By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting
BRATISLAVA – For those who want to do real foreign reporting, the Transitions Online Foreign-Correspondence Training Course offers preparation through the biannual program it created in 2005. Attracting 15 to 25 participants each January and July, the class takes place in the historic, cobble-stoned city of Prague with lectures from journalists with The Economist, the BBC and other well-respected news organizations.
I often kick off our time together with a lecture about how to break into foreign correspondence. While my colleagues are primarily full-time staff, the 15 years I’ve spent traveling to 25 countries as a freelance foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and others means that I bring a different perspective. In the digital age, this type of freelance reporting work is changing in important ways, though there is much about doing these stories that remains the same.
Here are a few pieces of advice I share with the participants, especially those interested in working as free-lance journalists:
Find a cheap place to live. At first, the assignments and revenue may not roll in. You won’t want a high cost of living as added pressure. So head south or east. When I lived in post-Communist Hungary in the 1990s, one story payment typically covered one month’s rent.
Invest in learning. Take a course in photography or camera work or film editing since demands for multimedia are far greater now. The ability to enhance your story-telling with a slideshow, streaming video or even a short film might be enough to turn a “maybe” from an editor into a “yes.” For the past two years, I have not travelled to an assignment without expecting to shoot photographs that will appear with what I write. [See my photo essay about the hundreds of Kosovo Roma who still live in a United Nations camp atop a toxic dump, 10 years after being displaced by war.]
Think of yourself as an entrepreneur. This means not shying away from the “start-up” costs of any business, such as setting up a home office, purchasing professional-quality technology and other investments of time and energy that may not pay immediate dividends.
Get published: Having a story published with a foreign dateline, if it’s for your university’s publication or a local town paper, can open a lot of doors. It’s the quality of your work that matters—as does demonstrating your initiative in separating yourself from those who only talk about doing such foreign reporting. Likewise, being published in a prestigious publication, even if at first this means receiving little or no pay, may be a worthwhile sacrifice to get your foot in the door of more serious outlets.
Diversify your portfolio by doing work for multiple clients. In the late 1990s, I once travelled from Budapest to Macedonia to write stories for four separate clients. None competed with the other and none of the topics overlapped. But reporting I did informed each of the articles. After 10 days of gathering information and doing interviews, I returned home to write. Today, with media outlets facing greater financial pressures, there is greater need to develop a larger stable of clients and piggyback reporting assignments, when possible. You can also use reporting about one event or situation to spin off several different angles for various media outlets.
For freelancers, time is money. Be prepared for how much time and effort are expended in researching story ideas, writing queries and locating sources, not to mention arranging logistics for a reporting trip and documenting expenses when it is finished. There’s little that you can do about this.
Fill gaps in coverage: At first, most of the stories you do will likely fill the gaps between what wire services cover and what major news outlets report. Often, the best stories are found when the international press corps has left after reporting a major news event. I visited Kosovo in 1999, several months after the NATO airstrikes died down, and sold several follow-up stories to the Christian Science Monitor. Iran—one year after this past June’s election—would offer similar possibilities.
Adopt a region: As I’ve done in Central and Eastern Europe, carve a niche for your reporting. Find unique stories in nearby countries, or identify and explain a region-wide trend. Peg stories to a timely hook—passage of a new law, an important court case, a political campaign, revealing new research. Explain to editors why this story should be interesting or important—or ideally, both—to an audience back home.