Priyanka Dubey is in the big bad world all by herself – but far from being intimidated by it, she’s out there armed with a mic and camera and shoots adversary in the face, literally and figuratively. This freelance journalist has indeed seized the freedom that comes with the term to pursue matters and issue that have been keeping her up at night, no holds barred – qnd this relentless work as an investigative journalist won her much acclaim, including the Knight International Award this year. How does one see the light of day on one’s own two feet in a surprisingly institutionalized industry? How does one make the most of having the freedom to bark up every door? Dubey gives us an account in this exclusive interview with Binjal Shah for Shethepeople.tv.
Q. What made you chose to freelance, rather than associate full-time with a corporate news organization?
I decided to go freelance after spending the initial 4 years of my career in corporate houses. I spent most of my regular ‘working with news organization’ years at Tehelka magazine and Hindustan Times. My experience of working at a ‘regular news organization’ led me to go freelance, as I increasingly felt that I was spending a lot of time doing stories I did not want to. I realized that I could not afford to spend time on anything that I do not actually badly and desperately want to do – well, because I have very little time.
The life of an active reporter can be cut short due to 1000 reasons beyond his/her control. I strongly believe that years of active reporting are the most precious years of any reporter’s life. And there are so many untold, urgent and important stories out there. The insane times that we are living in today, I think it is the responsibility of those who have survived, to tell the stories of those who died. I chose freelance because I wanted to narrate stories of those who are forced on margins of Indian democracy.
Q. What are the positives of being an independent female professional? We on the other side tend to romanticize it – not having to scale up the hundred rungs of a corporate – but I’m sure it also comes with its occupational hazards. Give us a virtual tour of both sides.
You need to turn yourself into your own manager to work as an independent journalist. For example, for sending pitches to lining up sources to doing tickets, arranging travels, fixing accommodations, then travelling alone for months , then writing long copies, then working on edits then keeping a tab of invoices and then running around to track that misplaced payment cheque, it’s a lot of work. And it can be done only if you turn into your own manager, Working independently requires a lot of planning and management skills. I personally have fixed schedules for at-least 3-4 months in advance. And if you are working on two or three stories or a story and an essay or a story and a book at the same time, you need to be even more detailed in your planning. Other thing is that freelancing is very lonely. You became an email address for most people. And given the stories that I have been, I feel more alone. Which is good as well as bad – I get a lot of head space to think about the issues I am working on. And once you develop a rough routine for yourself, it helps in keeping you on track. In other words, you have self disciplined and work according to your schedule even when no one is watching.
Q. You have made gender issues and investigative reporting your turf – both of which happen to be among the more challenging beats. Did any roadblocks surface for you when you ventured into this terrain not backed by an organization?
All depends on the network and sources through which you are operating on ground. Different networks and different modus operandi work for different settings. And picking up the right route at the right place always minimizes risks. I have a decent network to fall back on. But of course, the whole work process becomes difficult as a freelancer. You are on your own completely without any organizational support. Especially in terms of logistics, human resource support on ground and legal implications of stories. Also it becomes bit difficult because sometimes people just refuse to cooperate without the name of any big organization to back you. You mostly have to bank on your self-confidence to get things done.
Q. Being a freelance journalist definitely entails a lot of solo travel, right? Do you enjoy that part of the job? And is the experience liberating and empowering?
Yes, travel is one of the best parts of my work. Travels helps in keeping you rooted and it always makes you more humble. When you travel you realize that the world is huge and you are not even one millionth part of the smallest dot in the world. This makes me more responsible towards my work – and probably less concerned with trivial everyday issues of my own existence. Also, good field work does not only brings you closer to your subject and deepen your understanding, but it also reflects in your writing.
Q. You may have sensed the pulse of the women’s movement across the country to a large extent. Any noteworthy readings of its trends – or any revelations you have perhaps witnessed?
We are talking more about women issues, which is a good thing, and the first step of course. But the broader discourse is still very much Delhi-Bombay rich elite class centric. The situation is worse outside our utopian urban islands and largely under reported. Keeping the conversation going on and at the same time trying to make it more inclusive can make things better, I suppose.
Q. You have made it to the heart of the industry, and you get to rightfully declare that you have done so on your own merit. What factors would you attribute your success to, and what has been your support system?
I am still not sure about the whole concept of success. But I think I am at peace doing the work that I always wanted to do. A few habits have really helped me along my way. Like reading, taking notes, looking for details and walking. Discipline, persistence and self organization are a must. Then, it’s all about passion and love for your work which keeps you going. Above all, the key elements have been a lot of compassion and sensitivity.
Q. What would be your advice to young aspirants who want to start off on their own?
It is always a good idea to work in a news organization before going freelance. Read a lot. Figure out outlets you would like to write for. Read these outlets more often. Make a routine and try to stick to it. Discipline is a must when you have work alone. Be persistent. Use your time carefully. For example, you can use your net surfing time to look for different kinds of fellowships and grant supports available for independent journalists to gather support for your work projects.