EDITOR’S NOTE: This installment of our occasional series The Pitch, we annotate a successful project pitch for funding from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Read an interview with the IWMF program manager about their funding process, in which she encourages applicants to think big.Landing a grant six years ago was a game-changer for multimedia reporter Ylenia Gostoli, propelling her career in international journalism. Now she hopes that a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) will do the same: create more opportunities to pursue ambitious work.
Back in 2014, the Italian freelancer earned a grant for emerging reporters from One World Media, a London-based nonprofit. The financial support helped her get to Palestine to report a piece she had proposed. Since then, 36-year-old Gostoli has covered social change, conflict and human rights across the Middle East and Europe, reporting from London to Rome to the West Bank. Today, her work primarily appears in outlets like Deutshe Welle and Al Jazeera English — the home for her recent feature about domestic workers fleeing modern slavery in the UK.
It is a harrowing piece that explores how domestic workers, separated from their countries and families, sometimes face exploitative work conditions that have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. When Gostoli first came across the story, she knew it would take considerable time to do it justice — to find vulnerable sources, gain their trust, and navigate tricky issues of ethics and sensitivity.
So Gostoli did what enterprising reporters must do: set out to sell her vision. She found a buyer in the International Women’s Media Foundation, which awarded her a grant through the foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
Gostoli has produced an extensive body of work in recent years. But she hopes this grant-supported project will do what the One World Media opportunity did early in her career: open doors, and make it possible to turn ideas into longform and investigative stories that make a difference.
Gostoli and I spoke about why this project begged deeper treatment, the ingredients she needed to sell her proposal, and why grants can be a freelancer’s ticket to producing hard-hitting investigations. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is followed by an annotation of the proposal that Gostoli submitted to the IWMF’s Fund for Women Journalists.
What kind of stories do you tend to gravitate toward?
Human rights related stories, and stories about inequality — about how to re-address imbalances in our societies. When it comes to international journalism, that means, very often, analyzing political developments and seeing how they affect people on the ground.
How did you find the domestic slave story?
While writing another story, actually. I got in touch with the Filipino community for a story about how migrant communities were contributing to fighting the coronavirus crisis. One interesting, tragic part of that story is that Filipino nurses were being disproportionately affected in terms of deaths. Lots of Filipino migrants are in low-paid jobs and have less access to protective equipment. They have less chances to say no to an employer and to stay home if they’re ill.
There are loads of people in the Filipino community working as domestic workers in the UK. I realized a huge chunk of the community was going through these hardships; eventually, I decided to focus on women who were being brought from other countries. By the time I had my interview with the IWMF, I decided my focus would be migrant domestic workers who had been recognized, or were in the process of being recognized, as modern slavery victims.
Why was the IMWF the right partner for this kind of project?
They support women’s work, and very often work about women. This particular grant is very flexible: It has a flexible deadline, and there is no limit to the topics you can cover and no set guidelines. I looked at this one, and a couple of other grants, which would have fit my story.
You pump out stories quite regularly. Why was this a story that you wanted grant support for, compared to the other work you pursue?
I needed more time to pursue this story properly; the grant allowed me that time. To be honest, by the time I got the grant, I had already spent time on the story. Things happened that I felt I had to be there for. For example, the opening scene of the woman being picked up from the house happened before I got the grant. The grant also allowed me to continue reporting afterward and follow what these women were doing.
Were you confident you’d be able to sell this story?
Not 100 percent, especially because I knew that many editors had stopped commissioning, particularly international editors. Luckily, I had a letter from my Al Jazeera editor supporting the project while not actually promising to publish it.
When challenges around access or anonymity arose during your reporting, did you sort those out your editor at Al Jazeera or the folks at the IWMF?
The IWMF was completely hands-off. They left me free to slightly change, or refocus, my story. At Al Jazeera, these were actually different editors than the ones I normally work for. This was for the longform section, which was relatively new at the time. There was collaboration once I had already filed the piece, but I made all of those reporting decisions pretty much independently.
How was this grant process different than ones you’ve gotten in the past?
