of the payments for stories they arrange, usually in the form of a fee or a percentage, depending on whether their staff contributed to the work. But since most of the start-ups are young and burning through capital, it’s not certain their business models will work. As an editor at ARA and a former editor at the shuttered Boston-based online start-up Latitude News, which covered foreign stories that had parallels in the U.S., I know foreign coverage outside hot zones is not easy to sell. Before the Ebola outbreak, for example, few editors cared about the scandalously poor state of public health in West Africa.
An established group that was founded in 2000 but took off with the second Iraq war in 2003, GRNlive keeps overhead low in order to maintain financial viability. GRNlive links journalists and producers for phone interviews and radio and video pieces without becoming involved editorially. Founder Henry Peirse estimates that he generates around $1 million a year, a testament to how much Fox News, Deutsche Welle, and his other clients need footage. Most of that revenue is passed on to reporters, however. He has a staff of three to five employees who rotate in and out according to need. It’s a lean operation in London with a simple website and no production facilities or expenses besides office rent and some computers. “We really run the business on cash flow,” says Peirse. “In this age of technology, you don’t need a lot of stuff.”
Other start-ups are more focused on earnings. Like NewsFixed and Storyhunter, Melbourne, Australia-based Newsmodo takes editors’ requests for print and broadcast story ideas and solicits pitches for them from journalists—and vice versa—through an online marketplace that has 15,000 members, including 1,000 journalists. Like ARA, its staff of five employees also sometimes provides initial edits to stories and footage before they’re filed to NBC’s “Today” show, British tabloids like The Sun and The Mirror, and others. But unlike the others, Newsmodo also supplies so-called “branded content” to corporate clients.
Rakhal Ebeli, who founded the start-up in 2013 with money from Oxygen Ventures in Melbourne, finds that freelancers are more than happy to pursue both types of work. Funded by advertisers or other sponsors, branded content employs journalistic storytelling and fact-finding for pieces that resemble news but often hew to the intended themes of their financial backers. It’s not a new strategy. Outfits like Atlantic Media’s Quartz have folded branded content into their business models, too. Staff writers can be expected to have ethical quandaries about writing with advertisers in mind. Freelancers, who are constantly working as hired guns for different clients, may have no such qualms if the pay is right and the work steady.
Storyful in Dublin is likely the best example of a start-up that scored big, accepting a $25 million acquisition offer from News Corp last year. Launched in 2010 with about $4 million from angel investors and Enterprise Ireland, a government economic development agency, Storyful verifies the authenticity of video reportage found on social media and elsewhere online for clients like The Wall Street Journal (its only current News Corp partner), The New York Times, and Britain’s Channel 4 News. But its 100 employees, around double the number since last year, also secure licenses to videos found on social media that it sells to clients like Yahoo, Mashable, online advertisers, and others. If those videos go viral, they generate revenues for Storyful, the client, and whoever originally shot the video—often not professional reporters at all but citizen journalists who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
David Clinch, Storyful’s executive editor and a former CNN producer, advises start-up journalists to stick to the news rather than a tech or advertising firm that’s seeking only to generate cash and clicks rather than quality content. “Partner with big news organizations and seek investment or acquisition,” he says. “Web platforms are great partners for us but the risk for start-ups is that a Web platform would take their take but kill the editorial.”
Regardless of the business model, journalists in start-up mode need to quickly disabuse themselves of dreams born of Silicon Valley. According to Worldcrunch co-founder Jeff Israely, an American living in Paris and former Time correspondent in Europe, the runway for journalism start-ups is long and paved with trust rather than immediate financial returns. Editors are swamped, but they are also understandably cautious about accepting stories or videos from unknown, potentially unreliable writers and producers.
For freelancers, the freedom of being your own boss can trump the low margins
With about $100,000 in seed money, Worldcrunch launched in 2011. It obtains the rights to foreign newspaper stories, translates them into English—often using multilingual freelance journalists—and sells them to English-language media around the world through clients like The New York Times Syndicate. It took a while to convince American editors that Worldcrunch was a legitimate operation run by professional journalists. “Everyone is up to their necks,” says Israely, referring to editors and other gatekeepers. “As a start-up, the first challenge is trying to get the time and attention of busy, confused people. It’s a lot of legwork. You’ve got make it as easy to say yes as possible.”
Fusion editor Goyette and his colleagues initially also wondered if they could trust Storyhunter to provide reliable journalists. But they heard good things so decided to use Storyhunter in a pinch, an experience that built up trust. “You are willing to take more risks when you know the story is hot and you want someone there,” he says. “You’ll take someone and make it work because you know you need stories from this place.”
No matter how they operate, all the start-ups depend on hustling freelancers like Resneck who don’t mind being on their own. During his March trip to Ukraine—he’s taken a total of four reporting trips to the country this year—Resneck took $40 flights to and from Turkey, split the $350 cost of a room that he shared with his photographer friend, where they cooked meals, and shared taxi fares with Spanish journalists he met along the way. Working on shoestring budgets like this, he might earn $1,000 in a good week. In a bad week, his take-home pay can be around $100.
Resneck’s margins are slim. But his overhead is way lower than the newsgathering operations of yesteryear, in addition to being arguably more flexible and just as effective. Groups like ARA and GRNlive have provided him with an ecosystem that’s helped him make a living. If he were a staffer based out of a news bureau in a foreign capital, he’d still be working overtime. In his current situation, at least he’s his own boss. “Nobody has ownership over what I’m doing,” he says.