As all of our grantees know, finding the right fixer can be critical to the success of a reporting project. Now there's an online service to connect journalists with fixers. In this post, the Poynter Institute's Chief Media Correspondent James Warren speaks with Pulitzer Center Senior Editor Tom Hundley and others about about the pros and cons of this new service.
They are a staple of journalism. And now, as with everything else from Civil War miniatures to soccer trivia, there's a website to find fixers.
A maniacally pragmatic Jack-and-Jill-of-all-trades isn't needed by most reporters. You can get by just fine solo if laboring amid the safe confines of a City Hall, White House, cop shop, symphony hall, NFL training camp, board of education, landmarks commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or, yes, the South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District (not making that up, it's a governmental body in Illinois).
But if you are a foreign correspondent—especially on your own, without the backing of a major organization—a shrewd and reliable go-between can be essential to navigate what can be different cultures, governments, politics and legal systems. They need not be parish priests, merely individuals who just, somehow, get things done.
Indeed, the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff serve as reminders of the increasingly treacherous landscape for many who don't operate with the large (if themselves not foolproof) safety nets once offered by large and wealthy employers who dominated America's overseas reporting.
"Given the fact of the Internet, and that freelancing has pretty much taken over the game in international reporting, I suppose a service like this was inevitable and potentially useful," said Tom Hundley, a longtime Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent who is now senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.
"Good fixers and translators are the unsung heroes of international reporting," says Tim McNulty, a former longtime foreign correspondent for the Tribune and now a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "They can save a story or, literally, save your life. Finding one who is wise in dicey situations and still eager to work a story to its conclusion is a pearl beyond price."
"I agree with the others," says Liz Sly, an intrepid former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent who is now Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post. "It's a good idea but I think I would still prefer to work through word of mouth and personal recommendations and I would probably only use such a service in a real emergency."
The new service is London-based World Fixer, the handiwork of a group led by journalists Mike Garrod and William George. They saw a rising need for an online mechanism to assist reporters and editors with fixers.
It claims 3,000 members and 1,000 clients. It says that recent successful requests include scoring an interview with a former Al Qaeda big-shot in Jordan and getting to a key player in an anabolic steroid black market in Russia. It's helped Vice, Sky TV and Le Monde, among others.
The website is free and even allows people to hide their identities for public consumption. This includes undercover investigative reporters and producers, whose identities are known to Garrod and George, not to other subscribers.
The site includes testimonials from happy customers, including Jonathan Miller, a foreign correspondent for Great Britain's Channel 4 News network. He calls it a "cleverly-conceived new tool" that can assist reporters "in the often difficult places in which we work."
The whole enterprise is unavoidably intriguing, especially amid the growing ranks of journalistic desk jockeys who are tethered to the Internet and may not get out of the office except for coffee or lunch. The foreign correspondent remains part of a generally different species, which operates in a dramatically different and riskier professional milieu.
What's this all really about, and perhaps what does this even tells us about journalism these days? I had the following email chat with Garrod:
Traditionally, most hacks rely on word of mouth to get fixers. Is there, in theory, a bigger potential market now precisely because of the decline of mainstream foreign correspondents and the generally awful pay of freelancers?
Foreign correspondents may be in decline but these are not the only people fixers can work for. Broadcasters, photographers, filmmakers, even corporate entities and NGO's rely on them daily to complete projects overseas. The dynamic skills a good fixer must have are increasingly becoming recognized and their options are getting broader all the time.
Within journalism there will always be a hunger for foreign subject matter and whether that means fixers will be required to be more 'hands on' with the acquisition of news remains to be seen. Personally I can see from our database that many local journalists are signing up as fixers, so it seems a logical evolution. How this opportunity is utilized will be up to the industry.
I think it comes down to removing any associations the term 'fixer' has with mere local assistance and recognizing the real contribution this skill set can offer. If they can be encouraged and guided in a journalistic sense, they could be a formidable asset to cash strapped news outlets.
How do you really and truly vet the people whom you are listing?
Our vetting process is simple. We encourage existing members to recommend fixers, then ask them for references which we check. Based on testimonies, we allocate a star to the fixers profile to indicate how many times we have been able to verify them. This is really no different from posting on social media, as so many do, or using word of mouth. The difference is that we ask for multiple references rather than just one person's opinion.
Obviously, nobody will offer a reference up unless they know if it will come back positive. But it's important not to lose sight of the fact that this is a people business and a good experience for you might not mean a good experience for me. Just as you should if you get a reference via word of mouth, you have to do your own due diligence, chat to the fixer and use your initiative regarding their suitability.
Do you really expect to make money from this? If so, how? It's not as if you are tapping a very wealthy constituency, especially with freelancers?
Six months after launch we have been focused purely on growing the database and getting to know our members. Our goal is to always offer this site for free and gradually improve the value it has to the industry as a tool. Nobody is going to become a millionaire overnight from it but through various potential revenue streams we should be able to continue developing the site and still have enough left to buy dinner.
