Sunday, June 7, 2009

Woes of the Ghanaian freelance journalist

Working as a freelance journalist in Ghana is not one of the options available to journalists in the country.

Indeed, there are very few options available for journalists; even though, there is growth and expansion in the media in Ghana, particularly, radio and TV, opportunities for professional journalists are few and wages are very low.

To survive as a freelance journalist, therefore, one has to be a rare breed of the stock, to even consider the idea. Indeed, fact is, the concept as it is known in Ghana is literally non-existent. It is a misnomer. And that explains why Ghanaian freelance journalists are not taken serious, not even by their own peers.

The plain truth is that you just can’t make any decent living working as a freelance in Ghana, unless you are very smart. I mean smart enough not to limit the scope of your writing and style. You must be smart enough to learn other writing skills like speech writing, technical writing, feature writing as well as acquire editing skills. You could even add graphic designing skills and may be look for some extra money and pay at some IT training institution to train in one web technology or the other.

Well, and don’t forget, you must add photography to it, because you are most likely to make much more money from photography than from just writing, and by this I mean commercial photography. Believe me, it is true. Or else, you are heading for a life of misery with no security for retirement.

I remember some 10 or so years ago, I met my good friend Haruna Atta, editor of the Accra Mail newspaper somewhere near the old Press Centre at Kokomlemle. As we chatted, he asked me which paper I worked with. This question is almost an anathema to most of the freelance journalists I know in Ghana. You may find out from Iddi Ali, one fellow I know who is so committed to the profession and the tenets it stands for.

But just wait and hear Haruna’s response to my answer to his question.

I told him I worked as a freelance journalist. He immediately let out a wry smile, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “well, you know in Ghana, when journalists lose their jobs, they become freelance journalists.”

I smiled back too, but I wasn’t sure if my smile had some wryness in it though. That is the truth as it is seen in Ghana. Unemployed journalists, claim to be freelance journalists!

You are a journalist, and you lose your job. So, you take on some tag of respectability by claiming to be a freelance. That’s the point, and it is not only a perception, but has been craftily contrived into a reality.

As a matter of fact Haruna is not the only journalist in this country who shares in this view. Nana Kofi Coomson, who was once described by Vincent Asisseh, himself a journalist, as the ‘enfant terrible’ of Ghanaian journalism holds the same view. He doesn’t believe any serious journalist could work as a freelance in Ghana working for the Ghanaian press and media.

Sad, isn’t it? The fact is you can’t be a freelance journalist in Ghana! And that is for one simple reason. The money is not worth it! You hardly get paid for your works and when you are lucky to get paid weeks or even months after your works have been published, you get very meager fees, not enough to even cover the cost of writing the story itself!

And of course, when you tell anyone you work as a freelance journalist, they suddenly think of Ben Ephson and Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, because these two and a few others including Ruby Ofori for a long time were BBC correspondents in Ghana, and they worked as freelance journalists.

Ghanaian newspapers, TV and radio stations just do not pay freelance journalists. Period! They do not factor freelance writers in their plans. Or, do they?

Even the national newspaper, the Daily Graphic which is presumably the highest paying newspaper in Ghana does not offer respectable fees. The Daily Graphic pays as little as GH¢10, for a full length article, and this article could cost as much as GH¢25 to GH¢30 or more to do. That includes the cost of research and the actual writing and filing of the story.

The privately-owned newspapers are worse off. They pay literally nothing for freelance work. No matter how good the work is. They would mostly want to publish freelance works for free and in most cases, when they find these works elsewhere, and they are mostly high quality writing, they simply copy, put their bylines to them and publish!

Thankfully, I was able to survive working as a freelance journalist in Ghana for over 10 years.

In these times I have experienced some exhilarating moments especially when I see my works in print or when what I have written gets national response and some major decisions are taken resulting in some benefits to ordinary Ghanaians. Some of my freelance works have also generated international responses, especially, my focus on e-waste in Ghana.

But there have been downsides too. I have had to travel to remote areas in Ghana to work, and never got paid anything worth my efforts.

The most heartbreaking periods of my carrier have been, always when I see my works plagiarized by others, including some very respectable individuals, newspapers, radio and TV stations in this country. But I endured the pains stoically.

One of my favorite writers and inspirers, the American Evangelical journalist and writer Tim Bascom, after working for several years in the media and rising to the position of editor of Interlit, a world class magazine for publishers, willingly resigned his position to go and work as a freelance writer.

But who is a freelance writer? And what is freelance writing? The dictionary says, a freelance, was once a knight whose services were purchasable by any state or command.

And this is how Victor Chen a freelance writer describes the word, he says, “today in journalism a freelance is one who writes for newspapers or magazines without being regularly employed, and despite the notions of independence bound up in the word, it might well stand for ‘free to starve.’”

Tim Bascom argues that technically, a freelance is a “lance” for hire, free to work on any subject, a sort of literally mercenary.

Fact is a freelance writer’s life is a tough one. They tackle assignments not everyone wants to do. They dare to be useful most of the time, even to the point of writing the mundane just so they can make a living.

For me, working as a freelance in Ghana was not an initial pleasant experience. It was like a little child who has been yanked from the safe arms of the mother by unexplained circumstances and thrown onto the streets to fend for himself. Of course, this child would not know what to do. And in most cases, I didn’t know what to do.

But I survived. I was toughened by the very circumstances of a freelance writer. I have had to vacillate between hope and despair, excitement and disappointments. Loneliness, uncertainty, and sometimes professional ostracism.

In a piece in 1998, Tim Bascom lamented the horrible lifestyle of a freelance, when he wrote, “I have 80 articles in print, plus two books and a dozen poems. But after years of trying to make a living as a freelance writer, I now admit I probably will never succeed.”

For Chen, a freelancer’s life is a chancy one. He or she never knows where the next pay check is coming from.

Given the opportunity, which Ghanaian journalist would like to work as a freelance for the media in Ghana? Well, probably that might become attractive one day when, media owners take freelance writers serious and pay them well.

For me, working as a freelance journalist opened new opportunities for growth and independent critical thinking, which have become more so valuable in the conduct of my everyday life.

I took a break from my freelance life after studies at the University of Ghana, Legon and worked with the online units of two radio stations in Accra briefly, but had to quit these jobs for good reasons. I have now decided to turn on fully, my entrepreneurial skills and have singlehandedly set up Ghana’s premier business news portal,

I guess probably, I would be making history as the first Ghanaian journalist to set up an online medium for news. I do some freelance work though, but mostly for the international media. I started in December 2008, but the site has gained popularity so fast. It is possibly the fastest growing and most credible website in Ghana today.

For instance, the statistics for May 2009 show 56,006 visits, 269,683 pages viewed and 1,996, 139 hits.

Thankfully, the experiences and tenacity I have accumulated over the painful years of freelance journalism in Ghana is paying off, as I have learned to express independence, objectivity, and a high level of professionalism in my works.