Immediately below are transcribed statements from 2017 FIRE recipients who consented to confidential, anonymous interviews conducted in December, 2017, by a trained freelance investigative reporter, acting in the capacity of FIRE research consultant.
Their statements are part of a December, 2017, Power Point presentation, which also includes the results of an online questionnaire of the recipients. An equivalent Power Point from 2016 is also available.
Earlier testimonials are further below.
Stories would be lost without FIRE
- “Who gets to do investigative work? It takes a lot of time and money. Without FIRE, there would be fewer people doing the kind journalism that is actually really important to society.” –Recipient #17
- “If it weren’t for Laird’s encouragement and FIRE support, I would have given up.” –Recipient #9
- “I might have published my article faster and as a less ambitious piece without FIRE. Or I would have given up on trying to find someone to publish it.” –Recipient #3
- “I don’t think I would have had the confidence to move forward on my story without having the conversations I had with Laird Townsend and [another FIRE editor]. They were both really, really encouraging, and told me that I was on the right track. I needed that extra vote of confidence.” –Recipient #10
- “Quite honestly, without FIRE, I might have given up on the story.” –Recipient #8
- "FIRE gave me the resources I needed to take a second stab at a story I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do. And FIRE offered suggestions about how to do it and approach it–ways I hadn’t thought of.” –Recipient #4
- "[My consultation with Laird] saved the project, or kept it alive. And that’s priceless. –Recipient #19
Effective use of consultancy time
- "A lot of times, a one-hour conversation doesn’t end up in a lot of concrete steps, but with FIRE, it did. All of the notes I took are now my project roadmap. It was even more productive than I expected.” –Recipient #13
- “[FIRE] was great with flexibility. Upfront, they asked: What’s the most useful to you? What’s the best way to use my time, and to use yours?” –Recipient #5
Antidote to isolation
- “Without FIRE, I guess we’d all feel horrible. We’re alone out here.” –Recipient #8
- “Everyone at FIRE knows that things can be very difficult for freelancers who don’t have an institutional support network. What FIRE’s doing is wonderful, and I hope that they can continue.” –Recipient #13
- “Working as a freelancer now, after having worked for years in magazine newsrooms, I really value the perspective of good editors. Freelancing is a lonely job in that respect, unless you have an organization like FIRE, or an editor who’s willing to help you shape an article.” –Recipient #17
- “It’s so encouraging to know that an organization exists to help freelancers do investigative work. It’s really, really appreciated.” –Recipient #1
Strong mentorship for beginners
- “Investigative reporting is obviously many things: it’s difficult, it’s time consuming, it’s tough for beginner younger journalists to figure out how to know the ropes of an investigative project. For that reason, FIRE is a wonderful resource.” –Recipient #13
- “[FIRE is] very supportive. It’s like having Newsroom Support when I otherwise wouldn’t have it. FIRE gave me a mentor, which has been so key.” –Recipient #9
- “What FIRE does differently is that it offers a mentorship component for people that might not have a couple of big pieces under their belt.” –Recipient #10
Sorely needed resources
- "There are a very limited number of places to go to for funding and for support as a freelancer. It would be even more limited without FIRE.” –Recipient #7
- “[Without FIRE,] fewer resources would be available to freelancers who already have too few resources! If FIRE didn’t exist, then there would be even fewer chances than there already are for successful freelancers to engage in investigative work.” –Recipient #1
- “Nothing currently offered in terms of grant and fellowships seems as extensive and focused as FIRE.” –Recipient #4
Sense of conversation and collaboration
- “The thing that distinguishes FIRE from other fellowships is that with others, there’s less of a sense of conversation. There’s not much back and forth. With FIRE, there’s a lot less in terms of money, and it’s more like a conversation. That’s really helpful as a freelancer. What’s even more awesome is the editorial support and perspective and just having a second set of eyes, and a new set of questions and ideas. The conversations with Laird have been by far the most valuable, and also the most unusual, part of the experience.” –Recipient #8
- “There seems to be more of a reciprocal relationship between the selected journalists and FIRE then there are with other funders. There's a lot more back-and-forth, and also something rare: early conceptual-stage editing as well as specific late-stage reporting advice. FIRE ends up being a more collaborative process than other funders.” –Recipient #7
- “I think that it’s more personal … rather than emailing with someone back and forth, or talking with someone who doesn’t have the time to really sit down and work through something with you. It’s a lot more accessible, and I don’t know just helpful, on a person to person basis.” –Recipient #15
EARLIER FIRE TESTIMONIALS
"[The] FIRE help desk service have been an invaluable boon in guiding my investigative reporting… Fundamentally, I think the FIRE helpdesk service democratizes the investigative journalism field—it gives a winder number of journalists the tools of investigation so they can both deepen the value and broaden the scope of their stories. A wonderful resource for emerging journalists, and an important service to ensure a wide range of organizations are brought to task." –Respondent #17
“There's a need for [FIRE] to exist, not only for the money, but because of the resources they provide. I don't really want to think about what would happen without it. We've received other funding for larger amounts of money, which has been helpful in making sure we can actually get to the places we need to get to, but before we can even do that travel, we needed data records… I don't think we would have survived if it wasn't for FIRE.”
