Freelance correspondent doesn’t get satiated but specialized

After almost five years of freelance correspondence, somebody recently asked me if I’m not satiated by now. Am I still able to look at Turkey with ‘Dutch eyes’? Can I still think of stories that appeal to Dutch readers? ‘It is not for no reason’, this colleague and friend mailed me, ‘that correspondents with a contract rotate after about five years’. But the contract correspondent is a species about to be extinct. The new correspondent is a freelancer. Or, in other words: an entrepreneur. He doesn’t get satiated, he gets specialized.

Before I went to Turkey in December 2006, I had been writing about medical subjects for about fifteen years. First in an office job, later freelance. In those years nobody ever asked me if it wasn’t about time for a new specialization. People I worked for liked the fact that I knew my subject, that I had a good network, spoke the ‘language’ of my interviewees and that I didn’t propose obvious ideas but came up with stories that had more depth.

The craziness of the news

As soon as you cross the border, it apparently raises suspicions if you know your subject. Even stronger: many people find it very normal that correspondents move to another country after about five years. Just as they get to know ‘their’ country, have build up a sufficient network and speak the language. Are correspondents really satiated then? And if so, to which correspondents does that apply, and to which media?

I work in an office with about twenty freelancers from different countries. The Spanish guy is about to leave us. He is done with Turkey after six years and is moving to Athens. One of the French colleagues recently told me she doesn’t find Turkey that exciting anymore after six years and has written many stories several times already. The Italian correspondent is also not going to stay in Istanbul that much longer either, I reckon. The similarity between these three? They work for one medium – a newspaper or news agency – and follow the craziness of the news the whole day. They produce a lot, but it doesn’t need to be very creative. News articles and background stories, now and then a tourist story but always in the tight format of paper or agency, and that’s it.

A dynamic combination

They are very fine journalists, but they are no entrepreneurs. The developments in the market are not so interesting for them: as long as the news agency or paper exists, their sales are guaranteed. How different it is for freelancers. I have no contract at all – even though the cooperation with news agency ANP has been nicely steady for four years now – and I have to make an effort to find a suitable medium for every story I want to write. In the last five years I have managed to do that for a wide range of media, from weekly news magazines to papers and monthly women’s magazines and magazines about human rights.

I can only be successful in that if I know exactly which magazine or paper wants what kind of stories. In other words, if I know my market. Turkey is developing quickly in several areas, as is the enormously broad Dutch magazine market. A dynamic combination, and Turkey is of course not the only foreign country that this applies to. Freelance correspondence forces you to think creatively, which leads to startling articles, often with an unexpected angle. Stories that provide readers with a new vision on Turkey, or at least makes them think again.

You can only make such stories if you not only know your market, but also know your subject. When I re-read the stories that I wrote when I had just arrived in Turkey, I see that there is nothing wrong with it journalism-wise, but that they sometimes lack a certain depth. Just like the stories I wrote when I had just started as a medical journalist. And many of the stories that I do now, I couldn’t have written five years ago. Because I just didn’t see them, or because I had too little background information to contrive them, or because I didn’t dare to write them because of insecurity about my knowledge about Turkey. That is (mostly) over now.

A ‘fresh’ correspondent needs to be flown in

It is of course important to focus on media that are open to another view of Turkey than the most obvious one. Luckily, there are many of those. They don’t say: ‘Geerdink, sorry, but you’ve been there for five years now, you are satiated’, they see the value of a specialisation and the depth that comes with it. And media with contract correspondents don’t see that value? That is indeed the impression I often get. In pure news media – that’s where most of the contract correspondents are – the news needs to be presented and analyzed quickly and not made too complicated, so as to prevent the readers or viewers from getting confused. So after about five years a ‘fresh’ correspondent needs to be flown in, who, all things considered, looks at the country in just as clichéd a way as the average reader, and starts making the same stories his predecessor made five years ago.

Such a richness that the number of correspondents who are also entrepreneurs is increasing. To think they are satiated after five years totally disregards the reality of journalism entrepreneurship, which thrives with a solid specialization. You don’t throw that away after five years, you expand it.

This article was published on Dutch journalism website De Nieuwe Reporter.

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