Freelancer Under Fire
Journalist Charlie Crain (GJ03) jumpstarted his career by going to Iraq — without an assignment.
As mortars explode in the distance, Charlie Crain (GJ03) follows the Iraqi government security forces in Najaf. Later he reflects on the recent kidnapping of his British friend and fellow journalist James Brandon after dodging landmines on the way to an interview in Sadr City. And on his day off, Crain covers U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's Baghdad press conference for USA TODAY.
Crain arrived in Baghdad in January 2004. Initially he planned to pitch story ideas to a variety of newspapers in the United States, supporting himself as a freelancer by selling individual articles.
With few connections, Crain focused on finding his own stories. "It meant I got a look at everyday life in Baghdad." By February he'd published one of his first pieces — a feature about the 82nd Airborne Division watching the Super Bowl in Fallujah — in the Raleigh News & Observer.
Crain is currently a stringer — a writer contracted to write articles for a specific publication — for USA TODAY. The more permanent position forced him to adjust his reporting style. "Now I'm obligated to cover breaking news and big stories," he explains, but his status as a stringer provides greater job security.
Money was tight when Crain first left Wilmette, Ill., for what his family calls "Charlie's Great Adventure." With cash stashed in various money belts, he was responsible for his own lodging, translators and transportation. He studied survival Arabic before departing and packed the bulletproof vest that his father gave him for Christmas.
"I went to journalism school because I wanted to write about foreign affairs in foreign countries," Crain says through a scratchy phone connection from his suite at Baghdad's Al Hamra Hotel. "I thought to myself, if the U.S. military is occupying Iraq when I graduate, I've got to go."
His former professor, Medill School of Journalism lecturer Steve Garnett, says that's a sound career decision. "What he's doing is building his credentials as an international and a war correspondent at age 26."
Crain knew the decision had its dangers. "I saw this as a manageable, calculated risk," he says, "even if I failed and came home in three months. If I tried to do this the slow way [through a U.S. newspaper] and earn my way here, it would take years for a newspaper to send me overseas."
In Iraq Crain has covered everything from the local nongovernmental organization projects to the Mehdi Army's bombing of CD stores. Crain also published an opinion piece in the Washington Post last April, addressing the "near invisibility and relative silence of Iraq's moderate and liberal voices" for a larger audience.
"It was more like the writing I do on my blog — an opportunity to hash out ideas and give people a broader sense of what it's like here," he says. Postings on Crain's web log, baghblog.blogspot.com, detail everything from Crain's thoughts on the peace process to his favorite place for chicken in Baghdad.
Though he took six weeks off and returned to the United States last fall, Crain isn't finished reporting from Iraq. He plans to battle burnout by reporting for six- to eight-week stints followed by two-week breaks. "I don't know about settling down to stay, but I enjoy being here now and getting a firsthand look at the politics," he says. "It's starting to really sink in now, that this is what I do."
-Heidi Koester (J05)