By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting
BRATISLAVA – Success in doing international reporting as a freelancer isn’t about what transpires in a foreign land; it lies in the thorough preparation done back home, well before your departure.
Why? Because the reporting trip will cost a bundle, and your time spent on the ground will be limited. So it’s essential that you can collect the story elements you need as efficiently as possible. With 15 years of experience behind me, I can now gather enough material so that I can work on up to six news features during an eight-day reporting trip.
The essential formula to make this work can be summed up this way: Start by producing a salable idea, then deliver what you’ve promised. There are two approaches to finding stories, after you’ve targeted a country or region in which to focus your reporting.
*Search the Web to learn about something interesting or important happening in that country or region.
*Pursue topics of interest to you, then find out if these issues are compelling in the country you’ve targeted.
The most promising approach, though, is a combination of the two, if you hope to convince editors to send you there.
Hints About Finding a Story
If, thanks to Genghis Khan, Mongolia fascinates you, then sit and think: “What exactly interests me about Mongolia today?” Business? Tourism? The environment? Human rights? Yak-herding? Let Google lead you to appropriate Web sites and start brainstorming ideas. Save relevant articles and reports in your file. And once you decide on a direction to take, you’ll want to strengthen your piece by citing any relevant research, history, or quotes from experts found in this file.
Brainstorm not just for ideas, but also potential outlets for a story. Finding possible matches for your article is half the battle. Study the publication’s style. Determine if and how it takes freelance submissions. Find out if it’s published something similar to your topic. If the fit is still good, figure out which is the right editor to contact with your idea.
Your pitch, though, will certainly have to be more specific than “Yak-Herding in Mongolia.” Every editor makes a simple calculation: is this story interesting or important enough for my readers that I should allocate precious dollars from my dwindling budget? Is there some new trend, legislation, court case or related news event now affecting the yak-herding profession? Any movement in this story? Is the situation getting better? Worse? Or stagnating?
Context is important, too. If yak-herding exists in other countries, what makes the Mongolian situation unique? Or is it a microcosm of a region-wide, even global, trend? If unique, that’s great: uniqueness sells. If part of a trend, though, it may also enhance its salability. Mongolian yak-herding could be the spine of your story, but sprinkling in anecdotes, statistics, and expert quotes from elsewhere would give your article far broader scope.
If you succeed in selling an editor on “The Uniqueness of Mongolian Yak-Herding in the 21st Century,” then the next step is to figure out where you’ll go in Mongolia. With whom will you meet? Never forget the essential difference between a reporter doing phone interviews from home and a correspondent in the field. Being there means you should “see” the story, capture its color and paint a picture—in order to show, not tell, readers what the story is and why it matters.
To do this, you’ll need to find “central locations”—any place where you can see the story and its players in action. I can’t overstate how important it is that you locate these central reporting locations and key people. Humanizing people and their situations is essential, and you do this by painting a picture of them in their natural environment. Liven up your copy, take the reader there, and earn that foreign dateline. Once home, it’s relatively easy to fill holes in your copy with follow-up calls and e-mails to experts and other sources.
Your advance research serves another vital purpose. Be alert for relevant, well-informed sources—in this case, perhaps members of the Union of Mongolian Yak-Herders or the Central Asian Yak-Herding Historical Society. (These are intended as fictional names; any similarity to actual organizations is purely coincidental!) Contact them to help decide where to go, then what to see and whom you should interview, then keep these Web addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses close by.
Start arranging visits at least a month before you depart on your trip to ensure you won’t come away empty-handed. Too much time and money (yours and possibly a publication’s) is riding on a successful outcome.
This is not to say that your itinerary should be fully planned. Mine never is. But certainly enough should be in place to make the first two days productive. Then, the rest requires persistence, flexibility, quick thinking and perhaps an over-reliance on your translator. If you have a budget that can handle the cost, you can hire a professional translator.
I almost always opt for a smart young university student from the local English or journalism school, or a young journalist willing to work for modest compensation and enthusiastic about this shared adventure.
With growing demand for multimedia reporting, you will minimally want to bring along a quality digital camera. Or take it one step further and carry a video camera and even audio equipment, to capture visuals and sound for a short film or audio slideshow.
That’s more or less what you’ll need to get started. But by now you have me so excited about this Mongolian yak-herding story, I’ll be booking my flight to Ulan Bator.