FIRE-supported reporter Ayo Awokoya

“I don't think there is anything similar to FIRE out there. Their work is invaluable and their services are desperately needed." 

— Ayo Awokoya, award-winning
FIRE-supported reporter

FIRE-supported reporter Ian Urbina

 "FIRE was a true asset to me."

— Ian Urbina, Pulitzer-winning former New York Times reporter and director of The Outlaw Ocean Project

 


Feedback from FIRE-supported reporters

From recipients of new legal service, 2021-2022

Boilerplate story contracts from media companies often burden freelance investigative reporters with the liability for legal expenses arising from their investigations, including their publisher's legal costs. This has chilled investigations in the public interest. Through attorneys in FIRE’s new contract-related legal assistance program, the reporters below reversed their liability to receive full legal protection by their outlets—and were able to proceed with their reporting.

Testimonials for FIRE’s other programs further below. 

 

"Game-changer"

FIRE-supported reporter Helen Santoro

"As a freelancer, I try to be legally savvy. I always fight for the best contract possible, in case someone sues for defamation. Even if the case ultimately gets thrown out, that's still really scary as a freelancer—a terrifying prospect.  

Having FIRE's support was a complete game-changer. It was a huge relief having FIRE look over the contract as extensively as it did. Without that I would have been way more hesitant to take on this story [and] I might not have proceeded at all." 

FIRE-supported freelancer Helen Santoro (100Reporters/Associated Press investigation released, July 2022.)

"Don't want to go bankrupt"

FIRE-supported reporter Rachel Layne

"It’s tough to work on investigations while you’re trying to make a living and I’m not sure I would have taken this gig without FIRE. You want the confidence to be able to push on the public records. And you want the outlet to feel comfortable too. But you don’t want to go bankrupt doing a story you get paid $1,000 to do. It just takes one frivolous filing and it could cost you $50,000. And I don’t have $50,000, thank you very much.  FIRE made doing the story so much easier. A layer of anxiety was gone. I could follow the reporting wherever it led—without worrying about losing my condo."

—FIRE-supported freelancer Rachel Layne (Water and Wastes Digest story released, September, 2021)

"Helped me move forward"

FIRE-supported reporter Rowan Moore Gerety

"As a freelancer accustomed to reviewing contracts, I've pushed back occasionally on onerous intellectual property and indemnity provisions. And in this case, the contract was over the top in assigning the risk to the reporter, and the benefit to the publication.  

 
But I was not optimistic about getting it changed. In my experience, many mainstream outlets routinely include similar provisions in their freelance contracts. Freelancing is very isolating. I am not a lawyer And negotiating with an editor—especially a new editor—can be uncomfortable. Besides, none of the people I interact with on an assignment have anything to do with drafting contracts.  
 
Through FIRE, I got access to two experienced media attorneys. The lawyers gave me the insight and confidence to effectively negotiate two meaningful changes—keeping rights to my own work and securing credible assurance that my editors wouldn't hang me out to dry if my reporting led to litigation. Those terms certainly helped me move forward with the reporting on this story.   

—FIRE-supported freelancer Rowan Moore Gerety (Esquire story released, February 2022: full backstory here.) 

"Helped me shore up my contract"

FIRE-supported reporter Jason Buch

"As freelancers, we're often taking on a legal risk that staff reporters don't face, and without their built-in support. FIRE not only helped me shore up my contract but also suggested ways to strengthen my reporting—both of which protected me from liability. This kind of support makes me feel more comfortable taking on difficult and complex stories." 

—FIRE-supported freelancer Jason Buch (Texas Observer story released November, 2021.)

"Responded to my dire request"

FIRE-supported reporter Alexandria Bordas

"Because of FIRE, I was able to advocate for myself as a first-time freelancer and save myself from potentially huge legal liabilities. You responded to my dire request less than 24 hours after I first submitted it online and you walked me through all the legal jargon that was totally confusing. I cannot emphasize enough how much that meant to me, to know that I was not alone and that there were still ways to move forward. 

