Why you need a fixer and how to find one

If you’re going abroad to report for the first time – or even the 100th — you’re probably going to need a fixer.

What is a fixer? In no particular order: a guide, a personal assistant, a secretary, a translator, scheduler, social secretary, driver, restaurant critic, travel agent, safety consultant, a cutter of red tape, and an interpreter of local customs.

A fixer can get you out of trouble, and just as important, keep you from getting into it.

A good fixer makes your job a pleasure; a bad one is miserable.

Simply put, a fixer is a locally based person hired to help you do your job as a visiting journalist.  While some of the tasks that fixers traditionally performed for correspondents can be easily handled through the wonders of the Internet, they remain invaluable colleagues, the unsung heroes of foreign reporting.

This how-to is designed to teach you how to find fixers, evaluate them and work with them to make your journalism better.


WHY DO YOU NEED A FIXER?

Unless you are completely fluent in the language of the country you are planning to visit, you will need a fixer’s help to translate your interviews.

But a fixer can do much more than that.

In this day and age, it’s easy enough to scope out a decent hotel on the Internet and even book a reservation.  But a fixer can tell you whether that hotel is in a good location, close to the people who you wish to interview – or that you’re in for a lot of long, expensive taxi rides to get where you need to be.  And the fixer probably can come up with a better alternative.

A fixer also can help schedule your reporting agenda, a particular help if you aren’t fluent in the local language.  Though it is far easier than ever before to place overseas telephone calls, that does you no good if you can’t communicate with the person on the other end of the line.  Conversely, a call to your fixer (or an e-mail) can get the scheduling process rolling and save you valuable time once you arrive in the country.  If you only have a week to report, you don’t want to spend two days trying to find people to talk to you!  A fixer can do that in advance.

And while it’s always good to do research about the social and business customs of a country, a person who lives in the country is often a terrific resource.  For example, you can seek advice on appropriate attire for your interviews, or whether it’s a better idea to rent a car or hire a driver for your stay.  If you need a driver, a fixer should be able to arrange one for you.

It’s also important to note that while you can scour travel guides to soak up knowledge about a place before you arrive, conditions can change almost overnight.  Sometimes that’s an annoyance if the restaurant you read about and want to try has closed; more crucial is whether a previously safe area has turned into a no-go zone.  Only a local could be expected to be on top of the situation.


HOW DO YOU FIND A FIXER?

Let’s hear from Evan Osnos, a longtime correspondent in the Middle East and China for the Chicago Tribune, and later with the New Yorker magazine. He’s worked with local journalists in dozens of countries.

    “I usually start with other foreign correspondents, to see if someone has worked with a local partner on a previous visit and can make a recommendation. If this doesn’t work, then I contact editors at the local newspaper and ask if they know anyone. (Often, one of their staff members has worked as a fixer for visiting journalists.)

    “The next route is the Associated Press, and on occasion I’ve found that the local AP bureau has a staffer or a stringer who is interested in picking up some extra work.

    “If none of those work, then I might try local or international NGOs that are involved in the issues I’m addressing — say, health or conflict resolution or politics or the environment — to see if they have any ideas.”

That’s solid advice.  The best route is to get a recommendation from another correspondent, because the person who comes recommended generally has a strong understanding of your needs as a reporter and will know how to meet them.  It’s also likely that they will have some sense of your perspective, and what kind of story you are hoping to tell.

In the same vein, it’s also best to try to find a journalist to help you.  They’ll have their own sources that they might be willing to share with you, and they’ll have a better idea of how to go about lining up an interview with an important official.   They might even mean the difference in getting an interview or not – a busy public official might be all too willing to turn you down, but not the reporter who is there day after day.

And journalists by their very nature tend to be adaptable, nimble, resourceful and not at all cowed by the challenges that inevitably crop up along the way.

So how do you find one?

A Google or Nexus search is one way to start.  Find out the names of reporters working in the area, or who have visited recently.   From there, it’s usually not too difficult to track down an e-mail address for the reporter and fire off a query.

