Work as a Freelance Foreign Correspondent
Opportunities for Enterprising Journalists Abroad Have Expanded
By Jason Motlagh
|Foreign freelance journalists often write, take photos, and film overseas on a wide variety of assignments.
If you seek adventure with purpose, are curious to a fault, prefer work to be physical as well as mental, and can never resist a challenge, consider becoming a freelance foreign correspondent.
The journalism profession has fallen on hard times, and for the foreseeable future the market will grow leaner. A shrinking U.S. appetite for international news, loss of advertising to the Internet, and the proliferation
of Web-based and cable news outlets have forced news agencies to cut staff and close foreign bureaus. The upshot of this evolution is that opportunities for young, hungry, and enterprising would-be journalists have expanded.
Regardless of whether one wants to make a career change or is a listless beat reporter hoping to make a quantum leap from covering dump truck spills to breaking news abroad, becoming a freelance foreign correspondent, or “stringer,” for
newspapers, wire services, magazines, radio, television, and Internet outlets is well within reach.
In an industry as cutthroat as journalism, short-term sacrifices may be necessary to prime oneself for freelance work. While I had done some writing for my college newspaper, I had no formal journalistic training. To master
the basics I spent five months as unpaid intern at a news wire in Washington, D.C. actually paying out of pocket to go to work.
My compensation was the chance to do deadline reporting for a slew of desks where I learned the bread and butter of the trade from seasoned veterans. When I eventually struck off as a freelancer, the skills and contacts
I had amassed were almost as indispensable as the stack of bylined clips I left with—worth their weight in gold since they bought me credibility when marketing my services to major newspapers as a freelancer. For a listing of internships
paid and unpaid go to JournalismJobs.com. Also check out newspaper websites and online newsites to learn more about possible internship programs offered. Journalism school, while suitable for some, is not essential; the key is to find an outlet and start writing hard
Where to Go as a Freelancer
The most important choice a green freelancer will make is where to go. Paris may sound ideal for most, which means jobs are scarce. Alternately, a gig as a war correspondent in Baghdad appeals to a certain breed of
adventurer. However, inexperience could be lethal and expenses are prohibitive. Women, in particular, should also be aware of cultural mores that may impede journalistic work.
Bear in mind that a stimulating environment will bring out your best, but practicality is paramount. Select a destination where a steady stream of marketable news can be expected, competition is low, and the cost
of living even lower. Venezuela, for example, might be a safe bet for a Spanish speaker: a low-budget country, its president is leveraging oil wealth to lead a leftward revival throughout the region, much to the chagrin of the U.S.
Learn your destination. Read up on its history and the latest goings-on. The Web is integral for pre-trip research: look for the kinds of stories being filed from the place that interests you and what neighboring
areas produce news in case of a lull in your neck of the woods.
My choice to head to West Africa was calculated. It is a traditionally under-reported region where the work is difficult and few correspondents care to stick around for long. Expenses are relatively low. I’d
had a fascination with the area since childhood. And speaking French fluently would give me an edge.
Language proficiency will not only save you money on translators, it will also lend depth and texture to your reporting.
Line Up Your Clients
Once you’ve got a place in your sights, it’s time to line up your clients. There’s no worse feeling than being on the other end of the phone across an ocean trying to pitch a hot story and the editor
doesn’t remember your name. Avoid this frustration by laying the groundwork in advance.
First, ask any old hands for contacts and you’ll be surprised who they know and where. Otherwise, cold call the foreign editor (editor's note: online directories of international newspapers or online news sites include Worldwide Newspapers and InkDrop) and briefly introduce yourself and your plans. Email a copy of your CV and latest
clips, check if they already have a regular stringer where you hope to go and if they would accept submissions. Boldness is essential to succeed independently overseas, so best to start now. Because you will be paying your own way (though this
can change later) it’s a win-win situation, as the editor gets a person on the ground and you have a potential patron. Follow up with more phone calls as the date of departure approaches to build rapport and discuss story ideas, asking
the editor his or her perspective and what kind of stories he or she would like to receive.
Be sure to get a comprehensive health insurance plan that covers you abroad, as well as any shots and prescription medication needs. I chose long-term insurance plan from International Medical Group . If you are traveling to an at-risk area, be absolutely positive that your insurance applies. (Note: War reporting presents a serious risk for stringers and merits a separate
article. Without institutional support, operating costs are prohibitively high as journalists today are often marked for death or kidnapping like combatants. Go to the Committee to Protect Journalists website to
view its journalist safety guide and learn more about conflict zones.)
Check to see that your passport will remain valid, and secure all required visas for your target country. In some cases, it may be preferable to travel on a tourist visa to avoid bureaucratic red tape and then arrange
press accreditation on arrival (use discretion in countries where press freedoms are limited). Also get updated travel information and advisories at travel.state.gov.
