I managed to sell a story about Semdinli. The fighting there, in the far South-eastern corner of the country close to the Iraqi-Iranian border, had been going on for eleven days already, which is very unusual for clashes between the army and the PKK. But that in itself wasn’t good enough to trigger my news agency. So I used a trick: I tried to give it greater relevance than ‘just another fight’. Without doing that, you can forget about it, was also the conclusion in a discussion I had with some foreign colleagues here.
You can read the story here. The headline basically says it all: ‘New tactic PKK against Turkish army’. The headline was the work of the news agency, since I’m not the best headline maker ever. A few days earlier, I also notified the agency about the ongoing fighting, but at that time they didn’t bite. The story was, they said, ‘too local’.
I understand their point of view. Imagine the foreign desk of a Dutch news agency, with stringers all over the world. Most freelance journalists are (if they are smart) located in a country with at least one conflict going on, so in all these countries clashes can be reported continuously. A clash is only interesting to report if it distinguishes itself from all the other clashes that are going on in the world. Either in number of deaths, in importance for the rest of the region or world, or in the way it shifts balances in the conflict itself – and the latter often only when the country where the clash occurs has some relevance to the Netherlands.
A domestic fight
In this case, I couldn’t convince the agency with the number of deaths. Although both parties mentioned significant numbers of deaths on the other side (their own losses are always lower than the losses on the opponent’s side, how coincidental is that?), all these numbers could in no way be verified and were thus unusable.
Also, the war between the army and the PKK is a domestic fight. Who for the time being has the upper hand, is of no importance for people outside Turkey who are not personally interested in the conflict. This particular clash doesn’t change power balances in the region and it doesn’t really have potential to do so (yet?), like for example the civil war going on in Syria. This clash is, from the journalism perspective, just another fight in a long-lasting conflict.
But then I heard something I could use. The PKK said it was a conscious change of strategy to not just hit and run, like usually, but to conquer territory. I didn’t know yet what to make of it, but that could trigger the agency. So that’s what I wrote them: ‘You know, the clashes in Semdinli about which I contacted you before, they might be a sign of a strategy change by the PKK’. A possible shift of balance in the conflict itself – and that during summer, a slow time for news. ‘Okay, write the story’, they reacted.
A brilliant solution
I checked more sources, I called some people, but I couldn’t really prove the PKK had changed its strategy. It could also be that they planned the usual hit and run attack and something went wrong and they found themselves caught up in long clashes. The government of course had its own version: ‘We are carrying out a long-term offense against the PKK’. But if it was a planned action of the second largest army in NATO, how come it took so long against a far less well-equipped armed group?
So I wasn’t too confident when I sent the agency my piece with the headline: ‘Fight between PKK and Turkish army continues’. That’s not what they opted for, so would they use it? I asked them if they could send me the article in the final version. They did. And I saw the headline: ‘New tactic PKK against Turkish army’. The quote headline! Always a brilliant solution. It triggers readers, and in the article they read the nuances.
Wasn’t there a conflict?
To sell hard news, like in this case, as a journalist you know the criteria and you try to find an angle to make it fit those criteria. But for bigger background stories about the conflict and even more so about Kurds in general, it’s harder. When I try to sell something to, for example, a monthly magazine, and it’s a story that has nothing to do directly with the news or the PKK-army war, I get the feeling magazines immediately link it to the conflict anyway. Which makes them less eager to buy the story. Stories about lives of Turkish women can be sold, no problem, but about Kurdish women? Help, wasn’t there a conflict?
Kind of a cynical situation. Because who contributes to this notion that Kurds are tied to conflict? Me myself, by trying hard to sell stories about the news.