Complex Made Simple

In times of war

How the world of journalism radically changed in the first decade of the war on terror. By Chris Allbritton

I didn’t plan to leave Pakistan the way I did – in the dead of night with only a backpack’s worth of stuff – but I didn’t really have a choice. The Taliban were possibly nipping at my heels, and Reuters, where I had been bureau chief and chief correspondent, wanted me out for my own safety. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was closing out the chapter of a tumultuous 10 years of journalism. I had seen the beginning of America’s war on terror up close on Sept 11, 2001 and then skipped among some of the major theatres in the decade-long fight against Al Qaeda, before finally winding up on the front line in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden would be later killed. Now, I was on the run.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

‘9/11 changed everything’
It has now become a bit of a cliché that 9/11 changed everything, but for the United States foreign policy and journalists that covered it, this was very true. Overnight, the country was on war footing and journalists across the country began to gear up for this new conflict. I was no exception.

I was in New York that day, and I heard the first plane snarl over my apartment, punctuated by a boom in the distance. I thought a plane had gone down in the harbour, but it only took a few minutes to realise the reality of what was actually happening.

I had a perfect view from the roof of my apartment building in the East Village of the twin towers, and while I didn’t see the second plane hit the south tower (I was looking at the north tower’s gaping wound), I saw the explosion from my roof. At that point it was clear this wasn’t an accident and I soon found myself running back and forth between my roof and the television, firing off emails, snapping photos, and gawking at the horror of it all. I realised that, as a journalist, my life and career would never be the same again.

Ten months later, in July 2002, I found myself crossing the Tigris from Syria into the Kurdish area of Iraq on an inflatable raft. The ferryman told my translator that we had to move across quickly, otherwise the current might take us down and within range of Iraq snipers.

Without quite realising it, I was an embryonic, modern mobile reporter, but my reporting kit then would elicit barely a yawn today. If there is anything that has changed in the past 10 years of war reporting, it’s that technology has become cheaper, faster and made the job of being a mobile field producer of news much, much easier.

But I was lacking something else that was important – an outlet for my stories. I had committed the rookie mistake of not pre-selling stories to editors, and when I emerged from Iraq (back into Turkey), I found that the world’s attention had moved to the diplomatic activities between the UN, Washington and Baghdad. After months of saving, and then an expensive two-month trip to Turkey and Iraq, I could not sell a story. So I did something that would change my life and journalism. I started a blog – back-to-iraq.com – and decided to ask the public for money to send me back to cover the coming war in Iraq.

While it seems like a no-brainer today, remember that back in 2002, blogs were still relatively new and the idea of using public donations to commit journalism and build an audience of your own without the backing of a major media outlet was, well, a little unusual. On October 2, 2002, I posted the following:

“… here’s my spiel. I’m looking to go back to Iraq. If people donate to me (I’ve set up a PayPal account for y’all to do so. Buttons are on the right under the “links” box.) I’ll go and report back with pictures and web reports. … You’ll be supporting independent journalism and an adventure. Plus, you’ll be getting something more than a warm and fuzzy feeling out of it: you-are-there reports and pictures that will be e-mailed to you first, before being published anywhere.”

It worked. From October 2002 to late March 2003, after the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, I raised $15,000, enough to cover the invasion as a self-published journalist, making me the first fully reader-funded war correspondent in the world.

Back-to-Iraq.com has been used in journalism curricula in U.S. journalism schools. Media professors, such as Jay Rosen, former dean of New York University’s journalism school, have said it inspired their own efforts to create a reader-funded alternative to mainstream outlets such as the New York Times or CNN.

Since then, a number of ventures have developed that aim to cut out the big guys of the mainstream media and cover the world and its wars. Freelancers can now almost certainly raise operating capital from places like Kickstarter.com, a platform for people to raise money for projects. At the time I’m writing this, there are proposals to fund a photo-essay on the sufferings of the civilian victims of the Syrian civil war, a reporting trip to Yemen and an investigation into the efficacy of foreign aid in Afghanistan.

This has all been made possible by a confluence of advances in technology as well as changing audience patterns. Blogs are now easy to use and commonplace. They’re ideal platforms for self-publishing, for the same reasons that light and always-connected laptops are better than typewriters for churning out words.

In the same way, social media such as Twitter and Facebook has changed reporting, both in good ways and bad. Those platforms didn’t exist in 2002; now they’re vital tools of the trade, with feisty tweeters in Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and everywhere else in between.

This has led to some profound changes in conflict journalism. What was once an almost exclusive purview of (mostly) western reporters has become a global conversation, with local voices taking part in changing traditional views of conflict.

