Leading Millennials: Didem Tali, freelance reporter

Didem Tali is a freelancer reporter working across major news media around the world, including The New York Times, BBC and Al Jazeera. She’s a regular contributor at News Deeply, reporting about refugees, as well as women and girls in the Global South.

Didem appears here as part of our stories to identify the evolving generation of professionals in the service of journalism. Email her at didem.tali@gmail.com or follow her here on Twitter.


You’ve been freelancing for about five years now. What do you love about what you do?

Freelance journalism makes me feel really powerful — in the sense that I can take a notice of an important, yet under-looked issue, pitch it to my editors, and in a few weeks, there will be thousands of people reading about it. And who knows, maybe one of those readers will be in a position to do something about the issue I am highlighting in my story.

On a personal level, I love the flexibility and plenty of travel opportunities this career path affords me.

Would you consider working in-house in a newsroom?

It’s no secret that newsroom environments can be pretty cut-throat and intense. But I would consider, if the right opportunity came along and I feel assured that I would be working with kind and compassionate colleagues.

Which of your stories are you most proud of?

In 2016, I was a recipient of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund and travelled remotely in the Peruvian Amazons to investigate the issue of illegal logging and its impact on the indigenous communities. I camped in villages that had no income other than the illegal logging activities, breathed that dusty air and woke up to the sound of woodcutters.

I talked to the illegal loggers themselves, most of whom were armed, as well as many indigenous people. The stories and photos I produced were by the Irish Times and I was quite proud of the fieldwork I have done.

It’s fair to say that I became a financially sustainable freelance journalist by trial and error and figuring most things on my own. Being a freelance journalist is basically running a small business.
Photo provided by Didem Tali

You studied sociology at undergrad, and you did your Master’s in Media. How did these prepare you for a career in freelance journalism?

My degrees honed my analytical skills and my focus on international development during my studies increased my awareness about the issues I am reporting about. That said, I have to say the formal degrees didn’t prepare me at all for the business side of freelance journalism — and I am not sure if a degree can prepare you for it at all. It’s fair to say that I became a financially sustainable freelance journalist by trial and error and figuring most things on my own. Being a freelance journalist is basically running a small business.

Remember that you’re a small business and act accordingly. Also, a friendly professionalism goes a really long way.

What tips do you have about pitching and working with commissioning editors?

Familiarize yourself with the type of content they produce and figure out the soft spot of the editors, by reading their previous work or following them on Twitter.

Journalism pitches are essentially are micro business proposals and you’re selling a product to someone. Remember that you’re a small business and act accordingly. Also, a friendly professionalism goes a really long way.

What advice do you have for newsrooms who work regularly with freelancers? What’s the best way to bring out the best in freelancers in the industry?

I’d like them to always remember that a journalist-editor relationship is a two-way exchange. I’ve had the fortune of working with many incredible editors who supported my work and gave thoughtful feedback.

But I’ve also had my fair share of grumpy editors trying to lowball freelancers, demanding the world and offering little in return. So my advice to them is, please treat us like humans and pay us fair rates and on time, seriously. You are not doing us a favor by assigning us a story.

Also, please don’t sit on a story for months on end. Most of us freelancers wouldn’t dream of missing a deadline by three months. So it’s not cool when you give us a deadline, we submit the story timely and don’t hear from you for months.

Are you OK with spending days in a refugee camp in physically challenging conditions for an extra story and then submit it and not even receive a thank you message from an editor?

If someone came up to you seeking advice on whether he or she should get into journalism, what would you say?

Journalism is not an occupation; it’s a calling. So my number one advice to anyone who wants to get into journalism would be to ask, do you really, really want it? Are you willing to embrace a vague future where the labor is intense and the financial rewards are low?

Are you OK with spending days in a refugee camp in physically challenging conditions for an extra story and then submit it and not even receive a thank you message from an editor? How would you cope if you started to receive threats and if there was a realistic chance you could be jailed?

Are you willing to write a click-baity story when the funds are low? Especially if you are a woman of color like myself, will you handle discrimination, bullying and not being taken seriously?

The number one skill that a journalist needs to have isn’t good writing or research skills. It’s zen-master like patience and a skin thick as a rhino. Hence, the second advice I’d give a budding journalist would be to be patient. It takes a lot of time, resilience, cash-flow issues, and hundreds of frustrating rejections to build a respectable journalism portfolio. But hang in there. Everyone has a unique perspective and stories to tell, and if this is really your calling, it’ll probably be worth it in the end.

As a media professional, what concerns you most about the future of the industry?

The era of the “alternative facts” and the polarization of media, with everyone being happy in their choice of media bubble make me quite worried.

I am guilty of this too. I tend to read and work for liberal and progressive media outlets. Sometimes it feels like the work I do is futile, as I feel I am preaching to the converted if I highlight important issues. And I am afraid that the polarization will only get worse.


Leading Millennials

We’re looking for people with an elasticity in their views of media and journalism. It’s rare.

The faces of people in the service of journalism are often found on stage. They are often the heads of their newsrooms. They are often men. There’s little space on stage for the younger people sitting further down the hierarchy of these newsrooms. I want to tell their stories because some of them could one day redefine this industry.

So if you want to be featured here (or know of someone who should), drop me an email. I’m alansoon@thesplicenewsroom.com.