Elizabeth Dickinson


What do you do as a Middle East correspondent for Deca Stories?

I’m a freelance journalist based in the Arabian Peninsula, covering the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. I try to balance my work between day-to-day news coverage and longer, more ambitious projects — investigations that I really care about. Most of my work follows politics and society, both of which have evolved enormously since I moved to the region four years ago at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

What is a typical day like?

There is no typical day, which is one of the things I love about what I do. When I’m on the road and reporting, days are usually filled up with interviews and meetings. Since I’m a freelancer with a limited budget for expenses, I try to squeeze the most out of every trip. Other days are spent writing up projects, digging for new ideas, and following up on the business side of things. One of the things that you quickly realise as a freelancer is that you need to become your own business manager. That means balancing expenses with revenue, building your own 'brand', and chasing down payments from numerous clients.

What does Deca Stories do?

Deca stories is a small group of professional freelance journalists who banded together in the hope of finding a way to support one another and to bring deeply reported, gripping stories directly to readers. The market for good stories is increasingly democratic — good reporting will find its audience no matter if it is published in the most established periodical or the most obscure website. We’re hoping to leverage that growing market by building a brand of quality stories that take readers across the world. One of the keys to the model is collaboration; we edit each other’s work, share the responsibility to publicise, and generally try to use our collective hive mind to build a better product.

You’ve worked for really good names in print, such as the Wall Street JournalThe Economist, and Foreign Policy magazine. What is your advice to readers who would like to work for such publications?

Get out there. As traditional journalism has taken a hit in recent years, there has been one silver lining: It’s easier for young freelancers to get published. Newspapers and magazines are relying more on stringers and less on full-time correspondents. That means that if you can show up in a part of the world with something interesting going on, prove that you are a reliable reporter (and a nice person to work with), and consistently perform, you can build your portfolio. It’s not easy and it’s not lucrative. But if you care about the work, there are opportunities to be had.

What was working as Assistant Managing Editor for Foreign Policy magazine like?

I’m very proud and grateful for my time at Foreign Policy magazine, between 2008 and 2011. During that time, we took the publication from a well-established print magazine to a go-to online publication that has started to shape public opinion and reached policymakers in Washington in real time. In essence, we became a start-up, where everyone was cross-trained to work across different parts of the publication and in different capacities. I learned an enormous amount about new media and what it takes to make a publication work. I also learned that we are all still striving to find a model of online journalism that works. That struggle continues across the field today.

You’ve worked as a Nigeria Correspondent for The Economist. I readThe Economist and I’m a bit obsessed with it, so I’m really curious to know what writing for them is like.

Writing for The Economist was a dream since I was a kid; it’s the publication I admire the most, and I still often write for them from the Gulf region. I think what makes the magazine stand out — and what stimulates me as a reporter — is that every article challenges a conventional wisdom or digs deep into issues that have often been covered superficially elsewhere. And all that in a few hundred words! Brevity is really the key to making sure you as a reporter understand your own ideas clearly before writing them — it works wonders.

Which stories are you most proud of having covered?

I’m proud of the work that I have done over the last three years on the financing of conflict throughout the Middle East — including in Syria and Libya. Although the headlines from the region are often from the Levant and North Africa, the decisions and deals that shape those events are made in the Gulf, which I like to think of as the back office to the rest of the region. I’ve tried to peer into that world — from private donors to armed groups in Syria, to covert proxy conflicts. I still feel that I’ve only scratched the surface.

Why did you want to be a journalist?

I love understanding how people work — why they do what they do, how they do it. And I love writing and telling stories. Journalism is the combination of those two things.

You hold a BA from Yale in African and International Studies. Would you recommend it, and how do you use it in your day-to-day job?

My degree sounds a bit out of place now that I am based in the Middle East, but it was actually great in getting me started in journalism. It’s not easy to stand out amongst the crowd of freelance journalists, and having an area of 'expertise' and language skills helped me to convince those first editors I was worth taking a chance on. I moved to Nigeria after I graduated and built from there.

What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face?

I can only say that being a woman has been an advantage to me as a reporter. I find that I can readily build trust among sources and people seem to find me non-threatening and approachable. That’s something that has given me access to many stories that I’m not sure men would be able to approach with the same ease.

Editors back home are another story, and I do still feel that there is a bit of an old boys club mentality at times in journalism. This is changing, but unfortunately women do have to prove their abilities in a way that men don’t — particularly at the outset.

Security is a final concern; I simply can’t show up alone in some of the places that a man could. But this is part of the job and perhaps a good thing because it does keep you from becoming complacent.

What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?

Be persistent, have a plan, and keep at it. Don’t be afraid of rejection and learn to take feedback gracefully. It’s an inherent part of journalism so learning to absorb critique and edits in a constructive way can set you apart from your peers.

What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?

My first job was as a correspondent with The Economist in Nigeria. The biggest lesson I learned there — and then again and again — is to slow down. I have a tendency to want to finish quickly. But stepping back from a piece of writing for a few hours — or even a day or two if you can — brings you fresh eyes and a new perspective. Everything is written and re-written countless times before it’s really ready.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?

Getting to learn about the people I’ve met and having them entrust their stories to me to tell. That’s an incredibly humbling thing and it’s the single most rewarding experience I can imagine.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

I think journalism is a constant learning process so I don’t think I’ve mastered any of the skills I rely on. My reporting and writing grows with each story, which is one of the things I love about the job. If anything, I think the key things to master are persistence and patience. Everything else follows.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

Taking security seriously. It’s often a pain and it adds an extra step to everything you do. But it’s just not worth the risks not to think about it.

Do you have a role model and if so who and why?

Not one but many. There are so many journalists I admire and seek to emulate in my work. I’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors throughout my career who have let me watch and learn from their craft. I think we take pieces of advice and style from everywhere we can, and then build something unique of our own. 

Elizabeth Dickinson | Middle East correspondent and freelance journalist | Deca Stories

Seven years' experience

CV in brief

Studied BA in African Studies and International Studies at Yale University

Previously worked as Middle East Correspondent and Editor, CS Monitor | Gulf Correspondent, The National | Assistant Managing Editor, Foreign Policy magazine | Nigeria correspondent, The Economist | Stringer, IRIN & AllAfrica.com | Fellow, The Wall Street Journal | Intern, West Africa Bureau, The New York Times | Volunteer, Unite for Sight

Find her online: @dickinsonbeth | LinkedIn 

Foreign Policy articles | The National articles | Kindle Single Godfathers and Thieves: How Syria's Diaspora Crowd-Sourced a Revolution

Inspired by Elizabeth's interview? Take a look at these career opportunities: Foreign Policy | The Economist | The Christian Science Monitor | Decastories

Exclusive email interview 5 September 2015