“Diversify your income stream.”
Freelancers hear this piece of advice all the time and for good reason. Plenty of writers and journalists have at least one side hustle that keeps them solvent. There’s ghostwriting and branded content, corporate copywriting, transcribing, fact-checking, and—if you’ve got the language skills—translating.
For freelancers with specific geographic expertise, there’s also another line you could add to your résumé: fixer.
For the uninitiated, fixers are locals (often journalists) who are there to help, and there’s not much they don’t do. Responsibilities and expectations often include: establishing contacts with potential interviewees, locating and contracting local drivers, recommending photographers and videographers, arranging lodging, and recommending the best places to eat.
Kirsten Han, a Singapore-based freelance journalist, moonlights as a fixer. Han first forayed into fixing assignments almost by accident during her first job out of college, which was at a production company that made documentaries for Al Jazeera English.
“One of my first tasks was to be a fixer,” she recalled, and though she realized she was “very, very green,” that initial experience led to subsequent gigs for the network. Now, when someone gets in touch to “pick her brain” about reporting from Singapore, Han knows she can get paid for her services as a fixer.
But like other aspects of freelancing, becoming a fixer is a bit of a “learn as you go” gig. Here’s what you need to know if you want to get started.
1. Know your location—and know it well
Just having your boots on the ground isn’t enough to hang your shingle as a fixer.
“A knowledge of, and confidence in, [your] environment is important,” Han said. Knowing the location’s political, social, cultural, and historical background, as well as the literal lay of the land, makes you a more valuable fixer, and, Han added, “makes it easier to advise on what is or isn’t possible, and what would be good to do.”
Having a variety of local contacts is crucial as well. “I don’t really see fixing as too different from journalism,” Han said, “because a lot of it comes down to thinking about angles, people to approach, and interviews to set up.”
In other words, a lot of your work as a fixer will come down to applying your journalistic knowledge and know-how for other journalists. Think of yourself as a local who knows what can make a journalist’s story soar.
2. Know what you’re worth
Both fixers and journalists who hire them agree: The lack of a universal, or even regional, standard when it comes to fixing fees can create an uncomfortable situation when it comes to fee negotiations.
Many fixers are uncertain what to charge. That was the case for Han, who said she felt “awful” when she found out she was charging “far too little” for her work. “I thought I was doing pretty well, relative to the sort of money I get paid for writing articles that I would have to spend about as long to research,” she said.
Now, she advises new fixers to try to get a sense of market rates in the region where they’re working. Talking with other journalists who have hired fixers in the region is the best way to find out standard rates since there no centralized database to check.
Keep in mind, though, that not all fixers are equal. Some require particular skill sets or services, such as language fluency and the ability to perform on-site translation, which should increase the daily rate.
3. Know your rights
If you think scope creep is a problem when you’re a writer, just wait till you start fixing. As a journalist on location for only a few days tries to squeeze in one more interview or story, fixers who haven’t defined their boundaries will find themselves being strung along for “just one more stop.”
Make sure that you have a scope-of-services contract signed by all parties, which, among other points, details how extra time and add-on services will be compensated.
But before you even sign a contract, be sure to ask about ancillary opportunities. How will your work be credited? If you’re going above and beyond logistical organizing to actually contribute to reporting, it’s worth asking if you can share the byline or production credits. And if, by the end of the work, you feel as though you did more than your contract stipulated, don’t be afraid to push for credit or more compensation.
4. Protect yourself
If you’re working in a country where physical danger is a serious concern, be sure to discuss safety provisions and insurance with the person or outlet hiring you. Publications and networks are notorious for putting fixers in the literal line of fire when it comes to work in dangerous conditions.
“Some of the people I work with appreciate the work and the risk, but eighty percent don’t care about the risks we take,” Mohammed Rajab, a fixer in Gaza City, told the Index on Censorship in 2014. “Most people don’t know about what we do for them. They don’t think about us dying for a picture they sell for fifty dollars.”
This isn’t a volunteer assignment as a mercenary, and you likely won’t get protection if you don’t ask for it.
5. Hang on to the stories you want
At the end of the day, you’re probably more attached to your identity as a journalist than your work as a fixer. While it can be exciting and rewarding (and exhausting) to share your local expertise for a paid gig, don’t give away the stories you want to report yourself.
Fixing can “help you make connections with media outlets,” said Andalusia Knoll Soloff, a journalist and fixer in Mexico, who added that working as a fixer for large, well-known outlets may give you greater access you couldn’t have gained on your own as a freelance reporter.
Still, Knoll Soloff recommends that journalists not use all their “contacts, knowledge, experience, and years of work” on their fixer work. Doing so, she says, can make it tougher for you to file the stories you want to report, because you’ve already given your goods away to someone else.