Plan B of contacting the local AP office is also easy; a list of AP offices and their telephone numbers can be found here. Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg News also maintain offices worldwide and may be valuable contacts.

Web searches also can help you identify the local newspaper, a potential source of journalists who might have the necessary language skills and are happy to pick up some extra money.

Freelance journalists can be great fixers; during my time in South America more than half of my fixers were native English speakers living in a foreign country.  As long as you are clear with them that you will do your own reporting and that you need them mostly for translation, things can work out fine. More on that later.

Another possibility is to scour the web for social media sites or online forums catering to journalists and ask for help there.

As a last resort, try contacting local colleges in hopes of finding a student who is fluent in English.  This can be helpful but don’t get your hopes up.  A student probably won’t understand what you need.  They can be a pleasant companion and tour guide, and can make sure a taxi driver won’t rip you off, but they likely won’t have the doggedness of a journalist in helping you get your interview. They almost certainly won’t have a street reporter’s instinct for helping you stay out of trouble.

In the same vein, good hotels can often help arrange for professional translation services.  But that will be expensive, and don’t expect any help beyond the translation.  Still, if you’re faced with an important interview and aren’t sure whether you will be able to communicate . . . . it’s better than nothing.

Sometimes a foreign government will offer to provide a fixer/translator for you.  Bad idea.  At best, you’ll be working with someone who doesn’t have your interests as his or her priority.  You won’t want to interview dissidents or people who might be critical of the government if you are working with a government representative. And you can expect that all of your movements, and probably the substance of your interviews, will be reported back to the government.

Laurie GoeringEvery now and then, you get lucky.  Laurie Goering, another longtime Trib correspondent, met one of her most treasured fixers when he volunteered to translate as she tried to interview a crowd of Iraqis shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.  When he showed up again the next day,  she hired him.

“Over the next three weeks, Fakher became my interpreter, my unlikely bodyguard, my dear friend and my chief source of insight into Iraqi society,” she later wrote in the Tribune. “We slept in the dirt beside my four-wheel-drive as rocket-propelled grenades shook the ground. He found fuel and food when both were scarce; he translated verses of the Koran to help me understand his fervent faith. More than once, he saved my life.”

A fixer doesn’t get better than that.


CARE AND FEEDING OF A FIXER

Obviously, a fixer wants to be paid.  Rates are not written in stone but vary by location, the situation, and by the experience of a fixer.   Negotiate up front, and don’t try to chisel.  If a fixer resents you from the outset, you’re asking for trouble.

Some things that should be negotiated in advance:

  • Are you going to pay by the day, by the hour, by the assignment?  Any approach can work, but it’s most common to pay by the day.
  • If you need the fixer for only a half day, will the fixer be paid for a full day?
  • What will you pay for the work the fixer does before your arrival? (Some want to be paid per-day; others will agree to a set fee; others will do it for free.)
  • Will the fixer work exclusively with you while you’re in town? I once had a fixer who quit on me in the middle of a reporting trip because a more regular client came in on an unexpected visit and needed her assistance.  While I understood, I never hired her again.
  • If you travel together, who is responsible for the fixer’s costs? (You might be able to negotiate here.)
  • What exactly do you need? If you’re coming in to cover a breaking news story with lots of fast-moving developments, you may need the fixer to write up a daily summary of the newspapers, or monitor social media, or watch the daily news broadcasts and translate them for you.  If you are going to write feature stories, that may not be necessary.
  • Can the fixer line up a photographer if necessary? (Note: Some freelancers also shoot pictures or video.  If they’re fixing for you, they might try to pick up extra money by being your photographer as well. But it’s pretty difficult for a photographer to do her work and be your translator at the same time.)
  • Is there anything the fixer can’t or won’t do?  Some resent being asked to do clerical work; some want to work only during regular business hours.  Some can’t travel.   Some have a regular job and have to spend at least part of the day in the office.  Ask in advance and either work around it or find someone else.
  • Sometimes, if a fixer is also a freelance journalist, she will want to use the information you discover together in the course of reporting.  Before agreeing to this, talk to your editor.  Generally it’s not a good idea.  You might find that your trusty assistant has begun asking her own questions that have nothing to do with your story but everything to do with her own, eating up the 20 minutes you have been granted for your interview.  At the very least, the fixer should agree to not publish anything until after your work appears.  Be very clear about your expectations in this regard.

