Joris, when did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?
I never really made a conscious decision to become a journalist, to be honest. Sure, it featured on my list of interesting jobs, but there was never an exact moment when I said to myself, “Now I’m going to become a journalist.”
That said, I’ve always known that I wanted to travel and to write. Combine the two and there are not many options left if you also want to earn a salary. Somebody who has influenced me immensely and whom I admire a lot is the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinksi. His writings — especially his work on Africa — opened new worlds to me, and it made me realize the power of the written word. If books can serve to introduce us to worlds unknown, they can also play a role in changing the world around us — and that’s when I realized what I wanted to do.
How does a young person become an experienced journalist?
Writing. That’s it. Write a lot, and hope that somebody somewhere finds it good enough to be published. Don’t expect to be paid, just try to get published. The thrill of seeing your own work published somewhere — online or in print — for the first time is the best motivation to keep going, better than any pay check!
Journalism is not something you learn from a book. You learn it in the field, by talking to people, observing the world around you, and then trying to convey what you have seen into words and sentences. At the same time it is important that you have in-depth knowledge of the topic you’re writing about, so in that regard it is important to study a lot. Read books, learn from other journalists’ work, and try and get feedback on your articles.
Was it hard to find organizations that actually paid you to write for them?
Yes. The golden age of journalism is over. The combination of the internet and smartphones has turned everyone into a potential citizen journalist. The flow of information has been collectivized, and is no longer the exclusive property of a few mainstream media outlets. On the one hand, this is a very good development because we know more about what’s happening in the world around us than ever before. On the other hand, it has taken the production of news out of the hands of professionals, meaning that in terms of quality, trustworthiness, and ethics much is left to be desired.
I’m saying all of this because these developments have led to a massive decrease in the funds available for quality journalism. At the same time, it has also created many more platforms where beginning writers can have their work published. They just don’t pay a lot.
Do you get the chance to write stories you believe in, or do you have to write what sells?
I only write stories I believe in. As I explained before, the realization that journalism can play a role in changing the world for the better was one of my main motivations for pursuing this line of work. I also occasionally write essays or articles for free because I have a certain message or story that I want to get out and bring to the public’s attention.
I’m not doing this work for the money — I don’t think anyone who really believes in journalism does it for the money — and this means that I simply refuse to write anything I don’t agree with. I’d rather make no money, than make it that way.
What is it like to operate in politically unstable areas?
“Operate” makes it sound like I’m on a mission of some sort, but that’s not at all the case. I live in Turkey; my home, my wife and my two feline housemates are here. I’m not in Turkey for my work; I work in Turkey because that’s where I live.
This makes my attitude towards the situation in Turkey a bit ambiguous. On a professional level it is incredibly interesting to be here and to experience such important historical developments first hand. On a more personal level, I can see many of the difficulties, fears, and worries people around me are experiencing, and this affects me too.
How do you generally find what’s an interesting story to write about?
Haha. In Turkey nowadays you just have to look out of the window to find something interesting to write about! It is unbelievable how fast everything is developing here.
My general belief is that anything can be turned into an interesting story, it depends on how you approach and present your topic. Someone selling bread rolls on the street can be just that; someone selling bread rolls on the street. But this person can also represent something else, he can be a migrant worker who moved to the city, a great-great-grandson of the first bread roll seller of Istanbul, or somebody who lost his job and home because of a financial crisis: stories are everywhere, you just have to look for them.
Have you ever gotten into trouble for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for asking too many questions?
Being a critical journalist in a politically unstable environment is not the safest job in the world. Turkey is known for its harsh stance towards critics of the government, and in the past few years a number of foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country – not to speak of the many local journalists who have ended up in prison. Luckily I haven’t yet been in trouble myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if and when this happens.
Do you find being at the frontlines gives you a clearer notion of ‘the truth’ or is it sometimes even more confusing?
Good question. Yes, this is absolutely a problem. Especially in times of crisis it is very difficult to get clear information. You can speak to five different people, and all five of them will tell you a different story. But this in itself is also something to write about, of course.
Just to be clear, I haven’t been on the “frontlines” of any armed conflict, but I did spend some time on the Turkish border with Syria when the town of Kobane was under attack in mid-2014. As you point out, while in the field it is very difficult to collect hard “facts”. But, as I see it, the purpose of going out there is to learn about the people’s experiences, to see first-hand what they are going though. To listen, to learn, to smell, to see, etc. This will be reflected in your writing, really bring the story to life and thus make it more likely that your readers will be moved by your work.
Could you offer some advice to young people who aspire to become journalists in troubled areas?
First, try and become a journalist in a less troubled area. There’s no point risking anything if you don’t even know whether people will be interested in reading your work, or whether you can even write, for that matter. As I pointed out above, there are stories to be found everywhere. There is no secret formula that turns bad journalism into good journalism if the subject is adventurous enough. Bad stories have been written about the most exciting events, and great stories have been written about the most boring, everyday routines. If you want to write, by all means write. If you want to become a journalist, you certainly should. But there’s no point in rushing, and definitely not in taking unnecessary risks.