Fixers in journalism—and reporting vs writing

Covering Hugo Chávez's cancer announcement for New York Times and Reuters

While I was finding the journalism industry unnecessarily tough, I had nothing on the fixers, the people who did the real reporting for some foreign correspondents and got none of the credit. I met María Eugenia Díaz at a party organized by Simon Romero, the New York Times’ somewhat legendary Caracas-based Andean correspondent, in 2011. His stories were often sweeping and beautiful, filled with characters that always brought a broader picture to life. 

María Eugenia was Simon’s assistant in Venezuela, his fixer, and the real brains behind the operation. Fixer is an even more lowly term than stringer. At least the stringer was considered a journalist. Oil companies use fixers to do dodgy deals and funnel money to the right people; drug gangs use fixers to have enemies killed. While the journalism industry isn’t quite so ruthless, it sees fixers as the people on the ground who get things done and are then forgotten. (I had used a fixer when in Juárez, Mexico, and regrettably didn’t give him any credit in the story.) María Eugenia had worked at a high level for national Venezuelan news outlets for decades. In the early 1980s, after she published a story about neighbouring Guyana’s win over Venezuela in a simulated strategy game, authorities issued an arrest warrant against her for having revealed military secrets; it was quickly revoked. She had the sources, knew the country inside out, understood the nuances, and could get hold of anyone at a moment’s notice. 

In a just world, María Eugenia’s name would not have been at the bottom of The New York Times’ articles in small print. In doing all she did for The New York Times—and, even more so, in what she was going to do for me—María Eugenia was punching far below her weight. She didn’t have the luxury, though, to complain. In this way she reminded me of my mother—and my grandparents. They were smart and scrappy self-starters who were forced to work jobs well below their capacity. I often thought about what could have been if they’d been allowed to rise to their full potential in Britain. I was dejected to see fixers seen as nothing but a means to an end by this industry which, supposedly, was all about justice. I empathized with María Eugenia’s position, and my sense of injustice on her behalf was another strike against this industry that I was starting to truly see for what it was.

Ultimately, though, María Eugenia needed work, and, at that point, more than anyone, I needed a fixer.

Late June 2011, rumors were swirling in Venezuela that Hugo Chávez was ill. I wasn’t party to those rumors given my lack of sources in the country, but they were relayed to me by my new colleagues in the Reuters office. It was clearly a big deal. Chávez was the government in Venezuela; everything else in the country, including the opposition, aligned to his frame of reference. When the government revealed that the president had been in Cuba for surgery earlier that month, Andy asked me to go out and speak to his supporters and bring some quotes and color back to the office to fill in Reuters’ stories about both the news and the political fallout from it. 

I’d already spent time in the pro-government areas of Caracas—from the slum of 23 de enero, with its murals of Chávez, as well as other leftist icons such as Che Guevara and Karl Marx, to the grittier city streets around the Miraflores presidential palace. I’d spoken with countless government supporters and gained a better understanding of why, despite the country’s clear economic problems, they still supported him. Ultimately, I realized, he’d given them a voice. For decades, or centuries even, the poor in Venezuela had been unheard and Chávez spoke like them, thought like them, and fought for them. They generally didn’t understand global trade, economics, or the myriad other factors that go into governing a country—but they certainly weren’t bad people.

As I finished covering myself in sunscreen and grabbed my camera ready to walk out of the Reuters office, Andy said, “We’ll need the quotes in Spanish, by the way.” The Spanish-language service, sitting opposite us on the English side, rightly insisted, as policy, that they weren’t happy to receive quotes in English translated from Spanish, because they were only going to revert them back to Spanish. Not only would that be tedious, but inaccurate. That hadn’t occurred to me but I quickly saw they were right. Without breaking a step, I noted his request. My Spanish was good enough to ask questions and get answers, but not at the level where I could properly transcribe the answers, especially out on the streets. 

I emailed María Eugenia as I jumped on the back of the Reuters motorbike which would take me to the center of Caracas. It was an exhilarating, though dangerous ride along Caracas’s main highway, parallel to the Ávila’s ridge. 

“Would you be able to do some speedy translation a little later today, please?” I wrote. “It will likely be a couple of two-minute audio clips.” 

Yes, she responded quickly. I would record my questions on my Zoom microphone, pull out the microSD card and slot it into the BlackBerry I was having to use, and email the audio file to María Eugenia. She’d then transcribe the clip, email that to me, and I’d then select the text I wanted to quote and forward it to Reuters. It was convoluted and ridiculous, but I was problem-solving in real time. I could have sent the audio to Reuters colleagues, but then I’d have to admit my lack of competent Spanish, and we didn’t know each other well enough yet.

