Tim Kukral: Arbeitsbedingungen freier Auslandskorrespondenten [Working conditions of freelance foreign correspondents] reviewed by Julia Lönnendonker

Many new journalists dream of one day taking up a prestigious position as a foreign correspondent. But what are the working conditions really like for freelance foreign correspondents, who do not have the luxury of being employed by a public service broadcaster? And how has the situation changed as a result of the media crisis and the economic pressures it has produced? Are freelancers benefiting from the reduction in full-time correspondent positions by filling the gaps? Or are they also feeling the pinch of shrinking budgets for foreign reporting (cf. p. 36)?

These questions are the subject of Tim Kukral’s thesis Arbeitsbedingungen freier Auslandskorrespondenten, written as part of the master’s program in Journalism and Communication Studies at Hamburg University. He begins by looking back, albeit briefly, at the research already conducted into the point of intersection between foreign correspondents and freelance journalists. The author believes that freelance foreign correspondents are particularly highly motivated and describes them as “working by conviction… [journalists] whose work gives them a satisfaction that overrides the difficulties of dealing with certain adversity” (p. 37).

For the empirical part, he surveyed 15 freelance foreign correspondents from all over the world – all members of the journalists’ network Weltreporter – about their work and how they see their role. The results are categorized into general information about those surveyed; an account of the features of each reporting area (such as infrastructure, cost of living and security situation); and a description of the correspondents’ daily lives, including their clients, working processes and working relationship with editors in the home country. The author also describes the correspondents’ motivation and includes a short section on the Weltreporter network itself. In demonstrating that a correspondent’s working conditions fundamentally depend on the area they work in, the information on how the correspondents work and how they see their role does not differ significantly from earlier studies. Both the situation in the region (such as the security situation, infrastructure and culture) and the German public’s interest in that country or region impact the way it is reported on.

One fascinating aspect that is yet to be researched in detail is the correspondents’ view on public relations services. While most of those surveyed vehemently reject the option of working in PR (even as a sideline), many of them earn some of their income from corporate publishing – writing for customer magazines and journals. The journalists describe their work for this kind of magazine as a pleasant kind of work, so different from their everyday lives as freelance correspondents, with “interesting topics, detailed research, convenient travel, freedom of structure, full expenses and generous pay” (p. 106).

All in all, the book provides an absorbing overview of the work of the correspondents in the Weltreporter network. A notable point of criticism, however, is that the author fails to highlight how atypical the journalists in this network are: As the top German freelance correspondents, studying them enables little useful comparison with other freelance foreign reporters. Instead, Kukral merely writes that the Weltreporter network provides a balance for the “solitary” (p. 112) nature of the average correspondent’s work and guarantees a “certain ‘presence on the market’” (p. 112). Despite this having a significant impact on the results regarding working processes and topics covered, he also fails to mention the fact that the journalists surveyed all work in print, radio or online – not a single television journalist was interviewed.

In examining existing research, Kukral complains that previous studies have so far failed “to link the data collected to overarching contexts” (p.34) – a claim that could unquestionably also be made about his own work. Except in a few cases, he does not compare his results with those of earlier investigations, nor does he look into how the working conditions of freelance foreign correspondents differ from those of their regularly-employed colleagues. Responding to the opening question about how freelance correspondents fare economically, Kukral writes that “media are continually reducing spending on foreign reporting” (p.119), with more and more topics being covered by agencies and pay “ever lower” (ibid.). “Many of those surveyed stated that, in order to earn the same amount, they have to produce more today than at the start of their careers” (ibid.). Yet this situation is arguably the same for freelance foreign correspondents, who also complain about increased workloads and are constantly forced to prove their expertise and sell their topics to the editorial office at home. They, too, are fighting for their share of falling travel budgets and the tendency of many editors to use agencies or reports from other media to cover topics, without on-site research.

Future research should take a closer look at comparing the activities of freelance and employed foreign correspondents. It would also be interesting to examine a larger and more varied number of freelance correspondents, which would enable a typology of freelance foreign correspondents to be developed.

This review first appeared in rkm:journal.

About the reviewer

Julia Lönnendonker is a Research Coordinator at TU Dortmund’s Institute of Journalism. The focuses of her research include international and European journalism, foreign reporting, European public life and identity. Her dissertation examined the construction of European identity in German reporting about Turkey’s potential accession to the EEC/EC/EU since the 1950s.

About the book 

Tim Kukral (2016): Arbeitsbedingungen freier Auslandskorrespondenten. Eine qualitative Befragung von Mitgliedern des Journalistennetzwerks Weltreporter. Cologne: Herbert von Halem Verlag. 150 pages. EUR 16.00.