With foreign bureaus slashed, freelancers are filling the void – at their own risk

When Time magazine named journalists who faced persecution, arrest or murder as their 2018 Person of the Year, it described them as “The Guardians” in the “War on Truth.”

It was a forceful rebuke to those who demean journalists as peddlers of “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” But for freelancers who risk their lives in conflict zones, recognition does little to change the fact that they lack steady paychecks and security.

For decades, most leading media outlets have shuttered news bureaus abroad and cut the number of foreign correspondents on staff.

Since then, freelancers have increasingly filled the void. These include both Western journalists working in conflict zones around the world, as well as local journalists working in their own non-Western countries.

Foreign staffers the first to go

I became a freelance foreign correspondent when I moved to Mexico City in 1977. Two years later, I was a staff correspondent for United Press International.

At the time, Mexico was home to scores of staff and freelance journalists covering not just Mexico but also Central America and the Caribbean. But the number of both staff and freelance journalists based there has since declined, partly because the outlets for their work have downsized or disappeared, according to my interviews with colleagues who remain at their posts in the Mexican capital.

The change in Mexico wasn’t an isolated one. Beginning the late 1980s, the number of full-time staff journalists posted in foreign cities to cover stories of global importance started to drop. Studies showed this trend accelerated in the 2000s.

As journalist Sherry Ricchiardi noted in a 2008 article published by the American Journalism Review, “Foreign bureaus continue to fall like dominoes. The Boston Globe closed the last of its three international offices in Berlin, Bogotá and Jerusalem earlier this year. The Baltimore Sun plans to shut down South Africa and Russia by the end of 2007 and already has left China.”

In a groundbreaking 2004 report, “Redefining Foreign Correspondence,” authors John Maxwell Hamilton and Eric Jenner wrote that economic pressures, globalization and technological advances have all led to the “chronic decline” of the full-time foreign correspondent.

Hamilton and Jenner noted that newspapers were budgeting over $250,000 a year to support a foreign correspondent, with networks paying up to twice that amount for a television correspondent and their production team.

These estimates were from 2004. Today – especially in conflict zones – the cost of insurance and security measures could push the price for a staff correspondent or a TV crew much higher.

Survival of the fittest

Freelancers – much cheaper to employ – have largely taken the place of salaried correspondents.

Journalists that value flexibility and the chance to pursue stories that inspire them might now have more opportunities to get bylines in mainstream outlets.

But freelancing is tough work, and freelancers lack the support, preparation and security typically granted to staffers.

As photojournalist Dominic Bracco told me during a recent interview for my “Freelancers” documentary series on foreign correspondents, “It’s difficult. There’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of great people. You have to be better and smarter to survive. To make it in this career you have to work your ass off.”

Like many other freelancers, Dominic and his wife, Meghan Dhaliwal, also a photojournalist, spend much of their time pitching stories to a wide range of outlets, applying for grants, entering contests and forging personal relationships with editors.

‘You have to work your ass off,’ freelancer Dominic Bracco says. Matt Cipollone, CC BY
Like most relationships, a freelancer’s connection with editors is founded on trust that’s built by producing outstanding work on deadline.

But freelancers, too often, are victims of a level of exploitation that most staffers don’t experience.