I only got the one that got me to Palestine. Since that first grant was for emerging journalists, the story was more important than who I was. This time, with the IWMF, I felt I had to really prove that I had knowledge of the topic — that I was the best person for this particular grant and story. I showed that I had already been working with the community, had written an article about Filipino nurses and had written on similar topics from the UK very recently.
How do you decide when a story should be pursued as a quicker-turn news feature versus when it should be fleshed out as a more substantive magazine piece? What are the ingredients you need to decide that it ought to live in its longer form?
I think about timeliness and impact. When a story has an obvious news hook — there’s newly published data, an event or a particular discussion going on at the time — then it might be more important to publish the story in a timely way than to spend more time with your characters. On the other hand, if you’re exploring structural problems with politics or society, longform or investigations the obvious choice.
Beyond the letter of interest, what role did Al Jazeera English play in your application?
None. It was my initiative to apply for the grant, and I asked them to write a letter of support, which could help.
How would you describe what the IWMF’s proposal required, compared to a typical pitch?
It wasn’t massively different from any other pitch I would send, especially for a publication I’ve never worked with before. For this kind of story, the pitch would have similar elements that editors would be looking for: What’s the story, why is it important now and what kind of statistics do you have to back up what you’re saying? For this particular idea, though, and also for the IWMF, it was important for me to emphasize the underreported aspect of the story.
Given where you are in your career and where you aspire to go, what did you most hope to gain out of this opportunity?
I hope it will open the door for more grants, and therefore more time to develop more stories. And to be part of the IWMF community. There are lots of women who got grants in the past who have done really good work.
If you hadn’t gotten the grant, how would you have pursued or shaped this story differently — along the lines of that quick-turn vs longform approach?
I probably would not have been able to pursue the story in this way. I pitched a version of this story before I got the grant. The answer from one of the media organizations I approached was that we can’t cover every sector in the economy. Without this grant, I am not sure that I would have been able to spend as much time on this story and therefore make it worth looking at for an editor.
Do you feel like grants are essential these days to securing longform commissions or investigations? Is it possible to sell those stories without financial aid from grant organizations?
To be honest, it’s very difficult. It’s not that it’s difficult to actually get the story published; it’s the amount of time you have to spend reporting, which becomes unsustainable without grant funding, unfortunately.
What advice would you offer to independent journalists who want to apply for grants?
Don’t start from the grant; start from the story and from your own work. Write about what you know. Look at your notes. Think about the people you have been talking to and what stories they have told you that haven’t been explored yet. Then, once you have the story, look for the grant that is right for it — not the other way around.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in red; Gostoli’s responses are in blue. To read the proposal without the annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors’ list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at the top of your mobile screen.
The domestic workers fleeing modern slavery in the UK
During lockdown overseas domestic workers became even more vulnerable to abuse, but one woman is helping them escape.
Al-Jazeera / Sept. 8, 2020
Ylenia Gostoli is a freelance reporter, producer, and storyteller. She has covered social change, conflict and rights in more than ten countries in the Middle East and Europe while based out of London, the West Bank, and Rome. She works primarily for international media outlets such as Al Jazeera English and Deutsche Welle.
Her work has looked into issues such as child detention in Jerusalem, Nigerian women trafficking in Italy and environmental degradation in the Gaza Strip. She was shortlisted for the Anna Lindh Mediterranean Journalist award for her reporting on EU refugee policies two years before the 2016 crisis made headlines, and won a One World Media Fellowship. She is currently based in London.
Your idea in one sentence:
UK Filipino women’s group provides ‘safety net’ for undocumented workers and modern slavery victims.
Amid concerns that vulnerable and migrant workers worldwide are being pushed into precarious jobs and slave labour by the economic crisis, a group of Filipino women in the UK tries to prevent undocumented domestic workers from falling into exploitation and modern slavery. Some of the volunteers in the group are themselves former trafficking victims. Why did you decide to open your proposal with a summary of the issue you intended to explore, versus opening narratively with one of your subjects? To introduce the story’s main narrative conflict.
Kanlungan, a UK-wide network of Filipino community organisations, has seen tens of domestic workers lose their jobs and become destitute when the lockdown was imposed. Some were thrown out of their former employer’s home, others evicted by landlords for not paying rent. CS:
A network of community volunteers has stepped in: Filipino families have offered these women shelter in their homes, while volunteers deliver food to those self-isolating. Chefs — a lot of them women too — have been making food for NHS workers on long shifts. I like how you separated the problem and a prospective solution in separate paragraphs, but back-to-back. Yes, actually this ‘solution’ aspect of the story is something I thought was particularly in tune with the work of the IWMF.
