The Internet killing the freelance journalist

The Internet killing the freelance journalist

 CAIRO: Aspiring freelance journalists came to Egypt and the Middle East in abundance in recent years, but with the continued fast-paced Internet age, timing has become vitally important for news organizations to remain afloat. With dwindling revenue from online enterprises and the dominance of the larger, well-established wire services such as Reuters and the Associated Press, having reporters at the ends of the earth is becoming more and more difficult.

Colin Solloway, a former Newsweek stringer in the early 2000’s who broke the American Taliban story, said in 2005 that reporters have either two choices, “working their way up at a local newspaper or taking the plunge into international reporting by simply moving to a new location.”

Today, however, the second choice is becoming ever so difficult as news organizations have dropped their freelance budgets in favor of reporting the news from their home offices.

A number of news organizations have taken to establishing a “base” of operations in one location, while continuing to report on events from thousands of miles away. This form of reporting has given rise to an ongoing debate over the ethical nature of such practices. Is it appropriate to report on a news story taking place in Morocco from Dubai? Some argue, yes, but others disagree, saying it inhibits journalism and weakens the profession.

“We have seen how the economic crisis has left its mark on journalism, especially in the Middle East, where you have a number of journalists working from one location, but reporting from many others,” says John Thomas, an American journalism professor from the University of Washington.

He says that a majority of people across the globe receive their news via the Internet, which means news organizations must act quickly in order to post breaking stories as quickly as possible in order to have the highest number of readers.

This, he argues, has given rise to what he refers to as the “desk journalist,” or a reporter who files stories concerning a story from one location even if they are not on the ground.

“It is the world we live in and unfortunately without the proper money available to hire stringers in a number of places, newspapers and other organizations are getting capable desk journalists to do the work instead of paying someone in another country,” he adds. “It is a question of ethics and whether this is appropriate journalism.”

Thomas pointed to the rising number of pseudo wire services, such as All Headline News, which hire a staff based in the United States who write news briefs as if they are in the location they are writing about.

“If you look at their work, and the work of others similar, in the past year or so, they have allegedly written from Gaza, Iraq and a number of other hot spots, but the reality is they have lied to their client base about where the reporter is located. For the most part the dateline is false,” he adds, referring to the myriad articles from the American news agency where one reporter is datelined in more than one location daily.

A quick glance through their list of articles reveals that at least one reporter was in Gaza City, Washington and Tokyo in one day.

All Headline News is not the only organization reporting from afar, however. Voice of America’s Cairo office routinely files news stories on Iraq. Afraid for their reporters’ safety is once concern, but Iraq is not the only news filed from their Cairo location. Often, stories pertaining to the region, including Saudi Arabia and Libya are also reported from the Egyptian capital,

The German news organization Deutsche Presse Agency (DPA) employs its vast number of reporters and translators in Cairo to report on the events in Iraq. The news reports come in and the staff translates and then publishes the news from around the region from the Cairo headquarters.

To note, however, Voice of America and DPA do not dateline the stories they write from Egypt as coming from somewhere else.

Making matters even more difficult for aspiring journalists is those companies who forego the dateline altogether in order to write news stories on an event away from their head office.

“This happens often and it is a way for us to create more content without actually having to hire people on the ground. If we can interview sources on the phone, then why would we pay someone to do it there?” an editor based in New York said. “It just doesn’t make financial sense,” the editor, who asked not to be named, continued.

And that is the crux of the matter, say foreign correspondents attempting to make a living working for publications abroad. One reporter said that in recent months, he has pitched stories to organizations that have a team of journalists in the home office, and has been turned down because they argue “they can do it from there.”

Needless to say, the American journalist is frustrated. “I feel as though me being here is no longer important. A news event happens and I go to the editor to get a story and they say, ‘don’t worry about it, we will interview a couple people from here and put something out.’ It is really confusing, because we are taught that it is important to be on the ground and meet the people involved,” said the journalist, who recently moved to Amman, Jordan.

For many, the issue of reporting from afar is an ethical matter that goes deeper than simple financial considerations. Thomas argues that reporters who get frustrated and angry over editors who hire someone at home to report on issues and stories where there is already an individual present, have a right to be angry.

“Certainly, according to the ethics of journalism, it doesn’t seem appropriate to write a story about an event without a direct relationship to what you are writing about, be that on the ground or in an area affected by the event. So, when organizations simply make a few phone calls from thousands of miles away, it enters a gray area. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here,” the professor adds.