Sometimes I am asked who sent me to Turkey. Which paper or broadcaster delegated me to this journalist’s paradise? Well, nobody. Or I should say: my boss. Me.
Entrepreneurship is the new form of foreign correspondence. And that means: look as far and wide as possible to where you can sell your stories, develop yourself in multimedia, specialize yourself, and look beyond the borders of the Dutch media landscape. In one sentence it comes down to a single piece of advice: don’t aim for a contract correspondence!
Easy for me to talk, of course. I started as a freelancer in 2000 after working for eight years in paid employment. By now, freelancing is so much in my system that I just can’t do otherwise anymore. In 2006 I decided to follow my dream and start freelancing abroad. Turkey seemed to be the best country for it. There are strong economic, social, cultural, personal, tourist and historical ties between the Netherlands and Turkey, and Turkey is in many ways in transition. And, also important: life is cheaper here than in the Netherlands, so I didn’t have to immediately achieve a huge turnover to make a living.
Use the whole media landscape
That there are so many ties between Turkey and the Netherlands automatically means I can sell my stories to a wide range of publications, from weekly news magazines to monthly travel magazines, women’s magazines, newspapers and youth publications. Only for the ANP news agency do I work continuously. But not so continuously that it takes all of my time, or that I have to consult them first before I work for others, like some of my colleagues with a steady contract have to.
And then there are still a whole lot of publications I didn’t write for. The huge specialist farming journal in the Netherlands, to name just one. I will one day. So Tip number 1 is obvious: look at the media landscape in Holland as broadly as possible. Every magazine wants a story about ‘your’country, as long as you think of the right angle. How often does a weekly women’s magazine want a story from another country? Not every week, but when I offered them this story, they immediately wanted it.
Write, film, blog, make radio
With ‘look broadly’ I don’t only mean the written press, of course. Get involved in radio, in video, know what’s possible online. That’s tip number 2. I have to admit in this area I need a kick in the ass myself. I did a course in video journalism but so far I haven’t really done anything with it. The same applies to the lessons in radio journalism that I got from a friend who is very experienced in that field. But I will one day.
Tip number 3: specialize. Especially when you work in a country with a lot of correspondents. In Turkey years ago there were only two correspondents from the Netherlands, now there are seven. Do we get in each other’s way? Not at all! On the contrary: we make each other stronger. Together we make sure Turkey gets a lot of attention in the Dutch media, which only increases the possibilities for each of us. We all report on themes like politics, human rights, minorities and religion. I specialize as well in women’s lives, one colleague knows more than the average about the economy, yet another focuses more on narrative journalism.
And if that’s possible in Turkey, why wouldn’t it be in other countries in transition? In Surinam, Indonesia, Russia, Poland, Malaysia, in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Libya or Mexico?
Start an English language website
And do you, foreign correspondent, have an English language website? No? Pity! Its Tip number 4. My English language website attracts twice as many visitors as my Dutch site (resp. 6000 and 3000 unique visitors a month). It doesn’t only expand your audience, but also the number of potential clients. I recently for example worked for a week as a fixer for an Indonesian TV crew that found me via my website (and via an acquaintance of theirs that they know via Twitter and whom I know via Twitter as well). Nice job, and thanks to it I can pay my monthly expenses almost twice over.
This fixing work you can only really do well when you know the language. I’ve made enough progress in that to feel confident enough to try to get more fixing work, for media all over the world.
And by the way, my stories are read world-wide as well: they have been published in for example Norway, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Through an international agent, The Cover Story. Doesn’t make you rich, but a few hundred Euros extra for a story that you had already sold for a reasonable price in the Netherlands, why not? It costs no effort at all, so for me it’s money for nothing. That’s Tip number 5!
Be an entrepreneur besides your foreign reporting
Don’t turn away from commercial work, that’s Tip number 6. Or from work that doesn’t have anything to do with your correspondence. I have a few regular final editing chores for a Dutch magazine, I blog and twitter for a Dutch organization, and now and then I still write a health story, my speciality when I worked in the Netherlands. And I recently started a new business in Istanbul, IstanbulCongressCity. And please, do take such a business seriously, then, like an entrepreneur, invest some money to launch it well with a proper website.
These jobs next to your pure correspondent’s work give you the financial space to use your journalistic freedom to the fullest. Because I don’t have any freelance contract for a medium that constantly demands hard news and for which I would need to work full time, I can make background stories that hardly even touch current affairs. I can jump on a long distance train whenever I want and just see which stories come to me. I call it random travelling, and it makes me extremely happy. Wouldn’t be possible if I had to consult first with a medium in the Netherlands about the costs, the question if it’s the right time to leave my office and about exactly which story I will come home with.
Shortly I will start a beautiful project with a friend, a Turkish photographer. A totally new kind of project for me. It will cost a lot of time, but the boss, me, is okay with that. She knows (pretty) well how I want to fill in my correspondence, and arranges things just right so I have all the space I need. The freelance existence, in short, gives me all the freedom I need to be the business woman and the journalist that I want to be.
Tip number 7? No, a call!
So don’t aim to be a contracted correspondent. Is that Tip number 7? No, I would call it a call. A call to take correspondence into your own hands. The worldwide media landscape is developing so fast it is necessary to respond to it flexibly.
The paper you work for today can cease to exist tomorrow. The TV network that provides you with enough work in country A., can decide tomorrow that they find country B more interesting and insist you move if you want to keep working for them. The home base you work from now can be cancelled due to a lack of money. Of course I don’t recommend always staying put where you are, but what’s nicer than deciding all by yourself when it’s about time for something new?
After four years Turkey still continues to astonish me. And my love for Istanbul is growing. Just like my curiosity about people and stories from all the corners of this country that I haven’t yet seen. My foreign reporting in Turkey is a chain of inspiring travels, talks, observations and encounters. I can’t imagine being able to shape all that as anything but a free entrepeneur and a free journalist.