[When it comes to freelancing foreign correspondence, no one is more current or savvy than the Indian journalist Mridu Khullar Relph, the 2010 “Development Journalist of the Year.” Mridu is also tireless in educating others about the field through her fine website, produced from her New Delhi home. So, it was my pleasure to answer her questions about how I do what I do. The following interview was first published on her site on Nov. 20, 2012. For more on freelancing, please read my August 2012 piece on how I’d break in today.]
Q&A With Michael J. Jordan, International Journalist
No, not THAT Michael Jordan. Although when it comes to his craft, he’s just as good.
I first “met” Michael online through a friend and was immediately struck by how open he was with his contacts, how helpful and encouraging. Michael and I became part of a small freelancers group that shared tips, editor names, and advice with each other, and when I interviewed Michael for my mailing list, I got such an amazing response, that I knew I had to share it with more readers.
His official bio: Michael J. Jordan is an American freelance foreign correspondent and journalism teacher-trainer now based in Lesotho. Beyond southern Africa, he also maintains a toehold in Asia and Europe, as a Visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University and as Senior Journalism Trainer for Transitions Online in Prague. He has previously been stationed in Hungary, Slovakia and at the United Nations, as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and many others.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?
I’m an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher-trainer, and freelancing father of three young children. Since November, I’ve lived in tiny Lesotho, in southern Africa, for my wife’s job in international development. I’ve been a freelance foreign correspondent since 1994, when I was based in Budapest, Hungary, and went on to report from nearly 25 post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union. Over the past decade, I’ve also branched into teaching, having now taught journalism on faculty in New York, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hong Kong – where I’ll soon serve my fourth stint as Visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. Meanwhile, in Prague I’m the senior journalism trainer for the TOL Foreign Correspondence Training Course, where I’ve led the reporting project since 2007.
Q. You’ve had long-standing relationships with publications like the Christian Science Monitor and Global Post for years. How do you build these relationships and how can freelancers get such regular clients?
Freelancing boils down to a simple formula: a compelling, salable story idea, plus the ability to deliver what you promise, equals freelancing success. Of course, the formula only seems simple. Plenty of journalists out there generate wonderful ideas, but fail to deliver the goods. There are also plenty of journalists ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done – but can’t seem to hook editors with their ideas. However, if you can do both – reliably and consistently – then editors will look very kindly upon you. And in all likelihood, they’ll welcome your next round of pitches and green-light another assignment. (If they have the budget.) This is how a relationship is born and cultivated.
Q. How do you get assignments? Do you query, send letters of introduction, or meet the editors you want to work with?
Definitely through a query, in which I “pitch” concrete story ideas. But that’s for the clients and editors for whom I’ve already written articles. If it’s a prospective new client, then I make it a combination of introduction and specific story ideas. If you only send a friendly “I’m here and ready to write for you” sort of introduction, that could be empty blather and a wasting of their time. Who cares if you’ve done this or that in the past, if right now you can’t produce compelling story ideas – and then deliver the goods? Proof is in the pudding. An important reporting principle is to “show, don’t tell” the audience with facts and anecdotes. Well, the same holds true when trying to impress an editor: don’t just tell them you can produce compelling story ideas from your country or new home-base – show them with a specific pitch or two or three.
By the way, as a freelancer who’s spent most of the past 18 years abroad, I’ve never met many of my editors. Which is normal, I think. Email communication is enough, though voice-to-voice phone or Skype calls may help break the ice, or further warm a relationship. When visiting stateside, I’ve occasionally dropped in on some editors in New York or Boston, to greet them face-to-face and chat about the state of our relationship: in which direction I, or they, would like to see it go from here. But I think editors themselves are now used to never meeting some of their freelancers in the field.
Q. What are your top tips for writers and journalists based outside of the US who want to write for US-based publications?
Whether you’re an American freelancer living outside the U.S., or a non-American, non-native English-speaker also trying to break into the U.S. market, you’re an entrepreneur of sorts, flying solo. So start to think like one. That means you need to research the marketplace and learn about the potential clientele. Which outlets, publishing about global topics, would even accept submissions from freelancers? Which have the budget for it? Do they already have a regular contributor on your topic, or from your part of the world? Which are interested in the topics that interest you? Which have published – and would continue to publish – on topics from your region? And so on.
