Michael Totten

An Experiment in Journalism

I went to the Middle East for six months so I could expand my freelance writing portfolio. But I found, after a few months, there may be a better way forward than publishing disconnected dispatches here and there for low pay.
The mainstream media is an industry in decline. The audience shrinks every year. Profits circle the drain. Budgets for foreign bureaus and correspondents have been gutted stem to stern. Most journalists are paid pitifully low salaries even in good times, and freelancers are paid even worse. Striving to become a part of all that may not be the brightest idea if there’s another option.
And it looks like there might be.
I decided to try a little experiment. Instead of lining up an assignment from an editor to cover Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, I struck out on my own without asking permission from anyone. Almost all my material was posted directly to this Web site. I wanted to see if the amount of money I can raise from readers competes with the industry’s going rate.
It does.
I raised more money from you to cover Iraqi Kurdistan than I’ve made covering any other country on paid assignments. I also had a lot more fun publishing my own material here instead of somewhere else. It is so much nicer to have the freedom to write whatever I want without any oversight, without any rules or restrictions, without any word limits, and without any delays. (The LA Weekly sat on my Libya story for more than a year. Four months after publishing it, they still owe me money.)
That doesn’t mean your generous Pay Pal donations have made me rich all of a sudden. I don’t have enough blog traffic for that. And saying www.michaeltotten.com pays better than freelance assignments isn’t saying a lot. But I did raise enough to go to Iraq and pay the bills during the time I was away. That’s all I need.
My experiment was therefore a success. I can go to Northern Iraq working for you and have a better experience than if I went there for somebody else.
Not many journalists go to Northern Iraq, though. So here’s what I don’t know: Were you willing to pay me because I went where few others go? Or can I do this again in a different location? I need to know how economically viable this emerging model of journalism really is.
Over the next two weeks or so we’ll find out.
After I left Northern Iraq for the second time, and before I returned to my home in the United States where I am now, I gathered more material in Israel and Palestine. I didn’t tell you I was going to do that. I didn’t ask a single editor for an assignment. I just went. That material will begin appearing here shortly.
More foreign correspondents live in Jerusalem than perhaps any other city on Earth. Are you willing to pay for independent coverage from there as well as from neglected places like Iraqi Kurdistan?
If so, I won’t have to wait for green lights from editors before buying plane tickets and heading off on assignments. You can read a lot more of the kind of thing you’ve been reading here lately if you’re willing and able to cover expenses. We can cut the industry out of these operations entirely. I would do this for love and for free if I could. But I’m not independently wealthy, so I just can’t.
If writing about Israel and Palestine on the blog proves to be profitable, here’s what I’m thinking of next:
I want to go to Iran and “embed” myself, so to speak, with the student movement that struggles against the Khomeini regime.
I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in Israel and Palestine as I would have liked, and I intend to go back. (I now know Palestinians who can get me safely into and out of Gaza, Hebron, and Jenin.)
I have been in contact with dissidents opposed to Assad’s Baath Party both inside and outside of Syria. It may be time to pay them a visit if the embassy in Washington (there isn’t one in Beirut) will grant me a visa.
I can secure protection and safe passage in Kabul and in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. Nothing is stopping me from going except that I do not have an assignment.
I speak some Spanish, I know Latin America well, and it’s about time I went to Cuba and, perhaps, Venezuela.
If at all possible I’d like to go to North Korea, as well.
What I need to know before I can do any of this is if you’re willing to “hire” me to write about places other than Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Can I turn this blog into a job? Or was I lucky just this one time?
Working for you in Northern Iraq was the best job I ever had. If you want unfiltered, unplugged, and unedited foreign correspondence from other places as well, hit the Pay Pal button and I’ll provide you with lots of it for a long time.
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