Thank you for going above and beyond. This story has been part of my life for two years and now it might finally see the light." 

FIRE-supported freelancer Alexandria Bordas (San Francisco Chroniclae story released, April 2021: full backstory here.) 

"Helped me evaluate [and] negotiate"

"As someone new to investigative/accountability journalism, I can't thank FIRE enough for their legal services. After I realized my reporting could open me up to potential legal liability, FIRE helped me evaluate my contract, connect to the attorney, and deliver a simple and clear inquiry to the assigning publication. I was then able to negotiate with the publication to ensure that I had appropriate legal protection. Without FIRE's help, I wouldn't have known how to proceed with the article, which I hope will shed light on an important health disparity."

—FIRE-supported freelancer, anonymous by request of the reporter

 

 

Additional Legal Service

Also in early 2021, veteran former New York Times reporter Ian Urbina received a FIRE Virtual Newsroom with reporting services. It came with a contract-related legal review, which affirmed that he was protected as a freelancer for his New Yorker story. FIRE provides Virtual Newsroom grants and services to reporters only when the recipient outlet will indemnify the reporter for a story, a standard FIRE is determined to promote for the field. 
 

"Invaluable resource"

FIRE-supported reporter Ian Urbina

"FIRE's Virtual Newsroom is an invaluable resource for freelance writers. FIRE not only provides independent journalists the funding they need to produce groundbreaking, under-reported, and expensive journalism, they also provide support that reporters might receive from traditional newsrooms. FIRE was a true asset to me this year as I reported and wrote a story about fish farming in Gambia for The New Yorker."

— FIRE-supported freelancer Ian Urbina  

 

From select FIRE recipients, 2019-20

Below are the edited transcripts of interviews conducted in May 2020, by Seattle journalist Jenna Henchard, with the three active FIRE Virtual Newsroom recipients pictured here. 

Roshan Abraham

FIRE-supported reporter Roshan Abraham

"I don’t think the scope of the story would’ve been as big if FIRE hadn’t suggested it. But also I don’t think I could have made it such a big comprehensive investigation without FIRE’s funding—and without their constant consultations. Those have been really tremendously helpful.

It's hard as a freelancer working on investigative stories. On this one, I had to send records requests to more than a dozen different states, each with different public-records laws. Each state will deny your request with a different explanation. You need a very specific reply for each individual state. Without resources like FIRE’s it would be really hard. But every time I had an issue come up in a state, I just emailed FIRE, and they found someone who has expertise with that state’s public-records laws. The consultation has been really helpful. The legal help has been really great. Thanks to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

So has the newsroom structure. We check in over email once a week. Just having the consistent deadlines has kept me on track and accountable. 

I think that it's really, really difficult for freelance journalists to do big investigative articles that larger institutions like the New York Times can do. But it makes sense to fund that—that is, if people outside those institutions should also have a chance to tell big public policy stories, ones that will reveal things about the world, and change the way we live."
 

Emma Penrod

FIRE-supported reporter Emma Penrod

"If FIRE weren’t around, stories like this wouldn't be possible. Without FIRE, there's no way I could have put this story together. It's just too big. I've never really done a story on this kind of scale before. I have no financial means. In fact, I applied because I needed to pay for a couple thousand dollars in laboratory testing. I got the FIRE grant and I hired the laboratory.

But after the testing was done, there was a lot of mentorship that I feel is really critical—protecting sources, identifying leads, charting next steps, emotional support when things became distressing, helping to place the story. In my case, story placement was particularly challenging because the sensitive nature of the situation scared off local outlets. FIRE was willing to help. It's a level of mentorship that honestly I've never had from any of the editors I've ever worked with.

Freelancers have something that a standard reporter or a large national news outlet may not have. With my particular contacts, I have in-depth, narrow knowledge and access to sources from insider communities, which don't work with outsiders, no matter how large or prestigious. The story I'm working on will never be covered by anyone else because nobody else is ever going to know what's happening; and if they did find out, they wouldn't understand it at all. 

