Beware: Middle East freelancing isn't just dangerous -- it may also leave you broke

Many GetReligion readers are undoubtedly familiar with the name Terry A. Anderson, the Associated Press Middle East correspondent taken hostage in Lebanon in 1985 by Hezbollah, and who remained a captive until 1991.

If not, click here for a refresher. Or here for a column by our own tmatt about Anderson’s Catholic faith -- written days after 9/11.

What you may not know is that Anderson has a daughter, Sulome Anderson, who personifies the chip-off-the-old-block cliche -- the block being journalism of the most difficult and dangerous sort. I’m referring to richly reported, long-form pieces about Middle East (some say militant, I say terrorist) groups who take delight in convulsing the always explosive region.

Still in her early 30s, Sulome’s an award-winning freelance veteran who’s been published by a bevy of top-quality outlets. Her grit is obvious, as are her courage and journalism chops. She’s also an acclaimed author; her book, “The Hostage’s Daughter,” won awards when it was released in 2016.

But despite her success -- brace yourself for the sad truth of her situation -- she found herself unable to make a decent living by pursuing her passion for Middle East reporting. Forced to find another way to pay the rent, she left the region and returned stateside.

The saddest aspect of this, journalistically speaking, is that she’s by no means unique.

Now to what others here at GetReligion refer to as their “guilt files” -- which for me means my online file where I stash links and notes on individual stories or broader issues that I hope to post on, someday.

In that file dwells this story from earlier this year. It’s a piece on the younger Anderson’s professional plight published by the Columbia Journalism Review.

The piece made clear that Sulome’s just one of many undermined by journalism's current economic state -- international journalism in particular.

Here’s the top of the piece. (The lede’s a bit long, but worth it. We’re talking magazine-style writing here.)

SULOME ANDERSON IS ONE of the most impressive young journalists of our time. The daughter of Terry Anderson, the former AP Middle East bureau chief who was kidnapped by Hezbollah militants in 1985 and held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years, Anderson has made a career of freelance reporting from hostile territory among hostile people. A native New Yorker, the 32-year-old has found herself the front lines of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. She’s interviewed members and fighters of Hezbollah, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Harper’s, and Foreign Policy, among others. And in 2016, she published her first book, The Hostage’s Daughter, which won critical acclaim, two International Book Awards, and a Nonfiction Book Award. The book has also been optioned for film.
But despite it all, Sulome is moving back home, after a year she considers the worst in her journalistic career. Reporting from abroad, she says, is no longer sustainable.
“I can’t make a living reporting from the Middle East anymore,” said Sulome in mid-December. “I just can’t justify doing this to myself.” The day we spoke, she heard that Foreign Policy, one of the most reliable destinations for freelancers writing on-the-ground, deeply reported international pieces, would be closing its foreign bureaus. (CJR independently confirmed this, though it has not been publicly announced.) “They are one of the only publications that publish these kinds of stories,” she said, letting out a defeated sigh. (Disclosure: Sulome was a classmate of mine at Columbia Journalism School from 2010 to 2011.)
In 2015, Sulome published 16 major feature stories, while also writing her book. In 2016, she published 12, though she was busy doing publicity for her book. In 2017, the total dropped to nine stories, though she was reporting and pitching full time. She now plans to spend her time focusing on her next book, which is about radicalism in America.

GetReligion readers are surely aware of why Anderson’s situation is as it is.

For Americans, international reporting has always been a tough sell. Blame it on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which until the mid-20th Century allowed most Americans to ignore that which was distant news.

More recently, the web has hobbled American journalism's advertising-based economic model,  forcing all but the most wealthy elite media to shutter foreign bureaus, lay-off experienced staff reporters, and reduce the space and time devoted to foreign news.

Even among the elite, one result of all this has been greater dependence on freelancers such as Anderson, who -- generally young and unencumbered with the responsibilities of family and high-overheads -- risked their lives for excitement and bylines, but not health insurance or the guarantee of a decent paycheck whether a story panned out or not.

Put crassly, freelancers became amazingly cost-effective. For the publications, that is, not for those who placed themselves in harm’s way so as to dig up the information upon which foreign policies so often turn.

Then came the perfect storm -- President Donald Trump, the non-stop political drama that’s so captivated what remains of serious (and a lot of the unserious) American journalism, and not without cause.

Let’s return to the CJR piece for a quick acknowledgement of this.

Sulome blames a news cycle dominated by Donald Trump. Newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs simply have less space for freelance international stories than before—unless, of course, they directly involve Trump.

Aside from the professional dreams of scores of young freelancers, what’s been diminished? For me, the answer couldn’t be more obvious.

It’s the corpus of voters’ knowledge of the complexities that animate the social, political, environmental, historical, economic -- and of course, religious -- factors that keep humanity in turmoil.

It’s not as if all’s been lost and that we’re doomed to everlasting ignorance about, say, the Middle East and it's metastasized, religiously defined hatreds in which the United States is so bogged down.

Outlets such as The New York Times -- which remains atop American journalism’s foreign reporting pyramid -- still spend large sums to send staffers to the world’s most remote and hotest news spots. Likewise, it also continues to pay freelancers for stories that it's own staff does not get to.

The Times is by no means perfect. Like all human institutions, it makes mistakes and has its biases. Moreover, in today’s highly politicized “fake news” environment there are many who will reject its reporting simply because it conflicts with their individual biases.

That won’t change anytime soon. If ever.

For me, the bottom line remains just how important foreign news can be. We ignore it, and limit the ability of intrepid young journalists to ferret it out, at our own and our nation’s peril.

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