A free-lance prototype: multimedia and entrepreneurial

The University of Virginia prepared Jason Motlagh very well for his career has a free-lance foreign correspondent.

When he applied to take a journalism elective course, he was rejected because he wasn’t an English major. When he applied for a job as food columnist at the school paper, he was also rejected.

But Motlagh persisted, and eventually won a spot on the school paper as travel columnist. His specialty: Travel to fascinating world spots on very low budgets.

Voila. Today Motlagh has five years of free-lance foreign correspondence under his belt and, in many respects, he is the prototype for the journalist of the future: a free-lancing, multimedia correspondent who knows how to market his work and live on a tight budget.

I found Motlagh through my friend Jon Sawyer, who runs the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and who has made Motlagh, 28, one of the workhorse reporters for his up-and-coming nonprofit. Jon confirmed one of Motlagh’s most attractive traits: his “doggedness.”

In the last two years, Motlagh has covered for Pulitzer the massive flooding in south Asia, the Maoist Naxolite rebels of north-central India, the Nepalese Maoist groups, Sri Lanka’s fight with the Tamil Tigers and, more recently, civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

But that rendition of Motlagh’s recent work doesn’t get at the heart of what he does or what makes it work. Here’s what’s telling:

  • He’s a multimedia journalist. Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium. Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”
  • He’s an entrepreneur. This isn’t a new part of a free-lancer’s life, but it’s becoming increasingly important as traditional clients fall by the wayside. In the last two years he lost two important outlets in the San Francisco Chronicle and U.S. News & World Report. But landing work at the Pulitzer Center, and increasing billings through his multimedia work, fills the gaps.
  • He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.

This question of compensation is something that bedeviled my class at the USC Annenberg School for Communication last semester. Students were thrilled with Jon Sawyer’s presentation about the Pulitzer Center – some of them were ready to go abroad immediately – but were stumped about how they would live when Pulitzer essentially pays only travel stipends (usually $1,500 to $5,000).

One answer for the foreign free-lancer, Motlagh said, is that you can live abroad much more cheaply than you suspect. “I was paying less than $500 a month for a very, very nice place in Delhi,” he said. “Even had a house-cleaner. You can do what I do and live well. You can buy insurance, get an apartment.”

Motlagh was a few years into his free-lance career before hooking up with the Pulitzer Center. He began with a six-month stint in West Africa, came home to work for UPI for about a year, then made a decision to go abroad full time. Over the next three years he focused his work on south and central Asia, producing mostly newspaper stories and photos.

Then, about two years ago, another example of Motlagh’s never-say-die trait played out. He pitched an idea to the Pulitzer Center. Then another. Both were rejected. Finally, the center said yes, and Motlagh has become one of its chief contributors.

He acknowledges that his multimedia skills are a big reason. One of Pulitzer’s key partnerships has been with Foreign Exchange, the weekly public broadcasting show. Now Motlagh and other Pulitzer free-lancers were being asked to produce short video documentaries that could air on the show. He needed to learn video and shooting, on the fly.

“One of the things I’d tell students is if I can do it, the sky is the limit,” he jokes. “I’m comfortable with it now. I can shoot and edit my own video.”

In addition to giving him free-lance assignments and a productive nudge on the multimedia front, Pulitzer maneuvered to connect Motlagh with other possibilities: He’s done a couple of IWitness webcam interviews for Frontline/World – work for which Pulitzer pays him $1,000 per interview. It also put him in touch with Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways, resulting in a 7,500-word article on the Asian ethnic insurgencies. (Another Virginia Quarterly Review piece, on the anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, is forthcoming.)

Perhaps most rewarding to Motlagh have been the campus lectures he’s done for Pulitzer’s schools outreach program. Pulitzer made his India work the focus of its schools program last year, and created a Web site that includes lesson plans plans and an interactive chat room. The school visits, to Ohio University, Southern Illinois University, Washington University (St. Louis) and several St. Louis high schools, produced a $500 honorarium for each trip, but also gave Motlagh an emotional charge.

“It’s very satisfying,” he said. “You get more mileage for the work you do; you get feedback, dialogue. You get students interested in foreign concerns.”

I asked Motlagh to circle back to the questions of my students, wondering if their interest in foreign reporting can square with financial realties.

“I feel my case is evidence that this is very possible for young journalist to do,” he said. “As grim as it might look, there are opportunities out there… The other thing I’d say is just go if you think this is what you want to do. Sometimes it’s just being there that creates the opportunity.”

At least for Motlagh, being there is what he wants to do. After a brief stateside visit, he’s heading back to Afghanistan.

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. Traditional media organizations should be careful to embrace freelance journalists. With as many options as new media is providing these freelancers, they can avoid doing so at their peril.