Working together helps us all punch above our weight for freelancers in danger

By Cliff Lonsdale, President, Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma

By Cliff Lonsdale, President, Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma

It’s tougher than ever being a freelance these days, especially in war zones such as Syria. One hopes most Canadian editors aren’t as callous as the Italian ones lambasted recently by Francesca Borri in the Columbia Journalism Review but there’s no doubt that many young Canadians and others are out there, struggling to make ends meet as they gamble with death, kidnapping or horrific injury to make their name in a frequently ungrateful business.

So it’s heartening to see a growing willingness to co-operate among those who care enough to try to help.

The Forum Freelance Fund, launched two years ago by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, was able to double the number of safety training bursaries it awarded last year, thanks in part to arrangements it made with Britain’s Rory Peck Trust and the Columbia Journalism School. This year CJS has drawn Reporters Without Borders into the group as well. RWB will provide a cyber-security expert to take part in Columbia’s “Reporting Safely in Crisis Zones” course this October, led by veteran foreign correspondent and faculty member, Judith Matloff.

The Forum Freelance Fund bursary competition for 2013 is expected to result in at least as many awards as last year, when four highly-deserving freelancers based in Afghanistan, China, Colombia, and Tunisia received help with hazardous environment training in Britain and the US. Applications for this year’s bursaries close at the end of August.

In addition to maintaining its links with Rory Peck and Columbia, the fund has added more competition to its commercial stream, with the approval of a fifth course provider.

These arrangements may seem complicated, but each of them helps in some way to increase the opportunities for freelance applicants. And that makes a big difference when money is tight.

The FFF was launched with just one stream, directing bursary winners to their choice of 3 well-established (and relatively expensive) commercial training operations in the UK & USA, or the course at Columbia. All course providers agreed to a 5% discount. Two bursaries were awarded, each for $2,500. The bulk of the money went towards payment of course fees, with a smaller amount subsidizing travel and accommodation.

In 2012, we developed a working arrangement with the Rory Peck Trust, which provides many more, but smaller, bursaries – restricted to freelance camera people, and applicable only to course fees, not travel. RPT’s greater volume with UK course providers had enabled them to negotiate better fee discounts.

RPT agreed to put one of its senior people on the three-person independent jury which determines FFF bursary winners according to urgency and need, and to consider giving additional RPT bursaries to any who also met RPT’s criteria.

At the same time, RPT were also entering into an agreement with Columbia to provide a sum of money that Columbia could use to give some freelancers a break

on their course fees, which Columbia also reduced across the board – to just $695 US.

Accordingly, the FFF created an alternative stream of bursaries worth $1,000 CDN.

Applicants were asked to choose which stream they were applying for and the first year’s applications were in fact divided evenly between the two. The jury awarded two bursaries in each stream. Both winners who had chosen the Columbia stream also received RPT assistance, which left the bulk of their FFF bursaries free to meet their travel costs.

At the same time, FFF added one more course provider to the commercial stream (with yet another added this year). One of the two 2012 winners in that stream was invited to apply for an RPT bursary in addition to the one he received from FFF. This also made him eligible for a deeper discount from the course provider, because of RPTs arrangements. For a freelancer travelling from Asia to the UK, it all made a big difference. Incidentally, that person was a citizen of Spain, but he qualified under the FFF rules because his regular clients included Canadian media.

Differing charity regulations – and Canada’s are among the most stringent anywhere – make it impractical simply to join forces across borders in a unified program. But it says a lot about our colleagues that they all seem willing to work together where they can for the general good.

In a world in which more employers saw and acted upon the moral point of contributing to third-party programs to reduce the safety burden placed on freelancers, these maneuvers might not be as necessary. But between the organizations trying to alleviate this vast and growing problem, these sorts of arrangements go beyond just stretching scarce bucks inventively. The sense of community and common purpose engendered is heartening in these rather bleak journalistic times.

The Forum Freelance Fund is sponsored by CBC News and supported by Radio-Canada, CNW Group, Mcintosh Media and by individual donations. Please feel free to contact Jane Hawkes, Executive Producer of the Forum at for more information.