What you should expect:

  • Honesty.  You want a fixer who will tell you if he thinks a certain trip is too dangerous, or if he thinks your interpretation of events is wrong.  While you have the ultimate responsibility for your journalism, be open to that advice.
  • Discretion.  Fixers who work with multiple correspondents sometimes are asked what their other clients have been working on.  They should be as circumspect as a priest.
  • Punctuality.
  • Resourcefulness.  If interview “A” falls through, the best stringers will have ideas for an alternative and scramble to get it.  The worst shrug and suggest that there’s nothing to be done.

What a fixer should expect of you:

  • Honesty.  Be clear about your expectations up front.  Don’t let problems fester.
  • Respect.  Don’t disparage your fixer’s country, no matter how frustrated you become and even if the fixer disparages it himself. You might be appalled by the conditions, or think that the locals are rude, or be offended in some other way. Keep it to yourself.  If your fixer is offended on your behalf, you’ll know it.
  • Discretion.  In some countries, fixers who work with Western journalists can face reprisals, either from hoodlums or the government.  Be aware of this and take pains to protect them.
  • Generosity.  When you’re on a long day of reporting, you cover all the obvious expenses – and the small ones too.   Buy your fixer a good meal.  If you stop for a coffee or soft drink, it’s on you.
  • Punctuality.  Show up on time.
  • And always remember – you are going home after your assignment.  Your fixer isn’t.  Don’t do anything that could endanger your fixer after you leave.  If you offend a fixer’s trusted source, it may not affect you in the slightest but it could have repercussions for your fixer in the future.

Pay in cash at the end of your trip, and get a receipt for your home office.  Foreign checks can be impossible to cash, and fluctuating exchange rates can make a check depreciate from the moment it’s written.  Some fixers will prefer to be paid in U.S. dollars and some will prefer the local currency.  Ask up front.

Having said all this, what’s a fair rate?

It depends.  Most experienced fixers have a set rate and will tell you what it is.  You might get them to come down a bit, but not much.  A college student doing this for the first time might be thrilled with $50 a day plus a couple good meals, but you’ll get what you pay for.

In general, plan on $100-$300 a day, and perhaps double that if other correspondents are pouring into town to cover a big news event.  Demand will skyrocket and the best fixers will understand that they have a chance for a big payday.


WHAT YOUR FIXER SHOULD – AND SHOULDN’T – DO

First things first.  A fixer does not report for you.   If there are questions to be asked, you ask them and you listen to the response – even if you do not understand the words.  If you need a description of a scene, you go there and see it for yourself, even if you would rather spend the time writing or relaxing.

You may hear tales of how some correspondents send their fixers out to do man-in-the-street interviews, or more.  And there have been correspondents who allowed their fixers to report their stories almost entirely.  The fixer would do all the work and the correspondent would arrive on the scene to pick up a sheaf of notes.  Then the correspondent would quickly bang out a story to get a dateline under his byline, with no recognition of the fixer’s contribution.

Don’t do that.

At best, you’re misleading your readers.   More bluntly, it’s unethical behavior that might – and probably should – get you fired.

Are there exceptions to this rule?  Yes, but they should be few and far between.  For example, there are instances when it is simply too dangerous for an outsider to venture into a particular area, but the story demands it.  In that case, a trusted fixer might be asked to go in and do some reporting – but only as a last resort, and only after careful consultation with an editor to explain why you can’t go along as well.

But in such cases – or in any of the other extreme cases where your fixer might have do some actual reporting that winds up in your story – you should give your fixer credit for the work, possibly with a contributing line at the end of your story or even a joint byline.  If any of the reporting that appears under your name is not your own, you simply must be transparent about it.  And if you have any doubt, give credit.  It can save you a lot of grief later.

