You’re a freelance journalist based in Cairo. What does that entail?
As a freelance stringer working for the Daily Telegraph and Christian Science Monitor, I keep a tight handle on the news from Egypt. If a story breaks, you need to be on the scene if possible, and in a position to write on it with authority.
Other freelance journalists will work with a wider range of publications, rather than focusing on balanced coverage with a single publication over time. This approach comes with the benefit of having fewer obligations to any one master, and gives you more space to focus on the issues you really care about. The downside is that it’s a more precarious form of existence, both in terms of your stress levels and your finances.
Why being a freelance journalist rather than on staff? Would you like a staff role?
When it comes to foreign reporting, only a handful of young journalists have the good fortune to make it onto staff these days – publications are watching their revenues shrink as expectations for in-depth worldwide coverage grow. To keep afloat, many increasingly rely on freelancers to help report the big stories of the day. I'd love to be on staff, but I know I'll be extraordinarily lucky to achieve that goal.
What is a “typical day” like?
Finding a routine is the key to keeping motivated, especially if, like me, you work from home. Otherwise things can quickly get dispiriting. I get up early to scour the web for news, getting up to speed with the day’s big stories before pitching them to editors back in the UK and the US.
The rest of the morning will be spent researching stories I’ve been working on, or planning how to ensure you can speak to as many people as possible about a story once you get the editorial greenlight. Afternoons are reserved for writing or for meetings.
In my experience, the best correspondents are those who put a lot of time and effort into meeting with and listening to as many people as possible. On a practical level, you’ll end up with a great contacts book. More importantly, you’ll develop a much better understanding of the country you’re living in.
You left for Cairo very soon after graduating from Cambridge. What was your motivation and why the interest in the region?
Like many British twenty-somethings, the Iraq war changed my understanding of the world. Watching the dizzying fall-out from an invasion premised on such a poor understanding of the country’s internal dynamics provoked a strong interest in Iraq and the wider region. This was intensified by the events of the Arab Spring, which started in my final year of university. I’d harboured dreams of working as a journalist for a while, but never had the confidence to write.
After working for a year at an international affairs think tank, I took my final few weeks as paid leave, using the time to do an unpaid internship in London. I later did a paid internship at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, and then flew out to Cairo in January 2013.
Booking the ticket involved a huge leap of faith and I didn’t really expect to find work or to stay beyond the six-month period I’d budgeted for.
As the title suggests, there was a lot of day-to-day admin. I also spent most of the year working on a Cairo-based project, visiting the city every few months. As the youngest member of a great all-women team, my year at Chatham House was a learning curve that I’m pleased to have had. Ultimately, I decided that think tank work wasn’t for me, but I learned a huge amount while I was there.
You have a BA in Social and Political Science from Cambridge University. How do you use it in your career?
I was lucky enough to be studying Egypt, Yemen and Iraq from 2010 onwards, so on the most obvious level, my degree gave me a basic understanding of the history that underpins the often-chaotic events we see unfolding today. Three years at Cambridge also gives you the ability to turn around a high volume of work under intense deadline pressure.
My time at Cambridge also equipped me with less tangible skills that can be important for getting on in journalism, namely, having the understanding of how to navigate professional networks, as well as the confidence to keep pushing for opportunities, even after various setbacks. My advice to young women thinking about where they want to apply for university would be to aim high - it will help.
With the beheadings of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the risks of journalism - particularly freelance journalism - have been in the news lately. As you are personally affected by the situation, what is your take on it?
The tragic deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff highlighted the huge dangers that can accompany freelance journalism. Without the full weight of a publication behind you, expenses and insurance can be a far-flung dream. Freelancers are often tempted to stay in a dangerous situation for longer than a staff reporter might, feeling they must wring the most out of each expensive trip.
It’s frustrating to see news organisations winning praise when they say they won’t be sending freelancers into Syria anymore - this should have been the norm for a long time.
Some organisations will help their freelancers with some of the above. But even when the benefits are available, most publications don’t actually make it clear. I would love to see it becoming more common for organisations to produce documents stating exactly what help they are willing to give the freelancers they contract.
What are the key skills necessary for your job?
Work hard, be persistent and listen. Languages are also a real advantage.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
You will get knocked back and it will be hard, but you have to pick yourself up and move on.
Are there particular advantages and disadvantages to being a woman freelance journalist in Cairo?
Western female journalists often win better access than their male counterparts - as an outsider, you’re given more leeway to breach cultural norms and can slip with relative ease between male-dominated and women-only spaces.
But we also spend a huge amount of time banging our head against the brick wall of patriarchy, and Cairo also has a serious sexual harassment and assault problem. Even walking alone down the street can be a challenge sometimes, and I no longer report from Tahrir Square – the site of hundreds of mob rapes – during busy demonstrations. I wish I had an answer to how to deal with this, but I don’t, beyond gritting your teeth and ploughing on.
Which story are you most proud to have covered?
On 14 August 2013, the Egyptian security forces stormed an encampment of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s supporters, likely killing over a thousand people in the hours between dawn and dusk. I was there on the day, and later spent three months interviewing survivors in an attempt to reconstruct the events of a massacre that the Egyptian government has sought to whitewash. I don’t pretend to believe that my reporting on this changed very much, but I am glad that I had the chance to make the survivors’ horrific testimonies a matter of public record.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
It’s a total cliché, but foreign journalism is exciting. You get to travel, to meet people from all walks of life, and often, to work on stories that you deeply care about. As for the downside? Transcribing interviews. There is no way to make it less boring.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I have a number of colleagues who I look up to, not just for their talent as journalists, but also for their willingness to look out for others less experienced than themselves. To name but four, the Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley, my Telegraph colleagues Richard Spencer and Ruth Sherlock, and Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum.
Louisa Loveluck | Freelance journalist | Cairo correspondent for The Telegraph and Christian Science Monitor
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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