For this newbie freelance journalist in Istanbul, July 1 was a day of celebration in more ways than one.
It was the day I received a much-awaited delight by mail. My residence permit, (ikamet in Turkish), the document that has been the bane of my Turkey life for the last two months. This, at last, makes me a fully legal foreign resident of this country.
But that was not the only good news. July 1 was also the day I got published by a UK national newspaper. It was the day I felt like I’d finally arrived in journalism.
Ironically, it was the bane of my life that produced the winning story. I wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph about the difficulties expats have been experiencing in Turkey as they struggle to obtain residency.
The ikamet situation seemed too serious to go unreported. Expats, including myself, were unable to leave Turkey while waiting for their permits to arrive. Any situation where expats are stranded in a country through no fault of their own, but due simply to poor bureaucracy, surely merits reporting.
During my own limbo period in Istanbul I saw numerous foreign travel opportunities slip through my grasp, including one which would have been my first ever visit to the United States. This left me feeling frustrated and on edge.
I got in touch with other expats on various forums and Facebook groups, searching for a solution to this problem. I discovered that an awful lot of people were in the same boat, many of them Brits like me.
That’s when the idea of pitching to the Telegraph came to mind. This kind of issue would be a perfect fit for their Expat section.
A fellow freelancer gave me the editor’s email address, and I pitched the idea to her. I had no clue what to expect.
But a couple of days later, she replied with enthusiasm, asking me to go ahead with the story.
I spent the next couple of weeks trawling through the Turkey forums, interviewing expats by Skype and Facebook, trying to wheedle out the truth from among the many rumours and red herrings.
It was a challenging story to write, mainly because the truth was so hard to pin down. The Turkish residency rules literally seemed to change on a daily basis.
My first version of the story came back from the Telegraph asking for a lot of edits. So I chased further information, verified as many things as possible, and added extra quotes. The Telegraph’s standards are high, and it was a great learning process for me.
Finally, the piece was watertight and ready to go.
On the day it was published, my story was most-viewed on the Expat section. It was shared all over the Turkey online forums and Facebook pages. I received plenty of comments and, so far, no abuse. There’ll be enough of the latter, no doubt, once I get something published in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section…That’s one of my next goals.
Read Samantha North’s previous guest post: Why I moved to Istanbul
Samantha North is a British freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She specialises in city branding, and also writes about travel, culture and expat issues for Time Out Istanbul and the Daily Telegraph. Her website is samanthanorth.com and her Twitter handle is @placesbrands.
The key to a successful freelance life abroad is to get another job. I get woken up by the alarm at this hour to commute to The Day Job. I need to pay the bills, for dinners and frequent travel.
But seriously, unless you’ve got various regular clients and have the energy to freelance all the time, another job helps to relieve the stress. Don’t worry, I freelance a lot too – for stuff I care about, not just for financial survival. That’s the benefit of having a safe, reliable income until you’re a big famous writer.
I usually dismiss the alarm and sleep more. The Day Job doesn’t mind that I come in late.
Get on the subway, it’s pretty crammed. Here I usually use The Guardian news app on my phone to read articles offline. It’s the start to my reading and I read a lot. It helps you come up with ideas if you read half the internet every day. In your journalism field of interest obviously, not internet fluff about boners and 21 Things You Need To Know Before You’re 25.
While holding the subway rail and trying not to make too many eyes at the pretty subway girl in the corner, a half-formed idea comes to me. It might not go anywhere, but I note it down on my phone’s notes app. It could be half a sentence. Whatever. Ideas are the reason for your existence as a freelancer abroad.
Swipe into the office, which is a TV station with studios, editing computers, banks of TV screens, a make-up room and a canteen that serves, in the vivid parlance of a colleague, “toilet water”. It is free toilet water though and honestly the food isn’t that bad. Anyway, here the work at The Day Job begins. I turn on the computer and log on to my favourite blogs, check my email and read my regular websites. I’m numb to the world as I fall into a content black hole.
I am awoken from my reading coma – “Did you receive the script I sent you?”, a colleague asks. This is the bulk of my job at the TV station; editing and writing scripts for presenters and voice-overs. It is not overly taxing or time-consuming, leaving plenty of time for reading interesting stuff, thinking about pitches and, when it’s extra quiet, writing freelance articles and blog posts. Oh, and the pay is good.
Go for a brief walk around the office. Idly flirt, snoop on what people are working on, avoid the boss. Chat to my American co-workers who are the loudest people in the office. A good walk is vital to oil the ideas and half-thoughts bubbling away in the soup of your mind. You never know when something good will rise up out of the slime.
Go for lunch. The dilemma everyday: eat bad canteen food for free, OR, eat better food not for free?
Decided on not-free noodles today. Tasty. Back in the lobby of the day job building. Walk around and practice Chinese with the office girls. Listen to the Aussie rant about his Chinese co-workers. Drink some coffee.
Take a nap.
If you’re going to be a successful freelancer abroad, then you’d better learn how to pitch. And know when 9am is in the country of the publication to which you intend to pitch. I assume that’s when emails are first checked. Editors: feel free to tell me what exact time you check your emails!
A good pitch should be confident, concise and have a few vivid details. A strong pitch should be easily imaginable.