“The unique customization of FIRE services is extraordinary -- I don't know of any other support organization for this kind of reporting that focuses so well on the specific needs of grantees. Even with those services though, as a freelancer it's financially challenging to allocate sufficient time to a project without direct funding.” –Respondent #3
“If [FIRE] didn't exist, I guess we'd soldier on, but we'd be a little bereft, you know.”
“The research help by IRE is invaluable. I think you came upon a very key need for freelance journalists that no one was meeting.”-Respondent #6
“I was treated as a partner, not as a candidate.” –Unidentified Respondent
“FIRE's services have been extremely helpful. The overall editorial leadership took an active interest in the story and therefore was able to engage in a thoughtful way.” –Unidentified Respondent
“Help with FOIA and doing information requests would be really helpful. I would say that many journalists either feel kind of overwhelmed when filling those out, not necessarily for the federal government, but for the state governments.” –Respondent #2
“…My research requests are really complicated, information that can only be gathered by people who have the ability to access Lexus Nexus, and other kinds of legal databases. At least for freelancers, no one can afford those. So, I think FIRE has to exist. A lot of great reporting is done by lone people or smaller organization, and especially in an investigation, you really need the backing of a larger organization to help point you down pathways that have been tried before and have been successful. It's very necessary.” –Respondent #2
“It is increasingly difficult, especially as a freelancer, to make a living as a journalist. There are fewer and fewer outlets out there, especially for investigative reporting. It's a dwindling pool, I guess.”
“…The more services that can be available for freelance investigative journalists, the better. There's not nearly enough, and they're doing a great thing simply by adding to the family of organizations that do this kind of support work. [FIRE is] offering a unique service in how narrow and targeted it is.”
“…When we are in our routines of working, even if we work for many years as journalists, we tend to lose of sight of some of these basics of the profession. It was very inspiring for me to talk to [FIRE], and I have to confess, I even thought after these mentoring opportunities, well I have to create something like this in my country, because it is a complete novelty.”
“FIRE didn't ask me for anything; they just gave me something. They were not expecting for me to present an outcome of the mentoring conversation I had. That’s very positive for me. They were not expecting me to deliver in exchange, and in the world we are living now, that's rare. That's perfect.”
“More and more of us are working on our own, because we’re covered by news organizations anymore. Having a place that has resources is enormously helpful.”
“I'd be going it alone a lot more, if it wasn’t for FIRE. I think it would have taken a lot longer to get to the point… it would have taken a lot of research if I hadn't been able to connect with a state expert through FIRE. They walked me through things pretty quick.”
“We are in the era of the isolated journalist. Not only the freelancer working at home, but even in newsrooms, people are very isolated, with the gadgets, computers, social networks. Sometimes it's not the editor that we are working with who is the best person to give us some advice, or to enlighten us about the certain path we want to or should follow. I think [FIRE] is a very good idea; I was very inspired by my experience.”
