Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Want to be a freelance journalist in Africa?

By Esther Nakkazi

A young man came to see me at my small office recently, fresh from University, with a qualification in Mass Communication.

He did not come from a rich background and so had to pay his way through University. While at University, his talent for radio was recognised by a producer from the national broadcaster who then offered him the opportunity to host a children’s programme.

This however, did not bring in much financially, so he doubled it with another part time job doing handiwork around a home. His goal is to become a freelance journalist in Africa.

Various challenges have threatened this goal including his realisation that he has not identified many African journalists who have succeeded as freelancers. He noticed that many of his workmates at the national broadcaster had held the same post for numerous years and had little enthusiasm or passion for their work.

It is not that I have made it yet, but freelancing has made me a wiser journalist and I have some tips to share.  

The term freelance journalist is used differently in Africa. In Uganda, it basically means that you work for one media house but without the liberty of reporting for another media outlet. You are also kept on a small retainer and do not qualify for any company benefits. Whereas a full time or staff reporter will have a regular salary and company benefits.

Elsewhere, the term is used for a person who is self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a particular employer long term. It remains unfamiliar to many here.

I do not know how many times I have been ‘bumped’ from a function even when I am on the official media ‘list’ because I have described myself as a freelancer. It gets really nasty with event entry with security personnel who believe they can override the media lists, which indicate my title as a freelance journalist. Sometimes I appeal to the organisers, sometimes, I just walk away.

On occasion, the organisers will give security a nod, assuming that you are still working for a media house they remember you at, it’s no good explaining that you moved on, its better left that way.
So my advice to the young man was that before you jump into freelancing its important to first work for a local media house to establish a name in the industry. Five years would be good.

Freelancing can be a very lonely affair. One is typically on their own for just about everything ranging from no big desks in air conditioned newsrooms or colleagues to shout a question at through to the need to cater to ones own health insurance and lunch.
When I decided to do it, I moved into a small office, now over two years back. For two months I had worked from home. I was eating all the time or watching television. It did not work.

My office these days is simple, it is just my desk, and two chairs; one for me and the other for a visitor. It is roofed with old iron sheets. So when it gets hot, you could fry an egg in there without fire. When it rains, you hear every drop hitting the roof, you barely hear the other person on the line when you get a phone call. But it works for me.

I sub-let the office from a non-governmental organisation. It is relatively cheap, close to my home, so I do not have to sit stuck for endless hours in a traffic jam. It also has a big compound and a huge tree to shelter when the office gets too hot.

Freelancing to me is better than remaining in a media house for decades watching generations come and go. During this time, you have little to show for progress within the media house.

Freelancing requires wit, hard work, thoroughness, flexibility and a tough skin. You never stop looking for work. The art of juggling work becomes the norm. I work as a fixer, translator, edit publications, do social media, training and mentoring.

Pitching for work is also a difficult task. I have sent pitches to foreign media houses looking for content, only to get the response that its ‘too local.’ Sometimes I give up. Sometimes I persist. Other times its impossible to go beyond the first bi-line in the publication of your dreams.

Freelancing frees up a lot of your time. You do not have to sit in long, boring conferences to satisfy the boss. You decide what you want to write free of the need to meet a pre-set number of stories you have to deliver every month. You sort of stick to what you really need and it allows you to explore different issues in-depth.

My advice to the young man was do your time, earn the bi-line until such a time that you can become free range.

( I also posted this here

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