The Foreign Correspondent: Idealist and Entrepreneur

The Foreign Correspondent - Illustration: Matt Plezier

Illustration: Matt Plezier

Young, adventurous, inventive, and most of all entrepreneurial: the new generation of journalists abroad will have to do without a big contract at a newspaper or broadcasting company. But whether they report from Israel, sub-Saharan Africa, or Bolivia, these Dutch journalists share the same passion for their work. How do they cope with the ever-changing media landscape? And how do they make ends meet? “If I have to, I will work in a bar.”

For foreign journalism, the days of permanent contracts seem to be over. Already in 2009, national daily newspaper de Volkskrant reduced its amount of correspondents to the five current permanent posts. Competitor NRC Handelsblad has twenty-five foreign correspondents, but the vast majority of them are self-employed.

Of all trades

According to a study by Villamedia, the magazine of the Dutch journalists’ union, foreign correspondents under 35 are mostly freelance journalists who work for multiple clients. An inquiry reveals that this new generation doesn’t have a permanent residence, and works extraordinarily hard to make ends meet. Still that shouldn’t spoil the fun. Being young and open to adventure, these new style journalists try to be of all trades, and see themselves as entrepreneurs in the first place.

Peter Teffer (30) is one of them. A year ago he resigned as editor of NRC Handelsblad. Since then he has travelled to Korea and Finland as a freelance reporter, and spent  three months reporting from  Bolivia. Upon his return to Amsterdam, Teffer explains how he gathered together his stories abroad. “I travelled as cheaply as possible. In Finland I slept on people’s couches. One of my “couch surfing” hosts turned out to be a famous dancer. I immediately contacted Dutch dance magazine Dans, and asked if they were interested in a feature article.”

What he is trying to say is: know the niche in the market. During the three months he spent in Bolivia, Teffer wrote for NRC Handelsblad, and made radio items for the American station FSRN and the German station Deutsche Welle. When he met an emigrant from the Dutch city of Gouda, he immediately contacted the Gouda  edition of national daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad to pitch the idea of doing an article on the long gone inhabitant of their city.

“Journalistic reporting primarily focuses on the conflict, while Israel has a very important technology sector. By covering those subjects, I try to claim my niche.”

Jan Franke (27) met his girlfriend during an internship at the Dutch embassy in Israel, and decided to settle in the country as a freelance correspondent. In January 2012, he quit his job and moved to Tel Aviv. That wasn’t easy. “In the first four months, I had to use my savings. To survive here, I have to earn 1500 euro a month with my writing. I manage to get by now, but I have copywriting assignments on the side. Other than that I really try to become an expert on certain subjects, such as technological innovation and the medical sector. Journalistic reporting primarily focuses on the conflict, while Israel has a very important technology sector. By covering those subjects, I try to claim my niche.”

Flexibility

When freelance journalist Meike Wijers (27) met her boyfriend, who lives in London, she thought a prolonged stay in that city would offer her the opportunity to challenge herself professionally. She left without a single client. Now she regularly contributes articles to Flemish newspaper De Tijd, and writes for a Dutch publication on pension funds which resides at the headquarters of the Financial Times. But for the first couple of months she also worked morning shifts as a barista. “That was primarily for the contacts,” Wijers explains. “London consists of a lot of communities, which are often hard to enter. Through that job I met dish washers from Bangladesh. The money is nice, but it also broadened my horizon.” Franke is no stranger to that kind of flexibility. “I always said: ‘If I have to, I will just work in a bar.’”

“When I left for South Africa, it helped that I could take my existing freelance work with me. I just do my interviews via Skype.”

Combining journalism with other types of work is a common trick. Rob Hartgers (38), who has been based in Johannesburg for a year and a half now, where he has worked as a foreign correspondent for national newspaper Trouw, writes for customer magazines as well. “When I left for South Africa, it helped that I could take my existing freelance work with me. I just do my interviews via Skype.” As of this year, Hartgers also makes Mzanzi, a travel magazine about South Africa. He is no longer only a journalist, but also an entrepreneur.

He says he has had to balance his journalistic independence with the freedom that writing by invitation offers. “We write stories about touristic destinations. In the beginning we wanted to pay for everything ourselves, but that idealism quickly vanished. We do mention it if we are somewhere by invitation. A lot of good Dutch newspapers don’t.”

