#DigitalSkeptic: In Today's News Media, Freelancers Stand Alone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- We Americans may have invented the "new" news business. But it will be independent news reporters from around the world that will reinvent it.

"Increasingly there is a global cadre of freelance writers and photographers covering the important stories around the world," Lily Hindy said to me in one of several phone calls on the rapidly changing dynamic of who really gathers the news these digital days.

Hindy, quite literally, has her fingers on the pulse of today's global news-gatherer. She's deputy director of Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC, the Brooklyn, N.Y., emergency response training organization. Over the past two years, this tiny group with an annual budget of just $250,000, has trained more than 140 journalists, photographers and news gatherers in free multi-day workshops in first aid, emergency response training and risk management.

RISC lives on private donations from other freelance writers such as myself and gets major funding from the likes of ABC News, CNN, Vanity Fair and many others.

The group specifically serves freelance journalists working in conflicted, remote or otherwise dangerous areas. And while most sessions are here in the United States, increasingly the world is RISC's oyster. Classes will be held in Nairobi in October. And Hindy says demand is so brisk that RISC's training will come soon to other international capitals popular with global freelancers.

Now comes the bizarre part: RISC is not unique. In fact, there's a clear and quickening pace of freelance newsmaker support groups coalescing around the globe. These groups, like so many other grassroots insurgencies around the planet, use low-cost social media, cheap mobile devices and most importantly participants' willingness to share resources to change dramatically the relationship between media companies and freelance writers and photographers.

Take for example, London-based Frontline Freelance Register. It offers support and safety standards for writers working in dangerous areas. Or the Rory Peck Trust, also based in England, that offers help with digital security and the increasingly tricky problem of insuring equipment in remote locations. Or my personal favorite, Pay Me Please, a global wall of invoicing shame started by Yemen-based Iona Craig, where in-dispute bills are posted out in the public light of day.

"There is a growing solidarity among freelancers," Hindy said. "We did not set up RISC to be a networking thing. But that is what it has become."

Tragedy drives news innovation
It does not take deep investigative reporting to see what drives this new world order in the world's news business. Telling stories is becoming a dangerous and increasingly complex game.

RISC, for example, was founded in 2011 when Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against The Sea, lost colleagues Tim Hetherington and Pulitzer-finalist photographer Chris Hondros. Junger knew little first aid and seemed to be close at hand as both colleagues lost their lives after injuries from a mortar attack.

"Most freelance writers have no institutional backing," Hindy said. "They are working on their own arranging for the details of covering remote stories." Those details include managing complex and not-cheap travel, arranging for which mud hut, tea house, yurt or cave passes for lodging; and hiring a fixer, driver and/or translator.

All of which is usually funded on personal credit cards.

"The experienced writers manage it," she said. "More and more people come into this business all the time. But it's surprisingly easy sometimes for the pieces not to line up."

Freelancers changing the news game
What's fascinating for investors trying to solve the ever-changing new media business puzzle is how these emerging freelance support groups are changing the media landscape. Take a simple Facebook page called The Vulture Club, which has attracted more than 4,000 members and provides fast, cheap and surprisingly high-quality information to independent news-gatherers.

"It provides excellent on-the-ground resources," said Emily Johnson, a freelance multimedia journalist who uses Vulture Club and has reported from Kenya and Indonesia, as well as serving as adjunct faculty at Baruch College in New York City. She said the page offers great leads on communications services, reliable fixers in a given country and even where to get a good price on gear.

Major journalism organizations are also beginning to test the online waters for organizing groups of storytellers in new ways. Columbia University is backing The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma that explores the issues of witnessing and picturing violence.

These changes are prodding commercial global news organization to rethink their relationship with independent writers. "We do not use freelance writers," said Kevin Delaney, editor-in-chief at Quartz, the global new media brand owned by Atlantic Media. "We hire staff people only. It's become too complex for us to manage freelancers properly."

Later he said Quartz works with freelance writers on a limited basis.

But what really seems to be the game changer is the willingness for today's independent writers to cooperate. "There is a growing movement of banding together," Johnson said. "It's not as cutthroat as you expect. In my experience, people are willing to help you out.

"It's not how it's been done in the past," she said. "But this is the way these stories are going to get told."

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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