Arrival at Your Gig as a Freelance Journalist
Before striking off, try to get an idea of what you’re likely to spend each month. Do not expect to have an instant cash flow from work on arrival, and give yourself at least a 2-month budget cushion to hold
you over before you start selling stories. At times, non-journalistic work may be necessary. Setting up shop overseas takes time. Finding a place to live, opening a bank account, getting a cell phone or Internet connection, securing press accreditation,
and networking should keep you busy for a while. By all means, approach local journalists for advice. They might also serve as translators or fixers for future projects.
Additionally, it is worth introducing yourself to other foreign correspondents to avoid turf-jumping; sometimes undermanned newswires may need an extra hand and extending your services can lead to solid work or even
a full-time job.
Prices paid for stories vary according to the news outlet and the medium. A typical newspaper story, for example, can fetch anywhere from $150 to $500, with more for pictures. Some outlets will demand exclusive rights
to a story, while others will allow you to resell a piece so long as it is not in a competing market. A savvy freelancer learns to spin a story in many directions for maximum profits that can make a comfortable living in many developing
Again, when dealing with overworked editors, be brief and to the point on story pitches over the phone—what the angle of the story is and why it matters, never forgetting the specific needs and style of the
client you’re dealing with. Email is a cheaper option for queries, though not always as effective as the phone.
Because earth-shattering spot news is not an everyday thing, freelancers must work for more mundane trade publications to make ends meet in between stories worthy of a front-page splash in The New York Times. Find
out what industries or resources are prevalent in your target country and pitch work to trade journals, newsletters, and online media. One might also do radio spots for National Public Radio, blog for Slate.com, tape raw footage for TV, or
write lengthy features for a travel magazine. Multitaskers have near limitless potential. Look for niches and offbeat stories overlooked by the big media where you can provide value-added material. One advantage
to freelancing is the ability to search out engaging projects and write better about less, rather than churning out copy to meet daily quotas as most staff correspondents must.
Freelancing abroad as a journalist is not for everybody. It takes time and pluck to get established, and even then the pay is rarely worth cart-wheeling over. But if you want to become a public servant who lives the
news, preferring a dynamic lifestyle that will plumb the depths of your intellect, endurance, and street smarts, work as a freelance foreign correspondent. The jobs are there for those who remember that fortune favors the bold—especially
those with a sound plan.
A Foreign Freelance Journalist’s Checklist
Laptop: Find a lightweight, durable model that can take a beating on the road. Go with name brands that are serviceable abroad. Windows word processing software and Photoshop are staples for formatting
and organizing photos if you are going to shoot. Also, be sure to purchase a USB stick to handily transfer files. A printer may also be useful for research and documents.
Fax/modem: Connects your laptop with the outside world; internal is ideal for filing stories, sending and receiving faxes, and email correspondence.
Shortwave radio: Shortwave radios (Editor's note: Sony and Grundig recommended by author) will pick up a signal just about anywhere; tuning into the BBC World Service is indispensable abroad to keep abreast of breaking news or kill time.
Recorder: Both digital and tape cassette recorders are fine for interviews, depends on preference. And be sure to bring along plenty of AA or AAA batteries.
Notebooks: Vital for taking notes in the field. Smaller is preferable for easy back-pocket placement on the go; leather-bound Moleskins at amazon.com are recommended.
Camera: Most digital cameras today are capable of taking salable photos. It is worth buying a back-up memory card and card reader to download photos to your laptop for transmission. For those in search
of a pro-level camera that is user-friendly and modestly priced, I suggest Nikon’s DSLR models in their most recent affordable incarnations.
Calling: Bring a GSM cell phone for all work related calling and find out what local plans are available at your destination. Pay-as-you-go plans are good for the commitment shy; also bring some international
phone cards for calls back home.
Money: Credit cards are great for emergencies but not always accepted. Bring a diverse assortment of travelers’ checks and hard currency in small denominations to stash or store in a bank account
in-country. No one should depart without a hidden money belt to avoid theft (www.magellans.com or www.amazon.com and search for "money belt").
Adapters: Essential for all electronic gear. Take your pick of universal voltage adapters at outlets such as www.brookstone.com.
CV/Online portfolio: Many journalists now have personal websites where potential employers and perfect strangers can peruse their work. Otherwise, don’t forget to carry hard copies of your resume and best clips; you never know who you’ll bump into.
Jason Motlagh is an award-winning writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent many years freelancing and working for prestigious news organizations. He has reported from more than 40 countries for various U.S. and European news media, in addition to his impressive photography and film productions. See his extensive work on Jason Motlaugh's website.