This means reading up on these clients: peruse their “Submissions” section (if they even have one), search their archives for anything close to your topic, as well as any articles they’ve published from your corner of the globe. When was the last time they published from there, if ever? Or, how often from there? In what writing style? First-person or third-person? As reportage, travelogue, essay or commentary?
Q. You’ve taught journalism to students from over 30 countries. What are the most common mistakes international freelancers make?
Two stand out. First, failing to keep in mind your audience, whether it be American, Western, international, or anything else. When it comes to international reporting, it’s essential to remember that you’re not writing for yourself, for a “Dear Diary” journal you stash under your pillow. No, I always assume that I’m writing for a smart, curious audience – after all, who else would be interested to read about the rise of the far-right in Hungary, or the mounting pressure on social media in censorious China, or how an HIV-afflicted country like Lesotho copes with the epidemic? So my task is to enable my smart, curious audience back home to grasp a fascinating situation in this far-away land from which I’m reporting. How to give them a reason to read, a reason to care?
The second thing I’ll mention, then, is how to bridge the gap between situation and audience? This is why it’s so crucial to always “humanize” a situation, bringing it to life with real stories of real people with real voices, directly affected by this situation. Not just with rich anecdotes but deep, meaningful quotes. Then, “broaden and deepen” the story to better inform and educate the audience: regional context that explains whether this situation is unique to this country, or part of a region-wide trend. And historical background to show this situation didn’t happen overnight, but evolved.
Q. For someone just getting started, what are the first, second, and third things they need to do to start getting assignments?
By “getting started,” if you mean someone who wants to survive exclusively off their freelancing, I’d suggest a few things. First, arm yourself with two marketable skills, not just one. Back in my day … Not to sound too much like a dinosaur, but when I started in journalism two decades ago, reporters reported, photographers photographed, videographers videographed, editors edited, and so on. We specialized – and the industry held respect and appreciation for the skills involved with each specialty.
Today, as you know, the frenzy for all-things-multimedia means many journalists thirst to be a jack-of-all-trades. More worrying, though, many clients now demand it. Quality suffers, inevitably. How rare is it to find, say, a talented writer and photographer? Very rare. The lowered standards are obvious, with all the uninspired snapshots and shaky footage some media outlets post online.
Nevertheless, that’s the new reality. So even if you’re a sharp reporter with a literary flair, don’t rest on your laurels. I’d urge you to take a hands-on course in photography or documentary filmmaking, to broaden your skill-set. If you’re out in some exotic corner of the globe, seeing interesting things, meeting interesting people, why wouldn’t you offer editors a story package both written and visual? You’d be short-sighted not to.
The second point: where to plant a flag as your new base of operations? Before you lunge for your dream city – London … Paris … Beijing! – think strategically. Choose someplace affordable. Breaking into foreign correspondence is hard enough without the stress of feeding yourself. Are you ready to subsist off ketchup packets, ramen noodles, tinned meat or baguettes?
Yet cost of living is only one factor. The shrewd move is to strike a balance between a country that’s “hot” versus one too far off-the-beaten path. Meaning, if your heart is set on a state that also happens to be of vital importance to your home audience, or is embroiled in some sort of conflict or crisis, well, let’s just say that you wouldn’t be the only moth drawn to that fire. For example, let’s say you’ve long been fascinated by the Arab-Israeli conflict and want to move to Jerusalem. Do you realize Israel is said to host the highest per-capita number of foreign correspondents in the world?
Competition can be fierce. So why would you, a novice, go head-to-head with that? On the other hand, don’t settle in some spot too remote. You may find it too tough to sell reportage from a place too few people have heard of, let alone care about. When you move to a country, don’t think you’re there to only cover that country. Turn the entire region into your “beat.” Follow developments in each country, connect the dots, draw parallels. Then make the case for why editors should agree to publish a story from you.
Lastly, whether you’re looking for freelance full-time or part-time, from your home-country or abroad, create your own blog. Post everything journalistic you produce on there, from text to photos to video clips. The blog is not just a modern-day CV, but a space in the ether to establish your credibility, to hang your shingle, to announce you’re open for business, where clients and others can find you. I’ve evolved from blog-skeptic to true believer, for it’s the most effective marketing tool a freelance journalist can muster. Quite simply, your site enables you to show, not tell editors who you are, what you do, what your capabilities are – far more convincingly than any sheet of paper that lists your experiences, achievements and references.
Q. With so many people, including former full-time correspondents, now becoming freelancers, how can we set ourselves apart from the crowd?