But you still have to unlock that knowledge. My previous experience has been ‘Figure it out or you're not a real journalist”—editors will just shut down, probably because they just don't have the time. With these guys I'm just like, "you know that's not really in my wheelhouse can you explain how this whole process is working," and they’re just like, “no problem, we’ll follow up phone call here and we'll discuss how you can attack this.” The mentorship has been absolutely awesome. 

I think FIRE has an opportunity right now. Media outlets are being threatened with lawsuits and are actually getting sued. Freelancers are being sued and targeted for our research. There was that freelancer that was just arrested in California so that the courts could get access to his records. Freelancers are especially exposed. I think FIRE can offer some of the resources that you might see in a larger news outlet—to combat these attacks and to fight back—that freelancers just don't have. 

Right now many of us don't even want to get involved in an investigative story: Are you going to jail for what do you do, will you be arrested for what you have written? If you don't have the protection for the freelancers, if we're too exposed legally and politically, if we face retribution for what we have to  report, and if the publications that can fight don’t know we're out here—then you potentially lose critical stories that impact a lot of people. I think it’s really critical to just have a resource like FIRE to protect freelance journalists and enable them to share these stories, which frankly are not going to be covered by anyone else."
 

Daryl Khan and Clarissa Sosin

FIRE-supported reporter Daryl Khan

FIRE-supported reporter Clarissa Sosin

"You know it's hard because we're doing this story on our own. We're far away from the action, we’re encountering the difficulty of getting there, and we are running up against the normal obstacles in taking on a very powerful institution. FIRE has given us a boost in the most obvious material ways, like travel—but also in other ways. For example, helping us organize a huge trove of public records and go after a second round of public records—not only advice on what to request but also feedback on our specific language. It has resulted in more effective request letters, ones more likely to get a positive result and that was really helpful. 

But there’s something more—in all this there’s a reminder that people care and it reinvigorates you. In a long term project like this, you go so deep, you encounter so many obstacles, legal and otherwise, that it's really good to have someone like FIRE seeing what we were doing, how important it is, how under covered, how much difference it could make: somebody on our side. Someone to keep us on track, too—especially when we’re in so deep that we’re finding everything interesting. 

As freelancers, we normally would never have access to that sort of support. The Virtual Newsroom has been crucial for the story specifically, since it’s gotten so complicated. But it was also crucial for us personally—there was recognition of who we are and what motivates us. It requires a special kind. In some cases freelancers have more passion than reporters who have the plum assignments. We're doing it because we feel we have to. If you're a reporter aware of the abuse out there in this country, people denied liberties and freedoms—people living in some cases literally with a boot on their throat—then you understand how horrifying it is how many stories may have died simply because the reporter didn't get enough support. 

Freelancers are not as cute and cuddly as the imperiled pandas, but we are essential in this bigger ecosystem. We're asking questions that not everybody is trained to ask and we're looking at documents in a way that not everybody's looking at them. We're piecing together pieces of a puzzle.  A lot of this work is being done by people like us. But it's really tough, draining, and exhausting.  It's hard enough to hold people in power account in the best of circumstances. Even the places that have committed reporters on the beat, they’re working in such challenging conditions that imagine what's going on when you’re alone, in the places off the beaten path? 

Even putting the aside material stuff, like scraping up the money for a plane ticket: When you're out there with no health benefits and no steady salary and fearing a lifetime of lawsuits or retaliation, your spirits can get down. It’s then that we worry about all of those lost stories—about the desperate people whose voice can’t be heard because a reporter ran out of money or just encountered just too much resistance. 