Economics of modern war reporting

Monitoring social media is a natural addition to the monitoring of local TV and newspapers. Reporters are always looking for a new angle, and it’s a cheap and easy way to keep abreast of what is happening in a conflict zone to which a media outlet can’t afford to send a reporter. Because make no mistake: covering wars is expensive.

With the $15,000 I had raised, I was able to go  and cover just the first month of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And I was one person. Mainstream media organisations would have dozens of reporters fanning out all over the country, and everyone had to be kept safe. As the war on terror expanded from Afghanistan into Iraq, and eventually including Yemen, Somalia and even, some might argue, Lebanon in 2006, a decade of conflict had drained the coffers of news organisations around the world.

This led to the retrenchment of western news organisations. The number of American newspaper and television bureaus have declined as the wars have ground on. The rise of the Internet has led to a fragmented audience, even as the number of people in the global audience has increased. Ad revenue has plummeted, and with it, the ability for most western outlets to staff bureaus around the world.

This means there’s less money to pay for staff reporters in a war zone, forcing a reliance on freelancers and independent journalists. There are probably now more independent journalist relying on reader donations, freelance income and other various revenue streams than ever before in conflict areas. Young people with no combat experience have flocked to places like Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan because of opportunities to write for a number of outlets that didn’t exist 10 years ago. They are also seeking a chance to make a name for themselves and jumpstart their career, much as I did in 2002.

The end?

My own career mirrored this progression, although in reverse order. Starting out as a war correspondent/blogger in 2002, by 2004 I was a freelance correspondent for TIME magazine in Baghdad. I covered the war there until 2006, when I relocated to Lebanon just in time to cover the war between Hezbollah and Israel there that summer. Following a short stint in the UAE and a fellowship at Stanford University, the US, I went to Pakistan, where I was almost immediately hired as bureau chief for Reuters in Islamabad.

From cutting-edge blogger to staid staffer in just 10 years. I have seen the ups and downs and the beginning of America’s war on terror. Journalism –and I – would never be the same again.

In the same way that I saw the beginning when the World Trade Center was attacked, I saw what I hope is its end in Pakistan. On May 2, 2011, early in the morning, I received a call from my editor based in Singapore.

“Chris,” he said, “the president is going to make an announcement, and we think it’s about Osama
bin Laden.”

“What is it?” I blearily asked. It was 6am, and I’m not a morning person.

“That he’s been killed.”

I made a noise halfway between a yelp and a curse and dropped the phone, threw on a T-shirt and rushed to the office. The rest of the staff soon joined me. It was five months before the 10-year anniversary of the attack and the world was a very different place from that day. It was more dangerous.

Today, the United States has troops in multiple active combat theatres around the world. Media outlets that didn’t exist, such as Al Jazeera, are major forces in covering the conflicts that have hit the Muslim world. The Internet and social media are major outlets for the Taliban, NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as the general public in conflict zones. Freelance reporters now have the same level of publishing capability as most major media outlets, and are able to upload digital video, photography, and multimedia projects using cheap, fast satellite connections. Almost every part of the planet is accessible to these young, hungry journalists. But there has been another big change.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists from the regions affected by war are being killed now than in 2001. That year, when U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan, four journalists were killed in the conflict, all of them European staff reporters for western media. In 2012, however, so far 13 journalists have died in conflict – all but one in Syria, and all but two of them Arabs. Six of the 13 were freelancers.

Which brings me back to my forced eviction from Pakistan. In early May this year, almost exactly a year after the killing of bin Laden, a representative from the United States embassy rang me. The young man, in a very serious, ‘I’m-from-the-government’ tone told me that my name had appeared on some kind of list that was in the possession of a guy who had “known terrorist affiliations”. I was the only journalist on the list. And the fact that I was (wrongly) listed as working for the U.S. government in a country that sees most Americans there as spies was, to say the least, worrisome.

I talked with the security person at Reuters who promptly decided to get me out of Pakistan and to Dubai. A reasonable precaution, considering the potential danger. I packed for a week but I ended up staying a month, however, and never did return to Pakistan.

And now I’m back on the freelance trail. I’m writing this from Bangkok, which really shows that journalism can be done from anywhere today. The prospect of actually getting paid for journalism, however, has never been worse, thanks to crimped finances and fewer markets for foreign coverage. I’ve had to diversify my revenue streams as a freelancer to include self-publishing, e-books and even (possibly) merchandise for my new travel blog,
www.trulynomadlydeeply.com.

But, in all, the world is a richer, better place to do journalism these days, even if the number of “hot” wars is winding down. There are more media outlets, the audience is more dedicated and the technology is better and cheaper than ever before.

There’s no turning back the clock, and I don’t think many journalists would want to.