The easy answer is: Be good at what you do. The better response is: Be different. Carve yourself a niche or two or three in the market. Study what major news organizations and wire services cover – and how. Identify the gaps. Then strive to fill those gaps.
For example, during and after 9/11 I lived in New York and covered the United Nations as a freelancer. During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the effectiveness of past UN anti-Iraq resolutions came under scrutiny. So I wrote a slew of historical “backgrounders” and “explainers” for U.S. papers to show why those resolutions proved ineffective.
In October 2010, Hungary grabbed international headlines when a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum-production “red sludge” collapsed, causing post-Communist Eastern Europe’s worse ecological disaster. I marked my calendar, and in October 2011 followed up with one-year-later features for Foreign Policy and the CSMonitor.
In early 2011, while living in Slovakia, I watched the Arab Spring unfold in North Africa – and wondered how to contribute to the coverage, short of parachuting in there myself … along with thousands of other Western media. Instead, I reported for Foreign Policy from Slovakia, explaining what Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries could learn from Eastern Europe’s anti-Communist revolutions two decades earlier.
In each of these examples, there was no real demand from editors for such coverage. Yet I convinced my editors of the value-added of my contribution. You can, too.
Q. What is the future for international journalism? What options should journalists now be looking at to further their careers?
Despite gloomy forecasts about the “death” of international journalism, I agree with longtime overseas chroniclers like Timothy Garton Ash: we’ll always need credible foreign correspondents for the “witnessing, deciphering and interpreting” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/08/long-live-the-foreign-correspondent) of events and trends in faraway lands.
However, it’s another question as to whether the current or the next crop of young international freelance journalists can live exclusively off of their reporting and writing – or if they’ll be paid anything at all for such contributions.
It depends on many factors, like: the demand for news, features or commentary from your corner of the globe (though reporting from hot-spots again means you have more competitors); how affordable the cost of living is in your region; how deep the pockets are of your clientele; your own level of energy and ambition; the sort of topics you specialize in (for example, writing about business and investment may be more lucrative than writing about labor and environment); your willingness to compromise and report on topics, or for certain clients, that do not excite you – but pay well – in order to subsidize the reporting that does inspire you; and so on.
Since freelancing itself is rarely lucrative, I suspect that many who want to live and report from abroad may need to compromise on if they can do it full-time. This may mean balancing it with a part-time, even a full-time, job doing something else, like teaching, editing or PR, or writing for a company or NGO. That sort of thing. In fact, now that I’m in Lesotho and living in the developing world for the first time, I see how frantic international non-for-profit organizations are to produce human-interest “success stories” that show sponsors and other supporters how effectively they spend donor-dollars. In some cases, the organization is ready to pay someone to do it – or teach them how to do it themselves. Describing a situation over here, to make it accessible for an audience over there goes to the heart of what we foreign correspondents do.
Q. What kind of work do you most enjoy doing? What’s next for you?
More than two decades later, I still enjoy the thrill of producing my own journalism – though I’m now shifting toward longer-form writing, with a couple book projects. (One on China, the other on Lesotho.) That said, I’m surprised to see how much I enjoy teaching young journalists and student-journalists. Especially here in Lesotho.
When I taught university journalism for two years in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which were already 20 years into the post-Communist transformation from dictatorship to democracy, my aim was to teach young Slovaks and Czechs the need for watchdog journalism – and how to hold their leaders accountable for their words and deeds.
In Hong Kong, where I’ll soon return for a fourth stint, I teach mostly mainland Chinese graduate students. China is one of the most heavily censored countries in the world, but it’s also the emerging global superpower. In my own modest way, the type of journalism they learn to produce just may shape the kind of superpower that China becomes.
Then there’s Lesotho, which suffers the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection – a staggering 23 percent – and 40 percent of its children are malnourished. Yet no real nuts-and-bolts journalism education exists in the country. So focusing in on “health journalism” feels like a matter of life and death. Teaching ethnic-Basotho journalists how to report health issues in a more serious, responsible way may not only improve public health, but even save a life. So, yes, I’m enjoying that work.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add that I’ve missed?
Despite all the challenges I’ve noted above, nothing should discourage the hardier of your readers to at least try to freelance – especially to try it from foreign lands. Sure, this career path has turned my hair prematurely grey, but I haven’t regretted any of it.
Visit Michael’s website at http://jordanink.wordpress.com.