A conversation between Naheed Mustafa and Iain Marlow

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Canadian freelance journalist Naheed Mustafa is trying to crowdsource funding for a long reporting trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan that she estimates will cost about $15,000. When I first read about her Indiegogo campaign, I started thinking about what her crowdfunding attempt said about the state of foreign coverage in Canadian media and about the broader evolution of foreign reporting.

Mustafa has worked (and continues to work) for Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, and has also written for The Walrus, one of Canada’s best magazines. Her campaign, which has already raised $2,580, is fascinating: Donors who give $500, for example, will get a silver ring made by local artisans, and those who donate $1,000 to her journalism will get a hand-embroidered queen-sized bed spread from Pakistan.

But aside from the unique and interesting ways this particular project will engage Mustafa’s audience, the campaign raises some intriguing questions about foreign reporting and journalistic independence in an era of shrinking newsroom budgets for both travel and freelance fees. She sent this response to me when I asked her to do a Q&A with the Toronto Review about her project.

Naheed Mustafa: I have some conflicting feelings about this venture and I’m not fully comfortable with it yet but I think a discussion would be a good way to get some of that out there. I think the crowdfunding idea is very second-nature to people in their 20s and maybe 30s but for someone like me who got a start when freelance work was plentiful and, if not lucrative, at least sustainable, it feels a tiny bit sad. Which is not to say I’m doing this halfheartedly or that I’m not in complete awe of the incredible support people have shown. Fundamentally, I guess I feel sad at the fact that there is little institutional support for foreign reporting. I understand all the reasons — the economy, the contracting of the industry, the impact of digital, convergence, and all the other reasons we talk about all the time. The moving away from foreign reporting is happening at precisely the time that Canada is increasingly aggressive in the world both in military and economic terms. This is exactly the time that Canadians need solid reporting on what’s happening “out there” so we can be better (and more vigilant) citizens here at home.

So, as news organizations continue to feel the crunch it’s clear that journalists wanting to do foreign reporting are going to have to come up with alternatives for funding. For me, this campaign is also an experiment not only in terms of seeing how much support I can get but, also, I’m interested in seeing what kind of impact this will have on my reporting experience — will funders remain interested as my project proceeds? Will they feel a sense of ownership over my work? What about accountability — how will funders respond if they are in some way dissatisfied with my work? It will be instructive to see how this unfolds.

In a way I see the relationship I have to my funders not unlike the one artists had back in the day when they relied on patrons and benefactors (do they still?). Corporate media is good for some things but foreign reporting just doesn’t seem to be a focus for Canadian media outlets anymore. I’m cautious but excited by this opportunity and I think it’ll lead to many interesting things.

Iain Marlow: Thanks so much for doing this. My first question is sort of simple. Do we not already get a vast amount of journalism out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, from large, established news outlets with bureaus and sunk costs there? This isn’t the first funded project to cover the region that I’ve seen. And you work for mainstream outlets such as the Walrus and the CBC, which are not exactly small, unorthodox companies whose reporting perspective desperately need a wider audience. Why should presumably Western readers pay up to send a mainstream Canadian journalist to a well covered region of the world?

NM: I would disagree that Afghanistan and Pakistan get vast amounts of (good) coverage. They get covered primarily in the context of how the war story is playing out specifically as it relates to “us.” There are specific tropes that have taken hold and these are replayed again and again. What we don’t get from the region are stories about social change and how conflict has affected these societies with respect to long-term impact. Sure, you have Al Jazeera and you have the BBC’s Pashto and Farsi services, there are blogs run by think tanks and such that get into what’s happening in various parts of the country but the bulk of the coverage is still about western policy and transfer of power.

I would go so far as to say that even when Afghanistan was a reporting priority for Canadian media, we did a fairly poor job. There are examples of individual reporters with large Canadian media outlets who did some amazing work – Paul Watson, Murray Brewster, and Graeme Smith come to mind. Matthieu Aikins has done valuable work – he’s a Canadian freelancer. In Afghanistan there are a few people doing some very interesting reporting, getting into parts of the country where we rarely heard from before. Some of this has to do with the fact that military embeds are being done with Afghan National Army units now and they are engaging in a completely different way. We’re getting a different view of the country and a glimpse into how security might be negotiated moving forward.

I would say the English language coverage of Pakistan is pretty thin – not in terms of volume but certainly in terms of depth. The reasons for that are not so different from the reasons other countries where English isn’t the first language are so poorly covered. There are western reporters in Islamabad, some who were reassigned from Kabul but it’s akin to trying to cover, say, Quebec from Ottawa without speaking French. In other words, there’s only so deep you can go with your reporting. There’s also the tendency to link Pakistan and Afghanistan by way of the Taliban and see Pakistan only in the context of that conflict.