The Pew Research Center estimated in November 2019 there are between 800,000 and 1.2 million undocumented workers in the United Kingdom. Why was it important to convey the scope of the problem here, close to the opening of the pitch? To persuade the editor/funder to read on until the end of the pitch by drawing their attention to the large number of people that could potentially be affected. Anti-slavery groups fear that as economies reopen, those who have become destitute will be more exposed to exploitative conditions. The latest warning came from the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.
For the past few weeks, Ana (not her real name) has been assisting women whose precarious lives were thrust into uncertainty when the pandemic hit by delivering food to fellow Filipinos shielding from the virus. Why did you choose to wait until a few paragraphs in before introducing Ana, presumably your main subject? It was more important, in this case, to first introduce the context to her story.
The 40-year-old left the Philippines as a domestic worker and was brought to the UK by her employer. She quit after months of abuse and applied to the National Referral Mechanism, the UK government’s framework to identify and protect modern slavery victims. She has been waiting for a decision for two years. How did you initially find Ana, and how many people did you need to interview in order to decide she was the right person to tell this story through? I asked my contact at the organisation I mentioned above to introduce me to some of their volunteers and their stories. I met Ana and three other women and was torn between her and Sheila, who eventually became my main character. Ana had overstayed her six-month Overseas Domestic Worker visa before her referral, which means she’s now unable to work legally and must survive on £35 a week. She is sleeping on a friend’s couch.
Another woman, who is undocumented and can’t access government help, has been struggling since she was evicted from her home when she lost her job in March and could no longer afford her rent.
Domestic workers usually come to the UK on a six months, non-renewable visa that bars them from accessing welfare. Many stay on to work after their visa expires to be able to support their families back home. Undocumented workers can be reluctant to seek the help of public services and even medical assistance – for which they are, in some cases, charged – for fear they’ll end up in immigration detention. Why was it effective for you to home in on the granular aspects of specific women’s situations (in the previous paragraph) before zooming out for a broader, mountain-top view of this problem? I aimed to show what my case studies could be, and then explain why they were relevant.
There has been a lot of discussion in both the United States and the United Kingdom about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Community leaders and BAME organisations have called for a public inquiry into the issue. However, there has been little discussion (and indeed, there is no available public data) on the impact on undocumented workers. I like the way you contrasted which angles of these issues have received attention with the angles that remain obscured. Regarding your line about lack of available data — did you include that to show the editor that you’d done your homework, but couldn’t quantify metrics? It shows a gap in knowledge that I was hoping my piece would partially tackle.
Just today (June 2) Public Health England published a review looking into the factors that could have led to some groups being hit harder. Was this a coincidence, or did you wait until this report was released to submit your proposal? And did you know the review would be released on this day? I knew the report would be published then and it made for a good news hook. It shows the complex relationship between ethnicity and fatalities. Interestingly, it finds a particularly high increase in deaths for ‘all causes’ among people born outside the UK. With this project, I intend to fill that gap in knowledge and discussion through the experience of a struggling community. Why did you choose to close your proposal this way? To point out that I was tackling an underreported issue.
Ana, the protagonist of my project, is happy to be followed around and even filmed without disclosing her identity. I intend to follow her daily life and activities for about two weeks, roughly the time that I believe it would take to arrange interviews with undocumented workers who have lost their jobs, as well as interview organisations working with undocumented migrants and trafficking victims in London, such as Medecins du Monde. How does this turnaround time compare to your typical assignment? It is considerably longer. I would also request information from the National Health Service’s Hospital Episode Statistics database and other sources.
I expect to complete this project within a month or six weeks of commissioning.
I intend to publish this as a long read on Al Jazeera English, including photographs. Did you share this proposal with Al Jazeera English before submitting to the IWMF? And did they encourage you to apply for this grant, or was it your idea? I got a letter of support, but pitched the story after the grant was awarded.
Grant Amount Requested (USD):
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.