While this was clearly farcical, it taught me a number of important lessons—the least of which was to learn Spanish properly. It ensured I continued to record pretty much every interview, formal or informal, that I did throughout my career, allowing me both to verify my work and demonstrate it to be accurate. It also allowed me to earn more money when I realized I could use the audio clips in radio pieces that I’d sell alongside my written work.

I would soon enough learn the impotence of a journalist who doesn’t properly speak the language of those on whom they are reporting, especially when and as my own Spanish improved. It’s not only about understanding the words and sentences—which, of course, can be done through an interpreter—but about getting across to the other person that you’re able to empathize with them in their mother tongue, and that you’ve made the effort to relate to them and their world. Only then will they genuinely speak with you, share with you, tell you their secrets. Over the years, I’d meet countless star correspondents who were unable to even introduce themselves in the relevant foreign language or understand it, let alone its nuances. It’s an industry-wide issue and especially common in the Middle East.

However, in June 2011, who was I to talk? María Eugenia was on standby. At the Santa Capilla church just a block from the presidential palace, I spoke with security guard Williams Rengel. He had prayed for Chávez’s speedy recovery, in order to bring prosperity to Venezuela, he said. He spoke slowly, calmly, and clearly in response to my questions, which themselves were in passable and decent-enough Spanish. “He's our president and thanks to him we have houses and so much. Apart from that, he's also a human being," he said.

Some of my quotes would be used in the main story of the day on Venezuela, which would be written by Andy and his colleagues in the office though feature my byline, while others I’d use for my own side story. Before I even arrived back at the office, the main piece, with my name on it, was out. That was the joy of working with an outlet that valued the reporter. I sat down and drafted my own piece before receiving a deft edit from Andy’s colleague Dan Wallis, who’d also worked many years beforehand with The Times of London, and Andy himself.

“From Caracas shantytowns and churches to lunch lines at ‘socialist’ food outlets, supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez are praying and waiting for his safe return from Cuba,” we wrote to lead the piece. Andy sent me a copy by email minutes after it was published later that day with the subject line, “Good job, Girish - don't forget your bill!” I wasn’t the type to forget to invoice but, again, I was grateful for how he looked out for me, prompting me to seek payment just hours after we’d put the piece together, which was unprecedented. This time, of course, a significant portion of that invoice would go to María Eugenia.

A couple of days later on June 30, Chávez returned to Venezuela and would make an announcement at 9 pm. Andy asked me to be ready to watch it at a pro-government bar in the west of the city. He knew there’d be a big headline story and he wanted to color it in with reactions from Chávez’s supporters. Chávez appeared on state television for the first time in three weeks, a rarity, and solemnly announced he had cancer. It would be the story that directly shaped the next couple of years, and indirectly the next decade or more, in Venezuela. But at that point, even his own supporters couldn’t take in the news. 

“Cancer is a disease that can be treated,” said Javier, a waiter at the bar where I’d watched the speech. Others couldn’t take the words, even though they came from the Comandante himself. "This is a lie,” said Luis, a worker painting a wall nearby. “Chávez does not have cancer. I don't know why he said it but it's not true.” I sent the quotes in directly as María Eugenia was busy working with The New York Times on the same story. Speed was more important than Spanish-language accuracy at this point.

The world was looking at Venezuela. I’d again be putting into practice what I’d learned about freelancing from Andy, who pointed out the professional opportunity presenting itself to me. The whole world had its eye on Venezuela and I was the only English-speaking freelancer in town. I diligently added rows to my spreadsheet, the “Client” column filling with TIME, Reuters, The Times of London, and a new one: The New York Times.

Simon had asked me to collect quotes from pro- and anti-government types about Chávez’s return. It was essentially the same thing I was doing for Reuters and others so was easy—just as Andy had advised. It all funded me to be out and about speaking to people, which is fundamentally what a reporter should be doing.

My name appeared alongside that of María Eugenia in small print at the bottom of Simon’s pieces. It was nice, I felt at the time, to get my name in such a prestigious newspaper, even if it was in small print at the bottom of a piece; I would be able to use that to get other clients. The style was in stark contrast to Reuters’ where our names, as the reporters, would have taken the byline, and the writer’s name would have appeared in the footer. It was also interesting to note the contrast in pay. While Reuters—or was it Andy?—paid $200 for the full day regardless of how long I’d worked during it, The New York Times—or was it Simon?—broke my pay down by hour, so I’d receive just $37.50 ($150 for an eight-hour day) for the same thing I’d done for Reuters.

 “Great to have someone with your energy and raw ability aboard, Girish!” said Andy in an email.

So, Reuters, firstly, was more friendly. It paid more. And, it was more serious about the reporter getting the byline, which gave me the impression that it valued reporting, and going, over writing.

(Neither Simon Romero nor The New York Times responded to a request for comment.)