I want to be very clear that I’m not being personally critical of the reporters working in the region; you make the best of your circumstances. I suspect if I was in China or Germany or Egypt or even parts of the US, I would encounter similar challenges in reporting.

As far as the point that I’m working for mainstream outlets, this is obviously true. Part of that, frankly, has to do with pay. I do contribute to smaller, more eclectic publications/shows but what they pay is closer to an honourarium. That’s part of the dilemma, isn’t it? Some of the more creative outlets can’t afford to pay and the ones that can pay a living wage aren’t interested in what you’re doing or don’t have space for it. One of my favourite pieces – because it was important to me – was a cover story I did for Maisonneuve about an Afghan who spent his youth fighting the Soviets. I worked with Drew Nelles and he gave me an opportunity to do something that I wanted to do that most likely wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. But the main reason I could afford to do it was because I’d already done the reporting piggy-backed on another assignment so doing the item for Maisonneuve didn’t incur any additional costs (except my time).

Even though a lot of my work is for mainstream outlets, I think I bring unconventional stories or at least stories that you’re unlikely to hear elsewhere. I think being a woman helps my reporting from the region. It gives me access to women in a way that men simply can’t have and access to a perspective that isn’t often included. As a freelancer, I’m less restricted in my movements than reporters working for large media outlets. Western readers, Canadians especially, will read and hear stories from me that they’re largely not getting from English media outlets that are established there.

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IM: When you started grappling with the idea of crowdfunding your reporting, what excited you most about the project?

I think what excited me most was how this form of funding will affect how I proceed. I alluded to this in my opening remarks that I wonder whether funders will feel they have a vested interest in what I’m doing and how will they participate as I go along. I also really enjoy using social media and I’m keen to use various tools to document the less journalistic aspects of this trip.

Alternately, what freaked you out about proceeding this way?

Frankly, my biggest fear, which is still with me, is that no one will contribute and I won’t meet my goal. That sounds like an obvious fear but it kind of feels like waiting to get picked for a team in high school gym class.

You’ve been a freelancer for a while, it seems, and I’m a little bit perplexed about pursuing this type of funding when you’ve written about the region before and have contacts with news organizations. A cynic might mention the free market here, that the invisible hand will pick those who can and cannot do reporting projects like this. But every freelancer’s situation is unique. As a staff writer, I likely take a lot of this stuff for granted, and I admit that readily. Can you describe your living situation, if you can, and how freelancing has changed over the years to require an approach like this?

I do have contacts with news organizations and I’m lucky that people are generous in passing along contacts and helping with introductions. (And I, in turn, do the same for others). I’ve also won awards for my previous reporting from the region so I have a good track record. But other than three or four smallish radio features I worked on for an American broadcaster a few years ago, no outlet’s ever covered my costs. I’ve always paid my own costs. That’s typical for freelancers. The consequence of this is that I have to churn out a huge volume of work since most of what I produce goes to paying my fixed expenses. There are fellowships and funds but not nearly enough that a freelancer could rely on an outside funding source for regular reporting opportunities. And I get that this is also a problem for staff reporters. Everyone’s cutting costs and it’s increasingly common to do a foreign story from a desk in Toronto.

I also don’t have a lot of trust in “the invisible hand.” There are so many jokes I could make but I’ll just say that I think the marketplace doesn’t always have good judgment about journalistic value.

In terms of my living situation, I’m married and I have three kids. I work for a variety of publications and also work on and off as a producer at CBC Radio. When I first started working back in the early 90s, work was plentiful. There were challenges in terms of getting to know people and, of course, the internet was in its infancy so it was a different media landscape. As time’s gone on, digital has really shifted the environment. This is a media forum so I’m sure your readers have discussed to death how digital has altered the media world. There are infinitely more venues for your work and opportunities for getting people to hear and read your work but decent compensation is harder and harder to come by.

I think filmmakers are more used to this model of funding but it still feels new for journalism (even though I know this has been going on for some time). I think as time goes on, journalists are going to have to establish direct financial relationships with their readers, whether it’s readers paying writers/producers per item or funding projects directly.

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Crowdsourced journalism projects can be seen as democratizing story selection, but I worry that going down this route might also pick winners and losers in a relatively arbitrary way. As a reporter who has covered issues that play well to online audiences, I’ve seen the online hordes muster over one issue (such as the introduction of usage-based billing fees for Internet bills) while ignoring others (such as funding cuts to programs that put computers in libraries in low income or rural areas). Do you not worry that while crowdfunding can enable people to tell certain stories, there is also the risk that it might enable a certain type (say, stories about cats) and not others (such as famine or war)?

Audience response is always a problem, not just in this type of selection. Ask a reporter who’s written about famine what kind of reader response her work gets compared to an article about a kitten that needs a place to live. Sorry, but dying children somewhere else will often lose out to a stray kitten here at home. I’m not saying people are terrible but this problem is not unlike the lament that people would rather watch a celebrity reality show than a documentary about murdered Aboriginal women. They would. And it’s sad. Having said all that, there will always be people who will choose to support journalism looking at famine or war despite the fact that cats own the internet.

