Freelancing in a Developing Country

Dave Mayers, CUJ ‘08, was one of the first contingent of New Media Fellows  (now called Digital Media Associates) at the Columbia Journalism School. While in school, and throughout his tenure as a DMA, he already had his mind set on going to Africa.

“I knew when I finished with J-school I wanted to go to the continent, but I wasn’t sure where,” he says.

A South African student in one of his courses put him in touch with her undergraduate program in Johannesburg, at the University of the Witwatersrand. The school was looking to expand its multimedia program, and Mayers saw this as his way in: by teaching in the country, he would be able to support himself while he began making connections and setting up freelance gigs.

The University invited him to come help with their end-of-the year project, which they wanted to make more interactive and multimedia-oriented. If he liked it there, they said, he could stay on for the next year. He did end up staying — for four years.

“I just fell in love with the place,” says Mayers. “It’s a beautiful country and there’s so many stories there, and there aren’t enough voices. You see stories all the time, everywhere, that no one’s telling.”

After landing, Dave went about securing some freelance work for publications such as the New York Times, the Financial Times, and CBS’s SmartPlanet, as well as a steadier gig as a desk researcher for the New York Times. His experience provides some valuable lessons for freelance journalists who are aiming to take their work to a new country.

Do Your Homework

Prior to leaving for South Africa, Mayers took a hard look at the type of media that the region was currently producing. “I looked at what multimedia was coming out from different news organizations, and who still had desks in Johannesburg,” he says.

“What I found was a lot of places had closed up their Johannesburg desks. The few that still had it — the Guardian, the LA Times — they had some video, but it was clear that it was being shot by print journalists.”

“Some of their foreign bureaus had videographers, or were using their photographers as videographers. At other desks, they had given the reporter some training on how to shoot video and then they would shoot and it would be edited and pieced together in New York. And it was clear that everything out of Johannesburg was going through that process.”

Sensing an opportunity for someone with multimedia skills, Mayers arranged an interview with Barry Bearak, Co-Bureau Chief of the New York Times’s South Africa desk. They were looking for a desk researcher, but Mayers also pitched his video skills.

“I sent a cold email to Barry and told him I could also do video and told him, ‘I think it would help add to your stories,’ ” he says.

“They called me up and interviewed me and said, “Listen, we normally wouldn’t want you to be our researcher. You’re brand new to the country, you don’t speak any of the local languages, you’re still meeting new people. But you have these skills with video and multimedia.’”

His research paid off: Mayers was able to sell his skills and land the position.

Talk to Other Journalists

While at J-School, Mayers was also working part-time at the Committee to Protect Journalists, interning on their web team, “but also familiarizing myself with their Africa desk,” he says. This helped him learn the issues journalists were currently facing in the area.

If a journalist is really interested in freelancing in a developing country, he says, “Know what the working situation is like in those countries. What it’s like getting a work permit, how reporters are treated there.” He suggests talking to the CPJ before leaving, as well as the Foreign Correspondent’s Association in the country you’re interested in.

Talking to local journalists already in the field is also crucial, especially those “doing what you want to do or that have done what you want to do in that area.” If there are only a few people doing video, try reaching out to photographers or print journalists as well. “Facebook or Skype them,” Mayers says.

Not only can local journalists give you an idea of what to expect, they can help introduce you to other people in the community once you get there. “Start pulling strings before you leave,” he emphasizes. “It will make things much easier when you actually land.”

Have a Steady Gig

Leaving for another country without a steady source of income is potentially disastrous, so Mayers suggests journalists have some sort of financing available, rather than relying solely on freelancing.

“Have some sort of permalancing job, where you’re essentially a stringer or an independent contractor, where you have a certain amount of money guaranteed every month,” he says. He was paid per story for videos, but he also worked as a desk researcher and as a multimedia teacher at the University of Witwatersrand. That gave him the freedom to figure out the freelancing part without stressing about income.

Your steady job, he adds, doesn’t necessarily have to be in journalism, either. “It can be teaching English – in a lot of these countries, you can teach English three days a week, and then figure out what else you want to do,” he suggests.

Be Familiar with Local Regulations

Each country and region has its own rules and quirks, which is why it’s good to speak to local journalists beforehand so they can brief you. In South Africa, for example, there is a high tax on multimedia gear, as it is considered a luxury good. When Mayers decided to purchase a DSLR during his stint in Johannesburg, he realized buying the camera locally would cost as much as flying to Hong Kong and purchasing his gear there. (Naturally, he decided he might as well get a trip out of it!)

He also encountered certain areas where people weren’t allowed to go with videocameras. He found a way around this by bringing his DSLR.

“I’ve had people look in my bags at borders, where I knew there would be constraints on my work if I completely registered everything that I had,” he says. “It was much easier to say I just had a still camera, but the still camera shot video. They wouldn’t put two and two together.”

These are just a few examples of how knowing local regulations is beneficial and how essential it is to get briefed before going to a new area for a shoot.

If you’re interesting in learning more about the equipment Mayers used as a beginning freelancer, check out our Equipment Recommendations article coming on Monday.

Photo above by Zaheer Cassim

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