Those are the unusual cases.   More usual duties include:

  • Logistics.  You can expect a fixer to help you navigate the local area, advising you on the best means of travel and helping you find your way around.  They can book your hotels, line up drivers, make plane reservations or other travel accommodations.  They should know where you can get food, or clean water, or help you find a doctor if the need arises.
  • Sourcing. The best fixers know the people you need to interview, and can line up those interviews for you.  Need a phone number for a local alderman? They should have it or know how to get it.
  • Background knowledge.  You probably won’t have a sheaf of clips or other material on the people you’re meeting.  But your fixer might know them, or even have her own clip file.  They also can be a valuable source of insight into their society.  But avoid any temptation you might have to quote them in your stories.  They’re your employees, not your sources!
  • Social guide.  A good fixer can help you avoid disastrous gaffes, and will advise you on how to handle yourself in new and intimidating circumstances.  On the other hand, while it might be nice to buy your fixer a meal or drink, don’t expect them to entertain you after working hours.  They want to go home!
  • Safety consultant.  Street-savvy fixers can sense when a situation is turning dangerous.  If they tell you that it’s time to leave – leave.
  • Translation.  Perhaps the most important skill a fixer provides. See story in sidebar.
  • Most fixers are at least passable, strong in some areas and weaker in others.  Some turn out to be absolute gems, fully capable of being correspondents themselves.  But at times, you will run into an absolute horror.  It will not take you long to know it’s not working out.  Maybe they show up late.  Maybe their promised interviews never come through, or they have no ideas about people you should meet, or interview.  Maybe you’re just not getting along.

If that happens, start looking for another fixer and as soon as you find one, cut the other one loose.  If you are a traveling correspondent, you may only have a few days to get your reporting done.  You can’t waste any of them struggling with a useless fixer.


A FIXER’S POINT OF VIEW

Amy Qin

“Fixer” Amy Qin (and friend).

Amy Qin is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.  Besides a regular gig with the New York Times, she also works as a fixer for other journalists.

    “I’m sort of an outlier in the so-called fixer world mostly because I’m not a Chinese native. Some things are as foreign to me as they are to the journalists with whom I work. That said, for the most part, I think my experiences working as a fixer in China are for the most part probably pretty typical.

    “Journalists have all kinds of working styles. Sometimes they have done a lot of prior research for their piece and know exactly where they want to go, what they want to write about, and who they want to talk to. This is the best in a way, because it just means less work for the fixer! Also, itineraries rock. Other times journalists might tell you something they want to write about that’s very broad and they might want to play a reporting trip by ear. This can be a little stressful because it’s not always clear if you will be able to get the story needed … though sometimes this haphazard method can also produce spectacular results.

    “Some journalists expect you to do all the work (i.e. the background research, finding a suitable place for them to visit, making the necessary arrangements for interviews, transportation, and hotel, translate, transcribe, even analysis, etc. — not a small task each of these things.) They rely on you for everything. If you as a fixer were willing to provide it, I think they’d be happy if you did all the work and came back to them with a typed-up page of quotes with name, age, and occupation ready for them to pick from when writing (I have seen this happen). I think it’s pretty clear why this latter kind of journalist is the most frustrating and challenging to work with.

    “The other important thing to point out is that as a fixer, it is important that you are able to translate not just the language but also the culture. Journalists who work  in their own language and don’t need a fixer usually do all the work of relationship maintenance with sources and sweet talking or even strong-arming when it’s necessary. But when the journalist does not speak very much of the language (Chinese, in my case), it is up to you as the fixer to do much of the relationship building. In this division of labor, the journalists are responsible mostly for coming up with questions to ask and ideas about who to talk to and where to go. And then as a fixer, we are responsible for telling them if their questions or ideas are perhaps unreasonable, culturally insensitive, dangerous or just unlikely to yield the desired information. Oftentimes questions that might seem hard-hitting and reasonable to Americans might scare off certain Chinese people.