The key, I think, is that along with writing about usage-based billing fees for Internet bills, you should still write about putting computers in libraries in low income or rural areas. The popular stories aren’t always the most important ones but the question is how to give people what they want to know and also give them what they ought to know. There are a lot of people who disagree with things I’ve written about Afghanistan but they’ve still shown me support.

And just on a purely anecdotal note, I think people want more in-depth reporting. Despite the shrinking of newscasts and the slimming of papers, I have never encountered someone who says, “Gee, I have way too much information about the world. I wish I could pay for less.”

As a follow to that, and in reference to your earlier comment about patrons, is there not also a risk that going to far down this path might rope foreign journalism to institutions with their own goals? The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada offers a reporting grant to Canadian journalists for reporting in Southeast Asia, but there is not a similar one from a comparable organization for either South America or Africa (though the Gordon Sinclair Foundation recently announced a $15,000 grant for a big project with no geographic catch). Is it too hard to imagine a dystopian future of weakened news outlets relying on, say, Barrick Gold to pay for reporting costs?

My short answer is yes. If private corporations become the only way to sustain foreign reporting (or even in-depth Canadian reporting like, say, in Canada’s north where it’s bloody expensive to go) then we’re all in big trouble. The challenge in this isn’t only for reporters and producers. The challenge in this is for media outlets as well. Maybe more collaborations are in order. Maybe outlets need to open themselves up to projects pitched from the outside that have financial backing from other broadcasters or newspapers/magazines. For example, if I’m working on a giant project on food security in Canada’s north then maybe the largest backer of the project gets a series of articles plus a web video; the second largest backer gets an in-depth feature; the third largest gets a couple of photo essays and an audio item. There’s a lot to think through but it can be done and if media outlets collaborate then everyone gets original work and the reporter gets paid. Also, a Canadian version of the Pulitzer Center would be nice.

At the same time, we live in a social media age and in an era where reporters are more engaged with their audiences. You mentioned a little about this in your opening comments, but I’m curious about the potential you see for using crowdfunding to alter how foreign coverage is done (beyond “multiplatform” reporting and online multimedia features). Your offer to retrieve curios for donors on your reporting trip is something I’ve never seen before.

The curios are “perks” that are part of the Indiegogo platform – incentives for contributions. Not my idea but not one that I’m opposed to. I tried to keep them mostly about the trip and reporting itself so a weekly photograph from the trip or a regular email that offers insights that won’t necessarily make it into the reporting. These are things I do anyway – sending informal dispatches to friends and family or posting pictures on my Facebook page. This will just require a little more of a formal dispatch and the picture will come with a short write-up about the context. At the higher end the incentives are things that can be purchased locally and so, in a limited way, support a local artisan. I don’t have a problem with it.

When I posted your funding pitch on my Facebook page and started a discussion about what it might say about journalism, we quickly ended up at the tale of the freelancer in British Columbia who wrote about John Furlong and is now involved in a lawsuit that immediately outstripped her freelance payment. This is maybe less of an issue for foreign coverage in weak states with slow or hobbled judicial systems, and is not particular to crowdfunded freelancing, but it does raise the issue of institutional support — rather than a sort of diffuse, crowdfunded approach. I mean, could you crowdfund, in advance, an investigation into a Canadian mining company’s operations?

Institutional support for freelancers is an ongoing conversation (rant?). Any journalist who’s going to take on a controversial subject that could end in legal consequences needs to go in with eyes open. Is a small publication that acknowledges it can offer you no help if things go poorly the best venue for such an item? Maybe not. But then what if no one else wants it or is willing to take on the risk for the sake of a “mere” freelancer? There are no short answers. Maybe it’s better to crowdsource pro bono legal help?

You and I are both not getting paid for doing this Q&A, and though this may raise your funding pitch to a broader audience, other writers and photographers for the Toronto Review do not get paid (we have no ads and I don’t get paid either). This is sort of intriguing, given we’re creating a sense of community and discussing the issues outside of mainstream formats. But without getting too meta, what does this conversation say about the state of international reporting, writing and analysis in Canada in 2013?

I think it says we’re all in this together and that even though the parts are all doing this for free, the sum may actually end up generating enough support that we can all carry on with the work we want to do.

Lastly, can you, um, donate a photo essay to the Review when you get back (given the oodles  of publicity this will give you. Just kidding… sort of)?

In the language of the internet, um, lolz? Actually, I would love to do something for the Review. If it’s a photo essay you want, a photo essay you’ll get.

All photographs of Afghanistan and Pakistan by Naheed Mustafa.

(Disclosure: After reading her responses, I made a $25 contribution.)