“[FIRE] offers all the tools to a freelance journalist that a newsroom would: all the databases you need for data and legal records. For me, that's been the key thing. But there's also other components [FIRE offers] that are not offered in newsrooms, like feedback on putting together a FOIA, and even one-on-one consulting and advising about how to manage your freelance career: how to do taxes, get deductions, that kind of thing.”
“Although I'm writing for [a major national outlet], they couldn't provide access to records or databases. They offer them [only] for their ... reporters…. At the heart of it, the only way I've been able to do this story is because of that access.”
“Those of us who are in the freelance world, there's not an enormous amount that we have going for us. The one thing we do have is time and independence to do these weird stories where you have to be a fly on the wall forever, or pursue long shot things, or to do stuff that would be shot down in regular newsrooms. Only weirdos doing it from their bedroom in their PJs are well suited to do certain kinds of stories. As one of those weirdos, I think it’s useful to have support. People who are drawn to those sorts of things often don't have the requisite background in knowing where to dig and records requests and that kind of stuff.”
“To me, FIRE seems to care the most about helping journalists who don't necessarily have a homebase in a newsroom. They provide support that you'd otherwise have if you worked in one, or were doing a project for one.”
“I think Fire is critical because they speak up for independent and freelance journalists in a hands-on, concrete way. They've taken time to do surveys and figure out what is it like today to be a freelance writer doing investigative or deeply reported pieces, and to understand what resources are available. FIRE is the one institution trying to figure out what exactly our day-to-day life is like, and has tried to find ways to fill in holes that have been ignored-- the gaps that the foundations don't even know exist.”
“When I was talking to [FIRE], I definitely found it it helped focus and motivated me. I felt a bit stuck as to what direction I wanted to take my story in, and [FIRE] helped me feel less stuck.”
“[FIRE] was actually a lot more helpful than I thought they would be. Originally, I was lackluster about the services because we already had another grant. We’d done pretty large investigative projects before where we had done the data and logged all the interviews ourselves. I thought, maybe we don't really need this. We certainly applied because of the money, not because of the services, but ultimately the services have turned out to be even more helpful than we originally assumed. But at the same time, this project was a no-go without the money.”
“We had a continuum of lawyers [through FIRE] who have written a correspondence demanding certain things, but have also helped by just getting on the phone. Having the attorney call and explain things is incredibly helpful. Before this grant, I would have said no, I wouldn't apply for something like help services without money, but now I realize having lawyers on your side is incredibly helpful.”
“I've just always been solo on my own laptop. Having perspective from [FIRE] was like, oh wow! It kind of opened up things I wouldn't have thought of, so it was really nice to just have, for the first time ever, someone edit me and help in kind of a strategic way. That was really nice.”
“Personally, in freelancing, I really like the ability to pursue stories that really interest me, but it can be really tough without having someone to bounce ideas off of or to get guidance from. Having a mentor and a planning situation could be nice. I want to regularly check in with someone who has experience… it doesn’t have to be an hour-long call, it could be fifteen minutes once a week. [FIRE] helped open things up and made things seem much more clear in a short amount of time. I feel like that bite-size mentorship would be kind of cool.”
“A lot of these other grants that we apply for would fly you out for a week long training, but then after that, you were just kind of left to your own devices. It's nice that this is consistent help for the duration of your project. You have access to lawyers that can help you, and you have access to newsroom assistance that can help you with data entry and transcribing. One of the things that really holds freelance journalists back is that we don't have access to those things on a regular basis. It's just really excellent that this grant gives you the feeling that you're working in a newsroom and access to those types of tools.”
“FIRE’s been able to put me in touch with other reporters who are familiar with the region [where I am working]. FIRE’s been good at keeping my attention on the story itself. I would not have gotten into my current project or been on top of following up on various reporting aspects. All of it has been really, really valuable... it's been quite impressive considering it's a pilot program.”