1. We have been conducting some work under an agency model but by and large haven't been charging yet. We have found there are many who prefer a more tailored approach to sourcing fixers, (there is only so much you can learn from a social media profile) and many are happy to let us do the background work for them.
2. Using our network we will be involved with setting up and conducting shoots for broadcasters, corporations, NGO's. We have done this recently with great success. Perhaps in the future we could be in a position to consider some form of news acquisition but we will have to see if the interest is there.
3. We also use our network to find access to difficult subject matter: the illegal steroids black market in Russia, immigrants in Calais, the Dubai Police department. We are well placed to research and develop leads to help people get closer to the stories. This is one of the most fascinating parts of the business for me.
There's no escaping that all across media budgets are falling. But we really believe in the value of skilled, intuitive, dynamic local knowledge and think it's an exciting prospect bringing them together in one accessible place. I am certain that will manifest itself as a viable commercial venture.
I will stipulate that the Internet provides us with most of our goods and services as consumers. But isn't there something to be said about gut instincts and word of mouth in finding a fixer? It just seems that foreign reporting, especially in dangerous places, and finding such help is very different than going on Expedia or Hotels.com and booking a room somewhere.
The Internet is more than one big shop, it is about connection. That might be to facilitate the exchange of goods and services or it might be to locate and get closer to another human being. In my mind it's all about assumptions and expectations. When you use social media, recruitment sites or dating platforms, you enter that world with a certain degree of guardedness – or you should. It's impossible to tell from someone's carefully constructed 'online' persona how they will actually be when you trust them with your money, your project, your life. You absolutely have to put some work in yourself, use your intuition and experience, find out what you can, contact us to see what we know about a fixer, look them up.
Paul Theroux said "Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind involves putting yourself into the hands of people you don't know and trusting them with your life." This epitomizes working with fixers for me and I hope our site can help you make more informed decisions about which person you go with.
We do not say "come on this site and you will 100 percent find someone to make your project a success." We say, "Here's 5, 10, 15 people who come highly recommended – why not check them out?" It's about choice, and leads – introductions you might not get from your personal contacts with their limited 'in country experience' or distinct allegiances. Many experienced journalists will have their closely guarded little black books. But why should a fixer wait for them to turn up once a year before they can get paid? Why can't they have a platform to promote themselves as the rest of us do?
Work in hostile environments, however, presents a completely different set of parameters. We know that many fixers will not want to be seen working with foreign elements, and journalists absolutely must be able to trust their people. For fixers working under these conditions, we have an 'anonymous' section where you can ask to be listed offline on a database. If a request comes in for someone, we do not facilitate a connection until the client has been approved. We then insist that the client carries out his own due diligence and background checks. We can help with this as much as possible.
In many ways this can be safer than just finding someone when you are on the ground; a practice which is disturbingly common and has had tragic results. By and large, most experienced foreign correspondents in these places will have their established connections and those who do not can come to us. A notable point is that people change and anything could have happened in the life of that contact you made 5 years ago. A community like ours should be constantly updating to be able to introduce you to someone if your preferred fixer isn't suitable or available.
It is important to note though that this kind of work does not represent the majority of media activity.
Do any of the tragedies that have befallen foreign correspondents, including those who have been victims of ISIS, tell us anything about the world of fixers? Would a good fixer have somehow effectively warned individuals away from those situations? Or, assuming some of them relied at least partly on such folks, do the tragedies remind of the limits of good advice and the ever-looming dangers of this particular branch of journalism?
Since our launch I have worked with, and taken advice from a security specialist called Steve Cook at TYR Solutions. He has been really useful in helping me understand how we could service this side of the industry and what precautions we should be taking in our activities. Through the course of our conversations we've discussed various journalists who are picking up any old fixer in a conflict zone just because there is no choice, or fixers taking crazy risks because they need the money.
Anyone entering a conflict zone by choice has to take it seriously for the sake of themselves and the person they are working with. Journalists MUST take the right fixer for the right job (tribal, ethnic, language considerations are paramount) and not allow their eagerness for a story to override common sense.
Would a good fixer effectively warn away from danger? The nature of conflict is unpredictable and each tragedy must be analyzed in its individual context. If you are hunting a story in a dangerous environment you have your own knowledge, your experience in judging a situation, and your fixer. Any one of these elements might be wrong or everything might be right and fate is the only player at the table. It is up to you to minimize risk and weigh up the value of a story against the potential harm to life and limb – it's the best you can do.
The reality of using a fixer to reach your goals in a hostile environment is that they are the ones who are left behind, and not giving them proper consideration is extremely short sighted, not to mention irresponsible.
The modern battlegrounds seem to recur within months, years or decades these days. Burn a contact on one job and you might not get them next time you need it. Talk to any fixer in current conflict areas (or anywhere else for that matter) and they will tell you the same thing: We all have little black books, but some serve a different purpose to others.
By that Garrod means that some black books have the names of people you want to work for and other black books have names of people you don't want to work.
It's a reminder of the complicated world out there, with trust a precious commodity.