    “The fixer also has to deal with questions or complaints from the interviewees. This can be very exhausting, especially when an interviewee is upset with how he or she is portrayed in the final piece. More than once I have found myself on the phone with angry interviewees, and while it is up to me to defuse the situation, it can also be difficult because at the end of the day I didn’t write the story and it’s not my explanation that they want to hear.

    “Of course, my job is made easier when the journalist understands the culture better and has a decent grasp on which kinds of requests are reasonable and which are perhaps overoptimistic. At the very least, this saves time and work for the fixer.”


BACK AT HOME

If your fixer does a good job for you, it’s only fair that you serve as a reference for them.  If you know someone who’s going to the same region, recommend your fixer.  If you go back, hire them again.  Some of my fixers became good friends outside of work.

There is also growing concern among many journalists about the fixers who work in war zones, or in dangerous countries such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.  Many have been killed or badly injured while working for foreign correspondents – including Laurie Goering’s dear friend Fakher Haider.

This is Tim Phelps, a former foreign correspondent and editor for Newsday and other papers.

    Tim Phelps“It used to be that many foreign editors basically abdicated their responsibility for the safety of their own correspondents, by shrugging their shoulders and saying “Don’t get yourself killed.” Well fine, but you still want me to go there, right? 

    “. . . Now, the question is, how much responsibility does a news organization have for its fixers, drivers, etc. For example, does it attempt to make sure that it doesn’t take a fixer from one ethnic group into hostile territory? The bad guys might think twice about killing a journalist, but not at all about some local working for them.

    “Then there is the question of life insurance, remuneration, etc., just for being exposed in a war zone, and then to protect their families if they do get killed.”

There is likely no way to answer this question within the context of this essay.  But it certainly is something to consider if you are hiring people to work for you.

WHAT IF YOU’RE NOT GOING ABROAD?

Reporters based in the U.S. generally don’t need fixers for domestic reporting.   You should be able to do almost everything you need to do without on a local’s help.  Pre-interview research should be easy, thanks to Nexus and the internet, and logistics are simply handled online as well.  Translation is not an issue.

There are exceptions, of course.  If you’re sent to cover a natural disaster, you may need to hire someone with deep knowledge of the area to help you get around.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, some reporters scrambled to find people with boats who would help them get into flooded areas.

In some cases, a local can help you gain access to people who are suspicious of the press and strangers.  If you’re going into a particularly dangerous spot, it helps to have someone show you around.  Remember that as an outsider, you stand out.  You may be seen as a threat – or as a potential victim.  Traveling with a trustworthy local who is known in the community may not insulate you completely, but it can’t hurt.

And it never hurts to call a local reporter and offer to buy them a meal or drink in order to pick their brain about potential interview subjects and local developments.  Just don’t expect them to tell you anything they haven’t already reported.

Some larger papers that do a great deal of national reporting use freelance reporters to assist their correspondents, as well as to file some spot news stories.  These people generally are called stringers.  They may or may not serve as an editorial assistant when the staff correspondent comes to town. In addition stringers also may be asked to conduct interviews or do research for correspondents writing larger stories.  They should be given credit for their work in print.

Back to top of page.

Published June 6, 2014.

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ESSENTIAL TIPS AND WISDOM,
STRAIGHT FROM THE EXPERT

About the reporter

Kerry Luft is the Nation & World editor of the Chicago Tribune, where he has worked since 1985. He has held many positions at the paper, including Washington bureau chief, associate managing editor for national and foreign news and deputy metropolitan editor, among other leadership roles. In the mid-1990s he was a foreign correspondent based in Brazil, covering all of South America. While there, he was part of a reporting team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

He is a frequent lecturer on journalism at local colleges and universities and also has spoken to journalism conferences in China and Italy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

In his spare time, he is an avid competitive shotgun shooter and bird hunter.

@KerryLuft | Get in touch


Amy Qin

Amy Qin is a “fixer” in China. Read her perspective.