“What Fire recognizes is that more and more journalists still want to do journalism, but perhaps aren't able to work within news organizations. For me, I've been lucky [because] I've done contracts that hooked me up with the nonprofits, but there's only so many Pro Publicas and CIRs to work with. FIRE recognizes that people are doing this, and also that they might not necessarily be only doing this work. Freelancers might also be driving an Uber or a Lyft, or living off their wife. I might be living of my wife a little bit. That shouldn't dissuade people from embarking on big investigative stories. What happens with freelancers in particular is that we don't have the resources that reporters at big news organizations have. It’s easier to get discouraged or think, this is too big for me, I can't get it, I can't begin to do this, it's not worth pursuing. In some respects, FIRE gives feedback about whether the story is worth pursuing, while providing editorial feedback that helps encourage freelancers who work with limited funds to continue to pursue stories. I think that's very important.”
“I spoke with FIRE for 45 minutes or an hour, talking through the story ideas that came out of that original proposal… I used FIRE help with story shaping, because I had a couple of really good characters and ideas, but didn't know if they were an in-depth, hour-long investigative radio piece, or if they were a Time magazine profile. I didn’t know where to pitch. It was a really helpful conversation.”
“Other places will give you money, and they'll give you a desk and a phone line, and some friendly colleagues. Maybe you'll incidentally have a Lexus Nexus password. But in terms of really shaping a story, and the questions that FIRE asked were so much better and more detailed than anybody at any of those other [funding and support] organizations. I don't mean to be tearing them down at all, the others are really nice and generous. But they never got into the weeds about what exactly do you need and what exactly are you trying to answer and can I be a resource. So I felt like the actual services were so much more detailed and tailored than other places that want you to be a lot more together upfront in an application, but then don't really help you dig deeper necessarily or expect you to know where to dig.”
“What I found to be incredibly helpful was along the lines of story coaching, almost like the kind of conversations with an editor before you've really gone out on a story. When you're trying to conceive of the questions to ask, as you're trying to circle around who might this be for, and how might you pitch it, and what questions do you need to have answered in your own mind before you even tackle it. I've wanted that since I’ve worked at publications: a mentor or somebody you can call up and say what do you think of this? What interests you about this? What doesn't interest you? Can you help me sort through this mess of stuff going on in my head?”
“I had not seen anything like this before, in the sense that you know I was applying for some editorial help, which I think was brilliant. Usually, it's like a big commitment to a grant or big project, but the thing I needed was just a little bit of editorial direction and assistance. It was really, really helpful so that was neat…. I sort of felt like I'd come to a bit of a standstill and was pushing my way through, and just wanted to have a fresh pair of eyes on it from someone who's got experience in this area.”
“The most valuable thing I got through the help desk services was trying to think about what would get published. I think we fall in love with a story, but don't necessarily think about the other things.”
“For freelancers, encouragement is important, since we work all alone. I don’t know one other initiative that works with freelance investigative reporters. It’s crucial that [FIRE] continue their operations.”
“We are seeing people freelance more and more, and it makes me happy that people are recognizing and supporting independent media makers. What [FIRE] is doing is amazing and I hope they receive as much funding that they need to continue doing this for a very, very long time.”
“There's a need for [FIRE.] Absolutely. You know, it's hard to do in depth stories, and it's hard to get travel budgets and the support that we need. Years ago, I was a freelance photographer before I went to graduate school, and studied science and environmental journalism an eon ago. I've been writing for eighteen years now, but I've been a freelancer for much of my career in one of the mediums, and it's a lot harder now than it ever was before… It's just not easy for an adult human to make a living as a freelancer. We need every bit of help we can get. I know many, many colleagues who do different things to pay the bills, but if there's a project that you really want to do that's long-term project, you need help.” -Respondent #20
Reviews of Project Word director Laird Townsend, by writers he has edited
"Allowed me as a writer all of the freedom I have needed, while steering me away from pitfalls of my own making"
After working with him for a year and a half to produce an opinion piece that ended up on National Geographic News Watch, I just want to express my satisfaction with Laird Townsend as editor. I first worked with Laird over ten years ago, in his days as an editor for the San Francisco Bay Area-based environmental magazine Terrain. Laird has allowed me as a writer all of the freedom I have needed, while steering me away from pitfalls of my own making. He has been tireless in the pursuit of accuracy, constantly demanding facts to back up my assertions, repeatedly checking those facts and stories, refusing to allow anything that would jeopardize my structure or argument. The result was that I was able to take a subject quite on the margins of conventional opinion writing—Indigenous peoples and their little understood relationship with the natural world—and do it justice. It would have been a different work, less well thought out and less accurate, without Laird’s editing. In the end, the National Geographic essay has turned out to be a piece I am very proud to have written.
