Ivan Broadhead received his Master of Journalism degree from the JMSC in 2006. He was asked to recount his rather exceptional experiences since as a freelance writer. Excerpts:
There are pros and cons to going freelance – not everyone is suited to it and you need to think carefully before taking this path. Certainly, you’ll never get rich – you’re doing this work for the love of it; the love of news, communication and variety – and, having been detained by security forces from North Africa to the Caucuses since leaving the JMSC, the safety net of being on the staff of an international media organisation has occasionally seemed an attractive proposition!
That being said, in these cost-cutting times, with many journalists stuck in offices rewriting wire copy, I know a few people who would kill for the variety and excitement that my work as a freelance feature writer offers – variety that otherwise you might only get as a star reporter working for a major news organisation.
I genuinely don’t know where my next assignment will take me and I thrive on this uncertainty, as well as the challenges of developing a good story. You are to a great extent your own boss. Increasingly you also have to be a master of all things: generating new and interesting story ideas; selling that idea to a news outlet, writing the piece; even taking the photographs nowadays.
In the last 18 months I’ve had experiences that pre-JMSC I never would have dreamed of: some historic, like covering the US elections and interviewing the Dalai Lama, others just incredibly interesting and exciting, like patrolling the military berm in Western Sahara with the UN or helping rescue trafficked Nepalese children from captivity in India.
One thing I can’t emphasise enough to your students is the extent to which you need to keep talking and listening to people. You never know where a lead or an interesting quote might come from. The best example was the story that I found most satisfying to work on in the last 18 months – my piece about a US-military nuclear waste dump that is cracking apart on the atoll of Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The article took me nearly two months to research – including the hard task of actually locating the nuclear dump site and visiting it – and the tip-off for this story came from a source I met in Kathmandu while researching the piece about human trafficking.
Following up on this lead was time- and cost-intensive, but in the process I became the first journalist to document this disintegrating nuclear installation from which over three million cubic feet of radioactive waste are seeping into the pristine ocean and causing a health threat to the local population. The president of the Marshall Islands subsequently gave me a great interview – and arranged for me to have an urgent radiation test at a laboratory back in the capital. The Sydney Morning Herald snapped it up, publishing it in their sister Fairfax publications across the country.
As a freelance, you have to be dedicated to your story, organised and self-sufficient. Every element of an assignment is planned and executed off your own bat – if things don’t work out, you don’t get paid, and that causes cash flow problems (news media don’t often pay in advance nowadays – and are increasingly reluctant to stump up for airfares, accommodation etc., no matter how good a story promises to be).
When I went whale hunting with the villagers of Lamalera for a story that the Sunday [South China Morning Post] Post Magazine published, there was no one to explain it would take five days to get there via Timor, on boats and light aircraft and finally by motorcycle. There’s no company credit card to wave under the nose of professional fixers, to ease you out of a jam or help with translation, transport, arranging meetings or the million and one other favours journalists with an expense account can so easily procure. All that preparation before, in this case, I even stepped into the little wooden rowing boat with the village men and headed out to sea looking for 60-ton sperm whales to kill – and hoping to God the specialist freelancer’s insurance policy I spent weeks sourcing and thousands of dollars paying for would actually cover me.
The issues of risk and insurance are something students will want to think hard about, particularly if they have kids. One of the things that I love about freelance work is that you end up doing stories that news bureaus have little inclination to send their journalists off to – and part of that reason is risk and the associated cost of that risk. Bigmedia is risk averse, particularly with its own staffers. If you look at the list of journalists and cameramen who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them are either local or freelance.
One insurance quote for me to go to Afghanistan or Zamboanga in the middle of last year was US$1,300 a day. Suffice it to say I didn’t go to either of those places – regrettably. Even an insurance policy that provides per-assignment cover for around six months of any one year to non-conflict zones will set you back considerably, and this is a cost that has to be factored into your budget.
This leads me to another big problem for freelancers, and that’s actually persuading a news outlet to run your work. You can have the greatest, most original and interesting story idea and more often than not, you’ll feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall when it comes to trying to persuade editors why your story deserves the time and money to be researched and published.
Most of the time editors are too busy even to reply – which is fair enough. But if you’re really lucky – and I feel I have been – you’ll establish a relationship with one or two who will see something in you and your ideas, and give you the freedom to go out and develop a good story – and the freedom to make a few mistakes along the way. In these hard economic times they really do seem to be the exception, not the rule.
But you have to see the challenges as part of the overall fun of the job. One day I’d love to do this kind of work for BBC Radio or The New York Times, and once I’ve gained enough experience and developed my clippings archive, then I can set my sights on trying to achieve just that. In the meantime, I can’t get enough of thinking about new story ideas, and working to develop those ideas into a body of work that engages, informs and perhaps entertains those who read my articles.