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Kirsten is a Singaporean freelance journalist, with bylines in CNN, Yahoo, Guardian, Al Jazeera and ABC. She’s also a social justice and human rights activist who’s actively involved in efforts to end the death penalty. You can find a list of her bylines here.
In 2016, she was named Advocate of the Year at the Singapore Advocacy Awards and a Champion of Gender Justice and Equality by AWARE.
She appears here as part of our stories to identify the evolving generation of professionals in the service of journalism.
What do you love about what you do?
I love the diverse experiences I get to have. In a single day I can go from interviewing someone in a very formal corporate setting to being surrounded by construction workers in a soup kitchen. It’s a real privilege to be able to see so many facets of life, to meet so many different people, and have the opportunity to learn or experience something new all the time.
Where do you struggle most?
I try to think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it all the time. I want, as much as possible, to be open to different perspectives, opinions and experiences, but to also be able to stand firm on my core values and principles.
It’s so easy to assume that everybody thinks — or should think — the way you do. It’s harder to try to reach people who think differently, while also sticking to what you believe is important. How do I reach out to people who have views that I find problematic — like sexism or xenophobia, for instance — and communicate with them without inadvertently making space for or validating misogynistic or racist views? To be honest, I don’t think I’ve cracked it…
What are some of the things you do in this job that would surprise people?
Almost every time I tell someone in Singapore that I’m an independent journalist covering politics and human rights they will make some sort of comment about how it’s a scary thing to do, or how I must be brave to do it… I think such reactions tell you a lot about the political environment of Singapore!
But what I think would surprise people is how un-scary — and really, unexciting — the day-to-day work is. There’s a lot of sitting alone in a room staring blankly at an empty Word document, trying to figure out what to write and how to write it.
I think it would also surprise people to find out how much work time is spent doing what is basically debt collection: pay your late invoices, people!
There aren’t that many young journos who’ve been able to blend moral courage and the clarity to express that view. Where did this come from?
I started volunteering at The Online Citizen, blogging and campaigning against the death penalty before I transitioned into full-time journalism, so by that point there was no way I could turn around and say that I wanted to be the “view from nowhere”.
I don’t believe in that “view-from-nowhere” school of journalism, anyway. Every journalist has his or her viewpoint, based on his or her upbringing and place in life. That’s why diversity in newsrooms — be it gender, race, class, or sexual orientation — is so important.
I don’t think truly objective reporting exists, but honest reporting does.
I don’t insert myself and my opinions into every piece, but I want people to know where I’m coming from, and to make up their own minds.
You’re not just a reporter — you’re a critical observer of society and political trends in Singapore. How would you describe the lens that you apply in describing what you see in Singapore?
I’ve learnt over time that it’s important to think in terms of power: who has power, over whom, and how does this affect the interaction/relationship?
When it comes to Singapore “big-P” Politics, it’s easy to say that the power is all in one place. But life isn’t just about “big-P” Politics; there’s huge range of exchanges, experiences and situations, and power applies in all of them.
Power also shifts from one person to another in different contexts: I might be at a disadvantage when dealing with government agencies because they are the ones with the power, but I could then turn around and be the one with more power when I interview a migrant domestic worker, because my choices, considerations and actions aren’t constrained by the many restrictions that she has to deal with.
It’s not the only lens to look at the world with, but I’ve found this to be a crucial part of understanding things that are happening around me, not just in Singapore but everywhere I go.
Our story on Kirsten's Singapore-based news startup
Which of your stories are you most proud of?
When I read this question, the first thing that came to my mind was the story of Greece’s public broadcaster, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, better known as ERT. I wrote a few stories about ERT: how the Greek government suddenly shut it down and how the staff occupied their workplace in protest.
My then-fiancé and I first arrived in Greece in 2013 as a young couple; Calum was shooting a documentary about the shutdown of ERT for his Masters dissertation project. We weren’t entirely sure what we were going to find when we arrived. It was my very first time in Greece; I had to give myself a mini-crash course in Greek politics and the Eurozone crisis because I knew next to nothing about it all before then.
We met incredible people, people who were brave and so generous with their time and energy to entertain two journalism students who had a bunch of school equipment but no promise of big headlines. It was obvious that what was happening with ERT was much bigger, much more complex and much more emblematic of Greece’s problems under austerity than the international news cycle was making it out to be. I wrote my first story on ERT for Waging Nonviolence, which you can find here.
Greece stuck with us so much that we chose to go back to Thessaloniki for our honeymoon right after getting married in 2014. By then, the international press had moved on; the Athens headquarters had been cleared out by riot police, so everyone thought that was the end of everything. But up north in Thessaloniki the ERT staff were still occupying their building, and still producing content. So I wrote a follow-up for Waging Nonviolence.