"Important to have more projects like Project Word, supporting the kind of time, dedication, on-the-ground reporting, and idealism that good journalism requires"
Last year, I embarked upon a big investigation about carbon markets, indigenous peoples, and tropical rain forests in Panama, despite having a limited environmental reporting background, and no idea whether the piece would find a home or even a funder. I soon realized this would be the greatest test, so far, of my journalism career. Thanks to Laird's patience, his big-picture view of environmental issues, and his knack for pushing my best qualities forward, I wrote a piece that I'm most proud of. Ours was the most collaborative experience I've had with an editor, in any other fellowship or publication. As the support for investigative stories continues to diminish, I believe it will be increasingly important to have more projects like Project Word, supporting the kind of time, dedication, on-the-ground reporting, and idealism that good journalism requires.
"A tireless and even-handed advocate for the story itself, and for all of those with a stake in it"
With his confident and collaborative approach to editing, Laird helped me shape a narrative that started with a lot of moving parts into a more streamlined, compellingly structured and reader-friendly story. Drawing on his long experience as a writer and editor, he offered consistently sensitive and insightful guidance. He has been a tireless and even-handed advocate for the story itself, and for all of those with a stake in it: the reader, whose intelligence and interest demands utmost respect; the author, whose vision and voice drive the story's telling; and the story's main characters, who deserve a clear and accurate representation of their perspective. Laird helped me keep all of these concerns at the fore throughout the revision, and I've learned a great deal from the process. It's been a great pleasure to work with Laird, and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again.
Freelance writer, contributor to The Nation
"Helped me break out of the cycle"
Project Word came at a critical stage in my career in which I was trying to begin focusing on producing magazine-length and magazine-quality work. Project Word took me step-by-step in turning what was just a vague idea into a viable, hard-hitting magazine article. By asking the right questions, requesting key bits of information, and pointing out weakness, Laird guided me in preparing a surefire pitch for an in-depth, investigative article. Without his help, this pitch would have shared the same fate of so many others: lost in the void of some generic e-mail address of a magazine editor. Editors at well-known magazines didn’t look at my proposals because I’ve never been published in a well-known magazine. Project Word [helped] me break out of that cycle. Working with such an experienced editor has been a valuable learning process. Now I know all the steps, from start to finish, and all the important elements in building a solid proposal. This alone greatly improves my chances of getting published in the future.
Author of Last Child in the Woods
"One of the best"
Laird Townsend was the editor of a lengthy article I did in 2006 for Orion magazine. I can't overstate how much Laird challenged me, both technically and conceptually. He is surely one of the best editors I've ever worked with. His dogged thoroughness and gentle guidance went far beyond what I had become accustomed to. The article turned out to be one of Orion's most successful, measuring by reader comment. That wouldn't have happened without Laird.
Computer educator and education author
"Constantly challenged me"
A good editor is someone who knows what you want to say better than you do and won’t let you finish until you have figured out a way to say it. I learned that from working with Laird. He constantly challenged me to refine not only my writing but my thinking. Yet he was so gentle with his critiques of my drafts and so interested in my ideas that I was always eager to get his next set of responses. In the end, not only was my article shorter and a whole lot better, I was a much better writer.
Former fellow of George Washington Williams Fellowship for minority journalists
"Helped me pull the gems"
As reporters and writers, it is essential to have good editors, especially when working on very long stories that can sprawl out in too many directions. I traveled the border for almost a year, documenting immigration and its effect on native communities who live along the border. I had collected a tremendous amount of material on the different nations (tribes) who lived there. With the help of editor Laird Townsend, I was able to bring focus to the material. He gave me useful suggestions and pushed me to my limits to clarify my story. His insistence that I re-interview some of the people helped bring even more detail to a complicated story. He helped me pull the gems from what I had collected, and made it a much stronger piece.