“Over the next three weeks, Fakher became my interpreter, my unlikely bodyguard, my dear friend and my chief source of insight into Iraqi society.

“We slept in the dirt beside my four-wheel-drive as rocket-propelled grenades shook the ground. He found fuel and food when both were scarce; he translated verses of the Koran to help me understand his fervent faith. More than once, he saved my life.”

— Former Chicago Tribune Reporter Laurie Goering.

WHAT ABOUT TRANSLATION?

In many cases, translation and/or interpretation are the most important duties a fixer can provide. But they are not easy to do, and some fixers are far better than others at it.

There’s nothing more frustrating than to watch a source light up and give a long statement in a foreign language, gesticulating and clearly giving a complex, thoughtful response to your question, only to have a translator say, “He says it’s not good.”

It happens, far more than you would like or expect. The diplomatic translators who can provide simultaneous translations at the United Nations or other multinational events are highly skilled and trained; you probably won’t find one of those. But you don’t necessarily need that, either.

You DO need a translation that is relatively swift and accurate, one that you are comfortable using in your reportage as a direct quote.

So how do you find a fixer who can also be a good translator?

“I have worked with fixers who know English very well, but struggle to give you translation that provides you with the detail and nuance of what the speaker is saying,” said Alex Rodriguez, a veteran correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. “It’s hard to vet that ahead of time—you can chat with a prospective translator before hiring him/her, but it’s not always practical to test them on their translation skills.

“So, beyond chatting with them to test their English first, I always made it clear that getting word-for-word translation was a prequisite to getting hired.”

Here are some tips for making sure you get a decent translation.

  • Make it very clear before you start your first interview that you expect an exact translation of words – even the interviewee’s little jokes and asides. Sometimes, those are more valuable than the actual direct response.
  • Go slowly. Don’t expect the translator to hear a long, complicated question and repeat it exactly. Better to ask your question in short bursts – and it’s also better to get your response the same way.
  • Sometimes, you will find that your interview subject is quite capable of speaking your own language but wants the translator there as a backstop. Play it by ear – if you think the subject is comfortable in your common language, go for it.
  • Sources will sometimes offer to provide their own translator. Resist this if at all possible. Your want your translator to be working for you, not your source.
  • Remember that working with a translator takes longer than a direct interview – sometimes more than twice as long as you work to clarify remarks. That means you have far less time than you might expect. Prepare accordingly.
  • If you have time, you might record your interviews and ask your translator to provide a transcript in your preferred language. This is tedious work but it can be quite helpful.
  • Take time to review what was said after the interview. Sometimes an interview subject will use local slang that has no direct correlation in your preferred language. You need to make sure you understand the context and what the source was trying to say. In this regard, you’re looking for interpretation as well as literal translation.
  • Consider mentioning in your reports that the source spoke through an interpreter. Broadcast outlets do this all the time, by having the speaker begin in her native language and then switching to a voice-over of the translation. I see no reason why print and digital media shouldn’t do the same.
    You’ll know if you’re getting a solid translation. “You have faith if they step in reasonably frequently to fill you in on what’s being said (or miraculously can do simultaneous translation, in rare cases),” says veteran correspondent Laurie Goering. “If they wait a long time (to respond), you doubt you’re getting everything, or getting it all right.”

But sometimes, you don’t.

In those cases, your options are limited. You can use the direct quotes that you’re sure of and paraphrase the rest. Or you can paraphrase the entire interview – not using direct quotes – if you’re sure of the substance but not the exact wording.

If you’re not sure of either the substance or the wording, it’s time to find another fixer.

 

further reading

  • An essay by the New Yorker’s George Packer on the risks fixers face.
  • How fixers in Beirut describe their own work.
  • A Committee to Protect Journalists report on the duty news organizations have to their fixers.
  • An old, but still useful online discussion about the makings of a good fixer.
  • Multimedia journalist Peter Aronson offers guidelines for those who want to be fixers
  • A recent essay from Columbia Journalism review

  • Other how-to guides