Leading Millennials: Verena Hölzl, Freelance Reporter

"The more people told me it probably won’t work out, the more I realized that I really wanted it. So I did it."

Verena Hölzl is a German freelance reporter based in Yangon. She reports for Deutsche Welle, Spiegel Online and Deutsche Presse-Agentur. She can be reached on email at verena-hoelzl@gmx.de.

Verena appears here as part of our stories to identify the evolving generation of professionals in the service of journalism.

Tell me about your journey into journalism.

For me, it all started because I like writing. I like telling stories by writing them up. The obvious thing was to do an internship at a newspaper. I realized that I liked the people around me. I liked their mindset, I liked the work — deadlines, asking questions, questioning answers. I realized that’s the job I wanted to do.

 

So you moved to Yangon about a year and a half ago. Why make that jump? Why not stay in Germany and build your career there?

It was close to my heart. I wanted to go to Myanmar and witness what was going on in the country because it is very unique. Myanmar is learning what democracy is and that’s super exciting to observe. I was always jealous of the reporters who were present when East Germany became a democracy after reunification. I’m fascinated by this narrative. So I decided to go to Myanmar and take my chances.

I am a correspondent with no strings attached. That’s my business model. I’m my own little agency.

 

So what do you think the next three years for you as a journalist are going to look like?

It’s hard to tell. So much is changing in the media world. I work as a freelancer and I depend on media in Germany. I depend on their budget, I depend on how they are doing. At the moment, I think I’m actually benefiting from it because I’m cheap — nobody needs to pay my insurance or allowances for me to work abroad. I’m just sending stories and they pay for them.

I am a correspondent with no strings attached. That’s my business model. I’m my own little agency. And that’s something that’s apparently needed as media stops sending correspondents out because they have no more budget for it. Let’s see how the market evolves and where this will lead me.

So where will I end up in three years? I have no idea. Before I made this move from Germany to Myanmar, I didn’t know what to expect but I knew I wanted to do it. I actually got a lot of advice not to do it. The more people told me it probably won’t work out, the more I realized that I really wanted it. So I did it. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. If you always do what you’re convinced of, or what you’re passionate about, then there’s always going to be a way.

I went through this whole journalism education in Europe and while they tell you there are fewer staff jobs, nobody tells you how you can run your own journalism business.

 

Obviously there’s been a lot of change since you moved over to Yangon. What do you know now that you didn’t know a year ago in terms of your skills and experience as a journalist?

One big thing is that I’m reporting in a country where I don’t speak the language. I don’t speak Burmese so I’m always dependent on people to translate for me and to give me correct information. There’s a lot that we miss out on as foreign correspondents. That’s something you have to get used to and find your way around it. Journalism is about interacting with people. And with a fixer, you have a third person in between you and your sources or protagonists. It taught me a lot about how to create relationships with the people I talk to.

And then of course, I learned how to run my own business as a freelance journalist. I’m still hesitant to call it a “business”.

I went through this whole journalism education in Europe and while they tell you there are fewer staff jobs, nobody tells you how you can run your own journalism business. And I can tell you, there is a lot to learn!

I’ve never been told how much my work is worth. I’ve never been told how to deal with the different ways you can get money out of your taxes. I have never been told how many times I can sell my articles. These are skills that are worth money.

Journalism is a great job and we would sometimes even pay to do it, right? We tend to accept pay that is offensive. We have never been taught to stand up for our value. It makes me angry. Money, for journalists, is this dirty thing that makes us lose our independence. When you go to innovation conferences in Europe, you would hear about great ideas for media start-ups — and when it comes to the question of how to make money out of them, you would just get shy answers like, ‘This is not the priority for now.’ Of course it is the priority! We are killing our own profession otherwise.

But you also need passion for journalism to work, as cheesy as this sounds. That I ended up in Myanmar was no rational business decision. I found a good niche being the only German journalist based in Myanmar. It sounds great right? But it was more or less just a fucking coincidence. It happened because I followed my guts. I came here because I was fascinated by the narrative in this country. It turned out that I tapped into this niche and it works well.

I can say this frankly: I’m making at least as much money as I would if I was a trainee in Germany, which is what I’d probably do if I hadn’t gone to Myanmar. And it’s way more fun to do your own thing in a place that you’re passionate about.

Find what you’re passionate about. It may be at the other end of the world but it can work out.

 

So what advice would you give someone who’s trying to start a career in journalism?

You have to think about whether you really want to do it. You need determination otherwise it doesn’t work. Because you have to fight to make it work. There’s not this one path you can follow and succeed. You have to be convinced every day that this is the job that you want to do in order to be confident because sometimes you don’t know where it leads you.

You need to know if you’re really on fire for it because it’s a job you should fully commit to. The other advice I would give is to follow your guts. Find what you’re passionate about. It may be at the other end of the world but it can work out.

 

As a professional, what scares you most about the future?

I’m not scared. I’m really not scared. There are a lot of challenges, but I don’t think fear is the right thing to have. But if you want to know what I’m afraid of, it’s choosing the wrong path. There’s so many paths you can take and I already have this feeling that I love being a reporter but I also love being in a newsroom, in a team, and it often doesn’t go together. So maybe we create global newsrooms where we still work in teams while being out there in the world. That would be ideal for me. And it is not so unrealistic as I think journalism is becoming more globalized. But maybe I will have to choose at some point.

 

If I were to meet you again a year from now, what would you want to be celebrating?

I’d like to have done a story about Myanmar that has stirred up something, even if it’s just a tiny little thing. It would be something coming out of my mind and not just the agenda of the country and government. I’d like to do more things that reflect my thoughts of the country. I’d also like to see Myanmar get a proper foreign correspondents club and I’d like to get involved in the digital transformation that is going on in the country because I think it’s unique.

It’s a unique point in time, it’s a unique country. You can still avoid mistakes that we’ve done in the West and it’s a great playing field because everything is new. I’d like to be part of that.


Leading Millennials

We’re looking for people with an elasticity in their views of media and journalism. It’s rare; there aren’t many out there.

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 alansoon@thesplicenewsroom.com.

 

Co-Founder, CEO of The Splice Newsroom. Covering the business of media transformation in Asia. Follow Alan Soon on Twitter.

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