We went back again in 2015. Greece had a change in government; the leftist SYRIZA had won and things were supposed to be different. The new prime minister announced that ERT would be reinstated. But there were problems with that too; despite our desire for things to be nicely story-shaped with a beginning, middle and end, real life doesn’t often work out that way. When we got home after that trip, we wrote a longform piece about this story we’ve followed for two years: ‘Reclaiming the Signal’ for Compass Cultura. Neither of us have been able to follow the same story, or group of people, for such a long period of time since.
This experience was the ultimate reminder that the stories we tell as journalists aren’t just stories. The people, the struggle, the principles, the country… they’re all real, and there’s real impact.
What is the biggest thing you know today that you didn’t know a year ago about your career and writing?
The importance of saying “no” to things. In the early years of freelancing I felt I couldn’t turn down anything; I had to say “yes” and go for anything and everything that came along.
I’ve since learnt that not every job is worth doing, and it’s okay to turn things down if you don’t think it meets your needs, whether those needs are financial or personal.
And sometimes you’re just not a good fit for that particular job, and it’s not your fault; no one can be great at every job every time.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from an editor or mentor?
Before I became a full-time freelance journalist I worked as an assistant producer for an independent production company. My executive producer once said that while one should always strive to be a good journalist, one should always be a decent human being first. I’ve found this to be a crucial guiding principle; it’s influenced many of the choices I’ve made.
What advice do you have for people trying to build their careers as freelance journalists?
Get organised. As a freelancer, you’re a one-person businesses, and it’s constant juggling between pitches, stories, edits, invoicing, accounts… you need a way to stay on top of it all. Find a method of keeping track of things that works for you, and don’t get lazy about it!
What tips do you have about pitching and working with commissioning editors?
Don’t take rejections to heart. Pitch rejections are par for the course, and it’s not a reflection of your worth as a journalist, and not at all a reflection of your worth as a person! (Unless you’re a real asshole, but then you’d have a far bigger problem than pitch rejections…)
It’s not the end of the world when a pitch gets rejected. You can re-pitch it to other publications, you can rework it, you can shelve it until it becomes more timely, or maybe it just wasn’t that great an idea, and that’s fine too. Move on!
If someone came up to you seeking advice on whether he or she should get into journalism, what would you say?
I’d ask them to think hard about why they want to do it, and to really question themselves over whether that “why” is compelling enough.
The journalism industry is in a transition period at the moment, with publishers, editors, investors all casting about for viable, sustainable business models. It’s necessary but painful, especially for the journalists on the ground. You’re going to have periods where you ask yourself, “Why the hell am I even doing this?” And if you can’t answer that question in a way that motivates you on a very personal level, you’re not going to be happy.
As a media professional, what concerns you most about the future of the industry?
I’m concerned about how the industry treats freelancers.
Freelancing often evokes visions of millennials tapping away on shiny chrome laptops while eating waffles in cafes.
It gives you freedom and flexibility and the chance to be your own boss. And that’s true — I do like waffles — but…
Freelancers are also in very precarious positions. We don’t have the protections that full-time staffers do. We aren’t entitled to sick leave, or any other sort of leave — I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2014 and had only one job as a freelance stringer that gave me a month’s paid leave, and it was unheard of. We also aren’t entitled to things like severance pay; publications can pick us up and drop us any time they like.
On top of that, all the freelancers I know are struggling, or have struggled, with late payments, or being ripped off. This isn’t true of all publications — many are a joy to work with — but there are too many instances of being paid late, of having to devote time and energy chasing and chasing after money that was due ages ago, of always being the last to get paid.
This profoundly affects the industry. When I was doing my post-grad in journalism in the UK, I read about news organizations expecting young journalists to do unpaid internships, with no guarantee of employment afterwards. Journalists would either freelance for little pay, or have to do these free internships.
One article I read summed up the problem: this model essentially means that it’s not so much a competition about skills and character, but about whose mummy and daddy are able to finance living costs for longer. I myself have survived in freelancing this long because I’ve been lucky enough to have support structures that enable me to weather slow months, months where I barely made anything. Not everyone has that privilege. And it’s not good when journalists only come from one segment of society.
And honestly, this isn’t just about the media industry. Freelancing is popping up everywhere. Sometimes we give it a fancy name so it sounds like a new development: the gig economy. But we’re seeing an increasing segment of the labour force operating with very little protection, very little stability, and employers having very little responsibility for them. It’s an exploitative cycle that will have ramifications for various industries but also for the economy as a whole.
This is something everyone should be worried about, even those who currently have full-time positions. Just think about it: if us freelancers are so cheap and easy to exploit, what’s to stop your for-profit organisation from one day replacing you with one of us?
If you could choose one media problem to solve with tech, what will it be?
It would be great if someone could invent software that automatically subtitles footage. There’s a tiny corner of Hell that’s just a desk, a computer, and a never-ending stream of footage that needs to be subtitled… I’m trying to be a good person in this life so I don’t end up there.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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