People like us need support to finish our stories. A little bit of financial, moral, and logistical help really goes a long way. To know that there's a group like FIRE out there, to keep freelancers going when the going gets rough, is I think invaluable. It’s really hard to overstate their importance. Throughout American history, who enabled the changes that have held us true to our founding promise? It wasn't legislators and it wasn't non-profit organizations and it sure as hell wasn’t like social media companies. It was journalists bringing to light stories that shocked the American imagination and reminded us of how far we had to go, and that resulted in the kind of changes that make us more accountable to what we promised everyone, back in 1787."
 

From select FIRE recipients, 2018-19

Below is earlier feedback from freelance investigative reporters served by FIRE’s two programs—the one-hour Editorial Consultancies and the full Virtual Newsroom awards. The first comes from 2019 interviews conducted by freelance journalist Jaeah Lee with the three reporters below. They were chosen because their work won various journalism fellowships and awards. Anonymous feedback from 2016 to 2018 appears further below.  

Personalized Support and Attention

“FIRE’s service really is quite unique. It is very personal, and it’s rare to have an hour with someone, one-to-one to talk about your piece of work. Especially as a freelancer, that time and personalized attention is invaluable and something that a lot of us could really benefit from.” - Cat McShane  

“Doing investigative journalism as a freelancer can be very  daunting. With constant contact, FIRE managed to keep the work accountable and keep the momentum. They always looked to see if they could fulfill a particular need.” - Ayo Awokoya  

“Director Laird Townsend could talk us through the problems of our project even at times when everything seemed to be falling apart.” - Emily Palmer  

Emphasis on Early Intervention 

“For freelancers, it’s hard to find support as you’re developing a project. We had faith the support would come. But we only had that latitude because we had FIRE. FIRE director Laird Townsend was one of the first people who invested in the project. He was like, Even though you're still figuring out how to do this, you should definitely be doing it.” - Emily Palmer

“The level of support FIRE gives is really quite rare...They very kindly went above and beyond the needs of the editorial consultancy when they saw the project was kind of moving in the right direction. So they were incredibly helpful in that regard. And especially when they didn't have to be.” Ayo Awokoya   

    

“FIRE helped me at an important time, when I didn't have any other professional input on the piece. I wasn’t working with an editor—it was sort of just down to me. So it was really helpful.” - Cat McShane  

  

Unflagging Source of Support  

 “If you were staff somewhere you would just automatically get certain support. But as a freelancer, it’s incredible to have someone stick it out with you.  FIRE was our support system throughout the entire life of the project, not just in terms of the money offered, but the additional resources that give you a newsroom and a home.” - Emily Palmer  

“It was a good boost of confidence to talk over it and sharpen the pitch. FIRE was very good at practical challenges: if you can't place it this way, then what are different angles that might get you more funding to advance the material. - Cat McShane  

  

“FIRE was very understanding about what a freelancer's circumstances were. With other grants they kind of just leave you to your own devices. What's quite different with FIRE is the level of support. They are with you the entire way.” - Ayo Awokoya

FIRE-supported reporter Ayo Awokoya

* Ayo Awokoya, whose co-reported exposé of agricultural supply chains relying on forced African labor received the 2019 Frontline Club Award for print journalism, and was the runner-up nominee for the Foreign Press Association Print Award, for The Guardian UK 

-recipient of FIRE Editorial Consultancy and Virtual Newsroom awards; 

FIRE-supported reporter Emily Palmer

* Emily Palmer, whose co-reported investigation into compliance failures in federal child abuse protections earned the prestigious Spotlight fellowship, to run in the Boston Globe in 2019  

-recipient of FIRE Editorial Consultancy and Virtual Newsroom awards; 

FIRE-supported reporter Cat McShane

* Cat McShane, whose 2017 FIRE-supported research on private-equity investment in international residential real estate evolved into a BBC Panorama film nominated for a 2019 Wincott Award for the best business journalism in the UK  

-recipient of FIRE Editorial Consultancy award 

From FIRE recipients, 2016-18

You can view testimonials from 2016-2018 here.  

Pre-FIRE testimonials 

You can view pre-FIRE testimonials here.