Henry Peirse, founder and CEO of GRNlive, explains how the agency provides broadcasters with freelancers and discusses rates of pay, how they vet journalists and the ethics of rookie reporters working in dangerous places
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By Henry PeirseWhen I started freelancing the news business was changing, and that was even before the Internet was the cause. It was too early for that to happen. Back then it was the BBC that was slowly suffocating what had been one of the oldest, largest and most reliable sources of foreign news, World Service Radio, in its quest to move into television. In the early 1990’s I’d hear words such as “multiskilling,” as reporters started being trained in how to use video cameras.
|One day, I was on the back of a motorbike. A friend was helping me to get from one place to another in Tehran and my agents, GRN in London, called and said: ‘Saeed, in five minutes you have to go live on CNN.’ With no broadcast experience, I was suddenly live on TV for the first time on the back of a motorbike in the middle of a city in chaos. They loved it and I gave more than 50 live TV interviews to different broadcasters in June alone, most of the time appearing anonymously.|
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Pictures in words
Henry Peirse's big idea was to bring together freelance radio reporters worldwide and broadcasters via an online link. The current Iraqi conflict has proved the turning point, he tells Owen Gibson
Monday April 14, 2003
One feature of the media coverage of the Iraqi conflict is that it has often been radio reporters on the ground who have best been able to see through the fog of war. Without the constant pictorial demands of 24-hour TV news, radio journalists have perhaps been better able to frame the unfolding story and provide context and background.
Important, too, is the fact that far more of them are operating independently, un-embedded and as freelancers, phoning in their reports to different stations. But when you are in the field and bullets are flying, the last thing you want to be worrying about is what time your next report is due and whether you will get paid.
The same thought occurred to Henry Peirse, who was a freelance radio reporter in the former Yugoslavia, and it led him to set up Global Radio News. His plan was relatively simple - to provide a worldwide repository of freelance radio correspondents and act as a go-between for them and the broadcasters. "Having been a freelancer myself, I realised there was this resource of freelancers who worked very hard and didn't have the resources that staff reporters got. If these guys are taking a lot of risks, they should be properly rewarded," says Peirse.
But when GRN was first launched, in May 2000, it was, he admits, a struggle. The original concept was to provide an online link between freelance radio reporters and broadcasters. Those in the field would file their reports via the internet, where they could be called up by news editors to broadcast immediately. But, says Peirse, "It has been very difficult to persuade broadcasters to buy audio on the web. The journalists jumped on it, but the stations have been slow to pick it up." Rather than throw in the towel, GRN changed tack late last year. While still using the web as an essential resource and database, it now relies on mobile satellite phones. "A lot of editors and producers are still not using the web - they prefer to have a human interface," he says.
So now, GRN acts more as an independent news hub, talking to its affiliated correspondents around the world and putting them in touch with radio stations looking for a specific angle or update. It also ensures news flows the other way, preparing an email three times a day featuring the latest news updates and suggesting reporters on the ground who can cover the events listed. "It lands on the news editor's desk, they can see who is there and they can pick up the phone. We're starting to see it influence the news agenda for the broadcasters we work with," says Peirse.
The Iraqi war has happened just in time for GRN. Just as CNN was on the brink of collapse before the first Gulf war came to its rescue, so on a far smaller scale this conflict has proved the business case for Peirse's start-up. "This has catapulted us on to a new level," he says. "For example, we'd been trying to get through to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for months and now they're talking to us on an hourly basis. A lot of people who thought it would be a good idea but couldn't see how it would fit have really got it."
Now, heavyweights including CBS, CNN and Sky are on board, but the idea has had even more impact for small to medium-sized broadcasters which can't afford their own staff reporters in the Middle East. For the likes of LBC and TalkSport, which have both made use of the service during the current crisis, and dozens of smaller local stations, having ready access to on-the-spot reports gives them a fair shot at competing with the huge resources of ITN and the BBC.
Phil Longman, who has been in charge of the war coverage on London station LBC 97.3, said that using GRN had enabled it to widen the pool of correspondents it uses, adding context. "It's an interesting idea that has worked extremely well. The key person we've been using is Tim Judah, but we've also used journalists from the Financial Times, Newsweek and the New York Times, who are also reporting for GRN," he says. "Our main news tie-up is with Sky, but obviously its people have been very busy, and using GRN has enabled us to add texture by reporting from around the region."
GRN now has 500 freelancers on its books across 98 countries, including scores in and around the Middle East. They are being coordinated by the two other members of the company's three-strong team, who at the moment are working around the clock to keep on top of rapidly unfolding events. They are Ben Cohen, who was a colleague of Peirse in former Yugoslavia and has considerable experience working as a freelancer in the Middle East, and Kit Peel, another former journalist, who reported extensively from South Africa.
Cohen believes that the practical reporting background of the three core members of the team gives them an insight into both sides of the news-gathering process. "By virtue of all the people we know and have met, it gives us a real insight. That combination of special knowledge and context gives us an edge on coverage," he says. Since September 11 2001, there has been a growing willingness among news organisations of all sizes to feature international news because it now has a direct bearing on their listeners, Cohen believes.
"There is a renewed interest in international news and attention may well turn next to Syria, Iran and North Korea, and we're already working on setting these things up. We've got people all over the region," adds Peirse. And while he inevitably expects the quantity of stories per day to tail off as the war comes to an end, he also thinks that the sands of the news agenda have shifted fundamentally towards international affairs during the conflict and the wider war on terrorism.
Now that the service is on its way to becoming more firmly establishing as a daily tool in newsrooms, Peirse says that GRN may come full circle and reintroduce the web-based audio element. "It was the right idea at the wrong time and it is definitely a very good way to aggregate reports," he says, but adds that it will wait until news editors and producers are ready for it rather than foisting it on them.
In the meantime, he hopes GRN will continue to prosper after this war ends and stand testament to the power of combining old and new media to execute a simple idea well. Which, as the experience of dozens of companies over the past five years will tell you, is a whole lot more difficult than it sounds.