Quality versus low rates

The new generation doesn’t lack inventiveness. But what about the quality of foreign reporting when media outlets pay less and less? “I’m satisfied with what I was able to do in Bolivia, but can’t even start to think about my pension. Luckily, Bolivia is cheap,” says Peter Teffer. “The media just squeeze out freelancers,” Jan Franke says. “The other day someone offered me an amount far below the usual rate for an article which I really wanted to do. But I said no anyway.” Meike Wijers: “Freelance journalists shouldn’t accept these low rates.”

Arie Elshout (58), correspondent for de Volkskrant in New York, emphasises that when media have to cut back on their budgets, freelance journalists are the first to suffer. “I can work on a story for half a week, and know that my salary will be paid no matter what. For freelance journalists, that’s time for which they aren’t paid much in the first place.” Lia van Bekhoven (59), who has been working in London as a freelance journalist for national broadcasting company NOS for over thirty years: “Nowadays, I write more for the same pay. That’s okay, but sometimes I do miss time for reflection and contemplation. After all, that’s the added value of having a journalist abroad. I’ve had a roof over my head here for thirty years, and know exactly what’s going on in British society. The news facts will get through to the Dutch public anyway.”

“The newspaper may not pay for my social security, but if I get shot in the leg tomorrow, they will definitely help me.”

Leonie van Nierop (29) is currently based in Israel and the Palestinian territories for NRC Handelsblad. Although she isn’t employed by them, she exclusively writes for this newspaper at a fixed monthly rate. She emphasises that NRC Handelsblad, with twenty-five correspondents abroad, doesn’t skimp on foreign reporting. “The newspaper may not pay for my social security, but if I get shot in the leg tomorrow, they will definitely help me. It is incredibly expensive to have people with permanent contracts abroad. Maybe that’s also why they rather work with contractors. I just like the fact that I am able to write from journalistic necessity, and know that I can always pay my rent. If there is no news, I don’t have to write. I can really concentrate on the news, and take my time for my articles.”

Femke van Zeijl (40), a freelance journalist who has been reporting from sub-Saharan Africa for ten years and is currently living in Nigeria, is also satisfied with her life. “I write the articles that I want to write, without aimlessly following every local election. I tend to stay in one place for a while, that’s the best way to come across more stories. Time is the strongest journalistic tool,” she says. However, she is also worried about the quality and independence of journalism: “I see how journalists are getting flown in without having any knowledge of the country or language. Or journalists who go on trips sponsored by charities, which will have consequences for the topics they cover as well as their tone of voice. I think that’s a sign of weakness, as well as unfair competition.”

Backpack journalist

Gemma van der Kamp (27) might be the latest mutant among foreign reporters. Last year, she collected 2500 euro in donations, and visited eight European countries in eight weeks for weblog De Nieuwe Reporter. Traveling by train, sleeping in dormitories of cheap hostels (“I fell asleep with my arms wrapped around my laptop and camera”), she made small documentaries. Her efforts were unpaid, but the experience did indirectly result in a job as an editor at television programme RTL Nieuws. Van der Kamp is therefore very positive about what this form of reporting has to offer for young journalists: “Even though I didn’t know the local language, people were very helpful because I was that young girl with her backpack who came all the way from the Netherlands. It’s very inspiring to see how journalistic stories can emerge from that. If you combine different tools such as film, Twitter and writing and use your network, you don’t need that much.”

Even though she works for RTL now, Van der Kamp wants to spend a month traveling around Kenia as a backpack journalist. “I would like to say to everyone: just do it.” Van Nierop, although far better equipped than a backpack journalist, also notices the new generation of correspondents is younger and more adventurous “Maybe newspapers have become less conservative, or maybe it’s just cheaper, but in a lot of countries they have young correspondents.” Perhaps being a correspondent is no longer the reward for decades of loyal service, but a springboard for a career. ♦

The original Dutch version of this article was published in Het Parool, an Amsterdam-based daily newspaper, on 18 August 2012.

Boukje Cnossen (1987) is an academic researcher at the University of Amsterdam as well as a freelance arts journalist. Her writings have appeared in Dutch dailies Het Parool and NRC Handelsblad and (art) magazines Metropolis M, Theatermaker and Time Out. Boukje also set up GUTmag, an online arts mag floating between London and Amsterdam.

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