by Juan David
When I spoke with Tim Fitzsimons over the phone one week ago, he was preparing to go to Louisiana for elections as temp producer for National Public Radio (npr). Now as you read this story he’s touched down in Lebanon. He’d spent the past couple of years over there freelancing as a foreign correspondent, though this time he was simply going for a visit.
In 2012 things were very different for him. He’d been recently laid off from The Sunday Times where he worked as an editorial assistant. Unemployed in a market that was stalled on the homefront, yet thriving abroad, he decided to move to Beirut and do what some would call “paying their dues.”
“I didn’t plan to move abroad really, but when I was there it was before the Arab Spring started and when it really began, all of the people I knew who had stayed there were getting a lot of work,” he said.
The mythos of the foreign correspondent is often a romantic one. At home, the idea basks in visions of all-expenses-paid leisure travel or evening dinners in Pamplona as war drifts by harmlessly and intermittently. However, the reality of the foreign desk is starkly different.
“You’ve got to freelance, that’s what I did,” said Fitzsimons, adding that no reporter should go abroad thinking they’re going to save money. Although he is still paying off his foreign correspondent bills, the experience ended up making him a much more competitive reporter and by the time he returned to the U.S. on April 2014, he believes going abroad is what ultimately got him the job at npr.
Fitzsimons graduated from Tufts University in 2010, where he studied International Relations. There, he nurtured his ambition for reporting and photojournalism through Exposure, a global studies program, which allowed him to travel to India and Uganda.
“At first I thought I wanted to be a photographer and then I switched to radio as a goal after I got an internship at npr after I graduated from college,” he said.
On Instagram he describes himself as an “Ex-Beirut journalist and wannabe professional iPhone photographer.” His photos, like the one of the young Syrian refugee girl in Lebanon or the anti-Morsi protesters in Egypt, are poignant, precise, and welcoming, making him anything but a “wannabe.”
“After returning from Cairo,” he comments on his blog, “I awoke in a Beirut-stomach-bug haze to the news that a car bomb had exploded in the southern suburbs. I headed down despite my body’s vocal disapproval and took a photo of the blast site, which I posted to Instagram.”
While abroad, Fitzsimons worked as a breaking news writer for the GlobalPost and translation editor for Al-Monitor. As a freelancer, he has reported for Newsweek, Slate, The Economist, NOW Lebanon, and has done photojournalism in places such as Oman and Kashmir.
Reporting from abroad is the best anyone can do in the field of journalism, he says. Not simply because of the lack of jobs for journalists in the U.S., but rather because of the opportunities to connect with other well-established journalists.
His advice: Be prepared for the financial difficulties of working on spec, sometimes without a contract or agreement for pay until you’ve sent a story and they’re willing to use it.
“It’s not like working with an editor who says ‘Do this!’ You have to have an idea and then convince somebody and then finish it well…you have to be motivated,” he said.
A decline in foreign correspondent jobs has forced many to do what Fitzsimons did. The quest is an admirable yet thorny move not many journalists are willing to make. James Foley and Steven Sotloff were both freelance correspondents.
When I told Fitzsimons that I wanted to go abroad as he did, he told me I should go for it. And despite what I’ve heard from other reporters, I don’t entirely believe that when foreign correspondents go abroad to risk their lives, they are simply throwing coins in a bottomless pit only for an audience entirely removed from reality.
There definitely needs to be a change in what Tom Peters calls a cashed-strapped media and its unofficial business model of exploiting freelancers willing to eat their own costs. However, I do not believe that when reporters do what Fitzsimons did in the hopes of being hired at a named publication, that they’re doing it entirely out of selfish reasons. Otherwise, why do it at all?
We’re not in it for the money, although the money is always nice. We’re not in it for the byline, although the byline is always nice. We are here because there is a need for authentic stories from reporters on the ground framing dialogues as they are and changing the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant narrative in America today by being the catalytic force behind public understanding. That is our job.
Written for GrowthTalk, November 2014