Q&A: GRN on how the agency for freelance journalists abroad is developing
Henry Peirse, founder and CEO of GRN, explains how the agency provides broadcasters with freelancers and discusses rates of pay, how they vet journalists and the ethics of rookie reporters working in dangerous places
Founder and CEO of GRN Henry Peirse (pictured) told Journalism.co.uk what is on offer for freelancers living in different parts of the world.
Q. When did GRN start?
A. We started in 2000 as a radio player and audio-based distribution service for broadcasters.
In 2003 we realised that the Americans were going into Iraq and we had correspondents in Baghdad. We were able to provide them with journalists and that is how we started in the present form.
Q. Why should freelancers use an agency rather than going directly to the broadcaster?
A. We are a business that takes away the headache of administration for freelancers. We simply provide the network of freelancers to the broadcaster and the correspondents that do the piece always get paid in the first week of the following month.
As a freelancer, your relationship with your editor is the key thing and if that relationship falls down, you may find that they may not use you again. We pay the correspondent so the relationship between the journalist and editor is not damaged over chasing fees.
Q. Who are the freelancers working for GRN?
A. Many of them work for newspapers. They are print journalists but can go on air. The newspapers like it because the publication gets named on air; the correspondent likes it because they get paid.
Q. Who are the broadcasters?
A. Our biggest clients are in North America and they use us as backfill. They may have a bureau but the correspondent may be out of town and they contact us to say they need a story covered while their correspondent is away.
Q. How do you vet the journalist?
A. The most difficult thing in developing the business is building the trust of the broadcasters.
Checking journalists is the biggest part of what we do. It's the most important element. We check references, samples of their work and talk to people in the industry.
The freelance business is such that you are really only as good as your last storyHenry Peirse, founder and CEO of GRNThe freelance business is such that you are really only as good as your last story. If you are recommending a fellow journalist, who you refer will reflect on you personally and that self-censorship is a way of working and allowing people to float to the top if they are good.
The other thing we try to do is find younger correspondents who are breaking into the business. It's the way people got into the business 20 years ago before the explosion of media training.
Q. How many freelancers are in the GRN network?
A. About 1,000 out of which 500-600 are capable of going live to air, the rest are fixers. We have around 200 Arabic speakers and provide other languages too.
Q. Do broadcasters have a preference for journalists local to an area?
A. It depends on the broadcaster, but we are using locals more and more. As far as we are concerned it doesn't really matter and we will explain why we think the person is right for the interview.
Q. Do journalists need to speak the local language of the place they are reporting from?
A. It wouldn't preclude them from getting on. A lot of the breaking news of live reporting is about what it's like to actually be there.
That's why a lot of print reporters like to go on air as they can go into much more detail than they can go into in a daily newspaper piece.
I would say, if it's done properly, using a two-way interview to convey the taste and feel of a place is a really good way of adding colour to the story.
Q. How are you developing the business?
A. The way we are going is suggesting to correspondents that they use video capture devices and shoot raw footage which we can pass on to the broadcasters. It's a way of using new technology in a very traditional space.
We are also increasingly using our network of journalists as a live resource. For example, we can ask them to go to a library and check something.
We've also done jobs for corporates. They might need footage shooting in 12 different locations and it's easy for us to arrange journalists who can do this on the ground in those locations.
The other area is general fixing work: meeting crews, setting up interviews and translation work.
Q. What about print journalism?
A. We have had correspondents write for different websites. It's not our major expertise but that doesn't mean we wouldn't do it or won't get into it in the future.
Q. What has been the impact of Twitter? Surely broadcasters can now find a journalist anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes using social media.
A. Our clients, particularly the North American ones, like the service element and the fact that we deal with the micropayments. If you are a producer and someone says find someone in Somalia, it's easy to go on Twitter but who are they?
Social media is also an advantage to us. We are also using Twitter to get leads.
Q. How much do you pay freelancers?
A. Our principle is that you get paid the same whether you are working for the world's largest broadcaster or the world's smallest broadcaster as the level of work is the same. We will make our margin by charging different levels of fees.
We try and sit as much as we can within what the NUJ's freelance rates would suggest.
If you are doing a live radio interview, you get paid £30. Very rarely would you have to do any research. If you do a TV piece over the phone it's £60. For a piece to camera, which could be in front of Skype, you would get £125.
Bear in mind that on a big story you might do several of these interviews an hour. And if a big broadcaster goes for it, they may go the top and bottom of an hour for several hours.
Journalists can earn quite a lot of money. Our highest earning correspondent is based in Washington. Those based in Lebanon and Jerusalem do well, as do the floaters who go to different parts of the world.
It's a pretty simple way for the broadcaster to get quality coverage. It's always happened in the industry but we came around and decided to monetise it.
Q. There has been a lot of debate about the dangers of rookie reporters, freelancers running around war zones without flak jackets. Do you feel a sense of responsibility having built a business based on freelancers?
A. Yes, we do. We have an insurance scheme in place where we can pay for or offset the cost of insurance against pre-ordered work from clients for journalists to go into places like Libya or Syria.
We would tend not to use a speculative, new-to-the-business correspondent. I don't want to encourage people to put themselves at risk. No story is worth dying for. And there are people available there who may be locals and yes, they may not have a flak jacket, but they maybe able to get away with it a little bit easier as they blend in better.
I would definitely not encourage a foreigner to be bowling about in Libya in a soft car with a camera. If I think that somebody is conscious and aware and capable then we are not going to disregard them, but we would want to encourage them to get insurance as a minimum which would pay to get them out if they got into trouble.
We wouldn't really encourage putting them on air and we would certainly discourage people from taking these crazy risks.
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- John Thompson