Thursday, November 16, 2006

Will freelancer rule the broadcast world?

Will advances in broadcast technology lead to more and more freelance journalism? In a nutshell this is the debate being held at the Front Line Club today, which honours emerging talent through its Kurt Schork award.

Chaired by CNN’s inveterate broadcaster Christiane Amanpour this question is the low hanging fruit. There will be room to explore deeper questions, but the answer is unequivovcal: yes.

Why? Because the monopoly that consolidated broadcasting, particularly television engineered at its inception has finally been broken.

Historians will note how TV emerged more or less from the bowels of radio, which in turn was heavily linked to engineering firms producing the nuts and bolts of broadcast production and distribution.

It was and still is an incredibly highly politically charged medium, so only few, very few deep-pocketed, politically connected companies could afford to buy their way into the gathering and distribution of the message.

Manufacturing receiving equipment was a cinch; herein is the asynchronous relation in broadcasting that held back johnny-have-a-go.

The Net changes all that. The production of low cost cameras and editing gear changes all that. The ability to travel by air at monstrously low costs compared to the advent of air travel changes the scene; the allure of broadcasting and fame by proxy in journalism alters the mediascape; the deconstruction of media – a more televisual aware public as witnessed through citizen journalism - provides an understanding for changing times

Ironically, the debate comes as I’m emerging from intense contact with newspaper journalists turning to video journalism to up the content game. The BBC [no less than a DG team I'm told] sent a video journalism team to look at the Press Association and the programme I helped them set up.

More on that in a later blog. This programme may not necessarily yield more freelancers but undoubtedly there are increasingly more journalists in the field with the stock to become their own brand.

I have spoken about this in articles on and I note that broadcaster and journalist Andrew Neil said that much at last week’s society of editors meeting.

We now have the tools to do just about anything: radio, TV. Web, . . . quinne media .

And a new generation of technologically fearless, multiskilled, journalists are emerging who will push their own brand if they can’t find work or the working conditions of employers appears Victorian.

There is a greater subtext to the debate by Institute of War and Peace Reporting held on the day when they're honouring Kurt Schork – a highly experienced journalists - and there are many other names that we must pay tribute to.

Comrades who have fallen in action by merely doing their job. More recently Martin Adler – another highly experienced freelancer was short dead in Mogadishu.

The absence of readily accessible broadcast news from some of the world’s most notorious hot spots is one good reason for skilled and unskilled freelancers to make the region their own. If anything it provides a steady stream of stories plus income and sates the appetite of the curious in peeling back the complexities of an area’s politics.

That much led me to South Africa in 1992, armed with a uher and sony recorder to report from among others Katlehong – then the world’s murder capital.

Award winning video journalist Ruud Elmendorp one of the industry’s most skilled journalist started life off as a freelancer 6 years ago reporting from Central Africa. Today , the calibre of his work has led to more clients taking his pieces, but he still freelances, and each time he’s out on a story he must keep his wits about him.

This raises deeper questions of security and safety. If more experienced journalists can find their life in peril, what more those just entering the profession equipped, yes, with modern day broadcasting equipemt – dv camer and alaptop.

Some organsiations provide cover for their bona fide freelance journalists. That's security awareness, insurance, bullet proof vests et al, but for every freelancer in the bossom of a network broadcaster, there are many clamouring to suckle.

The reality is simple. There are more journalists that jobs in are industry – 100,00 grads in total with only 20,000 jobs available in a year according to BBC network’s radio 1 – a station for the 15-35s.

It’s unlikely this number will improve as more centres of journalism set up. And so statistically speaking we can presumably expect more casualties. What can we do?

Does the industry need to get together to address this? That’s just one question that I’d be interested in hearing more about today.

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