As many of our members will tell you, being a freelance journalist can bring freedom, choice and control over your stories. It may also mean financial uncertainty and juggling the competing demands from multiple outlets. Being a freelancer is not an easy choice but planning your career wisely can really make a difference.
Dima Hamdan speaks to two professionals working in print and television – they share their stories and advice on having a successful freelance career.
Freelance journalist based in Amman.
The National (UAE), Wall Street Journal (US), Foreign Policy, Time and others.
Studying English Literature in Jordan, I didn’t imagine at the time that I would become a journalist. I would say it all started by accident. I started working as a teacher, but I also had a passion for writing and I was trying to find work that involved writing so I joined the Jordan Times in the 1990s.
I worked with them for several years and developed special knowledge of business, tourism and education. Like many Jordanian journalists, I also began to get work as a fixer for foreign media crews. It was through my work as a fixer that I met Hassan Fattah, the New York Times correspondent. I worked closely with him, so later on when he was appointed as Editor-In-Chief of The National (an English-daily from the UAE), he hired me as their Jordan correspondent.
"I decided there were only certain types of stories that I would like to write. I love writing long features and analysis where I spend time talking to sources and interviewing people to understand the story."
This was a great challenge for me because I was no longer covering small local stories on business and tourism. My readership became international and I learned so much during that time. Now, most of my work is focused on Syrian and the impact of the war on Jordan.
But during the Arab Spring I decided to become a freelancer. It was a very stressful time and I was expected to file daily news copies about developments in the region, and I was spending less time with my family. I felt that, as a freelancer, I would have the freedom to choose the stories I wanted to write, and I would prioritise my family. But, obviously, writing fewer stories meant earning less money. This was a decision I had to make.
I also decided there were only certain types of stories that I would like to write. I love writing long features and analysis where I spend time talking to sources and interviewing people to understand the story. I didn’t want to write short news stories or breaking news, although sometimes I am expected to do so.
Being based in Jordan, I never did any safety training because the country is safe. I hardly faced any security-related challenges even during my trips to the border, mostly because I meet sources through a trusted network of contacts. But the key challenge for me is that I work on my own most of the time, and I prefer to be accompanied by other journalists if I need to interview people at their homes, especially for the first time.
Today I write mainly for The National, with the occasional contribution to The Wall Street Journal. Obviously, when there is breaking news, I have to decide which newspaper to write the story to, which means that the other newspaper would have to find another contributor, and there are a lot of journalists out there hungry for an opportunity to write for those newspapers.
Be realistic with your expectations. If a story doesn’t get published that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Make sure you have a prior agreement with the publication that you are free to take the story to other venues if they reject it.
There’s more competition and less resources but don’t let the tough market affect your credibility. I see many freelance journalists cutting corners because their expenses are not being paid, so they might rely on second-hand information instead of making that phone call or going on a long trip. I do see a lot of inaccurate reporting that goes unnoticed or unchecked.
Explore more than one venue for work, but do choose one publication that becomes your focus and make it your priority.
Be sure that you know what expenses you will need to pay in advance and negotiate these into your freelance contract.
Documentary filmmaker and deputy commissioning editor
BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera English
After graduating from Cambridge University, I started working as a researcher for documentaries. My first assignment was a documentary on the famous Egyptian singer, Asmahan. Although I was getting work on assignments because of my special knowledge in the Middle East, I still wanted to make sure that I worked on a variety of other topics. So I did research for all sorts of projects, including the history of Christianity, the history of British railways, and many others.
"As a filmmaker there are places I would never go to, such as Syria, because I’ve decided that my personal safety is too important to put myself at such risk."
Gradually I moved on from being a researcher into the production field and then I decided to learn how to shoot my own films, and that’s when I began to get jobs as a self-shooting director. The greatest risks I ever took in my career were going to Gaza in 2001 when I filmed on the frontlines on my own, and going to Yemen in 2012 when the risk of kidnappings was high.
As a filmmaker there are places I would never go to, such as Syria, because I’ve decided that my personal safety is too important to put myself at such risk. Although it is sometimes difficult to refuse to go to dangerous places, because that is part of our job, those decisions are personal, and vary considerably depending on the circumstances. My work and career does not depend on whether I go to Syria to make a film or not. Fortunately I can travel to other, safer places than Syria to make films.
Making films can be financially difficult and stressful, especially at the beginning of a career. It is important to have other skills in order to find other sources of income, and when times are hard, to find other ways of making a living. I do not think there is a simple answer or an 'ideal' solution. Each one of us must find their own personal way, depending on who they are, where they are, and what sort of other skills or experience they have.
Nowadays, BBC Arabic is my main employer or contractor, and I also work with them on commissioning stories from other filmmakers. Working with female filmmakers who pitch ideas to BBC Arabic, I can see how difficult it sometimes is to pitch an idea and convince an editor. So understanding the kind of stories a news channel is looking for, and convincing the editors that you have the right access to sources to make this film, are very important.
Christine’s advice (both as a freelance filmmaker and commissioning editor)
Stay financially safe. You must always have back-up plans for times when you don’t have a job. So manage your business.
Learn to be a professional. I’ve learned that as a filmmaker, I cannot limit my expertise to one field only. Now I can easily do a documentary in Japan as I can in the Middle East with the skillset that I have. Remember, it’s not about the cultural knowledge only, it’s about the technical and production skills.
Master your story. Make sure you know it inside out, in great detail. Also remember that making films is a learning process, so approach it with an open and critical mind.
Question everything you know about the story, and go deep into it. Back up everything you say with hard evidence: documents, recordings, verifiable facts, reliable witnesses.
Check your facts with at least three different reliable sources. Check all your sources and make sure they are credible.
Learn from others more experienced than you.
Get exclusive access.
Learn the language of film-making from watching films, fiction and non-fiction. There are many resources online. Use them.
Do not rely exclusively on stories you find online. Talk to people. The best stories are not online. Walk, drive, work in the field.
Learn all the skills you need to make films. Do not be put off by technical skills, learn them on the job.
Be prepared to carry kit and equipment – don’t leave that to the men.