Go and record a voice-over about Chinese models working in Beijing for the day job. While I’m reading it over I think “hmm, I wonder what it’s like being a model here?” BOOM! An idea, an angle. Stories are everywhere if you just observe the curious parts of any subject. Some of the stories I’m currently developing:
The dangers of eating spicy food
Why young foreign architects are heading to China
Education in China – how is it changing?
This week I’ve sent five pitches to three editors from two publications. It helps if you know more than one editor at one place. Sometimes I will stud an email with mini-pitches, little pitchlets, if it’s an introductory email. Or I will surround a pitch I think has the best chance of commission with other pitches to lessen the chance that all of them will be rejected.
By this time I’ve usually sent out my pitches to the UK editors. The US ones will still be asleep. I will have also edited several scripts and recorded some voice-overs for the TV shows we work on in the office.
Clock off, swipe out of The Day Job.
Eat dinner. Head to bar, drink.
Get home, read more. Hear back from one of the UK editors I pitched earlier. Send pitches to the US editors. Work on this blog post. Stream a TV show. Start to feel sleepy. Have a brainwave and wake up reaching for my phone. Type an idea into it.
This post is indebted to Sarah Hepola.
Recently, a piece I wrote, originally destined for CNN, was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China blog section. It took me a long time to find a home for the article after it was cancelled by CNN but its eventual publication, which was unpaid, has led to opportunities from, among others, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The article is about Chinese journalism students, graduates and China’s journalism industry. It was fascinating to report on and some of the answers I found surprised and befuddled me. Here are some of the highlights:
“I think the Marxist view on journalism is right,” says Wang Zihao, a 22-year-old journalism major at Beijing’s Communications University of China. “Sometimes what the [Western] journalists do is just outrageous. They should have more professional ethics.”
According to 2013 government figures, there are over 250,000 journalists with press cards, which are mandatory for professional journalists in China.
“Sometimes one person has to do things that are supposed to be done by three people. So this is not discrimination against women, it’s just that men are better at working under pressure,” says Mr. Wang.
Issues of censorship and political agendas are, perhaps contrary to foreigners’ beliefs, much discussed on campuses and online. But the students’ opinions may not be what foreigners expect
For the whole article please use this link: http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/chinablog/study-journalism-china/
It was while I was reading an article about how the Chinese government was putting extra pressure on its journalists in The Washington Post that I came up with the idea for this story. A section in that Post article mentioned how student journalists in China and university faculties were also facing pressure, and I thought: “hmmmm, I wonder what’s it like to be a Chinese journalism student?“
So I pitched this idea to an editor at CNN’s website, who I had made contact with using Twitter.
Twitter’s a fantastic resource for journalists, and I have gotten email addresses, sources and contacts aplenty from it; usually I just ask – “hey do you take freelance, if so, what’s your email?” – or something along those lines.
The editor liked the idea, and off I went. I asked a Chinese friend to help me with the reporting and because she herself had gone through a journalism degree in China.
Cue lots of research and reporting.
I wrote up the article, during which the commissioning editor at CNN had gone on maternity leave.
My article got passed on to a couple of other editors, one of whom asked for the story to be re-reported. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that – and they eventually spiked the story. It was my first ever story cancellation but I guess it happens.
Anyway, I tried to sell the story on to other outlets all of whom liked the story but felt it was perhaps a bit too niche a topic. It was picked up eventually as you all now know, although for free. I did hope that it would be a paid for, but the value of it being published anyway exceeded my expectations.
It was re-tweeted and favourited by dozens of journalists, writers and editors, partly I guess because the story is about journalism. I followed up on these and introduced myself. Cue opportunities to pitch editors who’ve seen my work – after reading the article – and who I now know enough to feel that when I pitch them that we’re not complete strangers (every little helps).
I will think and search for new pitches, because bylines in such storied publications as The Washington Post or The New York Times would be awesome.
I’ve written about being a poverty-stricken writer before. Tales of squalor and survival. On having to eat street-cooked sweet potatoes for a week because I was waiting to be paid. On readjusting attitudes toward money, or rather the accumulation of it, beliefs which I still hold. But now the going should be easier.
I recently moved into a new apartment. It’s in a nice area of Beijing where rich couples stroll around in the evenings. It’s like a little community, a more cosmopolitan part of a city that’s usually gritty – Beijing is perhaps one of the more squalid capital cities of the world.
Here is a photo of the rented bedroom where I previously lived, from October to May:
My living quarters for seven months, rented for 1200 Chinese Yuan/month…Apologies for the hat.
And here is my new place, still to be furnished:
“‘Cause I’m movin’ on up now” – as Bobby Gillespie once sang.
My old room cost me RMB 1200 a month, or £120. It was a tiny little place, where I could almost touch the walls, just big enough for a single bed, a desk, a sink and a wardrobe. My girlfriend commented that it was the smallest and horriblest place she’d ever seen someone living in (thanks!) and that the bathroom was like the setting for the movie SAW.
The new place is RMB 2400 a month, or £240. I will go to a Beijing IKEA in the near future to furnish the place. I’ve taken on a part-time tutoring job for an eight-year-old Chinese girl. The monthly fee from this pays the rent. I get RMB 10,000 a month (£1000) from my full-time job at the TV company. My freelance journalism pays around £300-500 monthly, depending on my own productivity.
In total then, my monthly salary is around £1600, or 16,000 Chinese RenMinBi. In the UK, £1600 to live on per month is not too bad although this would depend on where you lived. In London I can imagine, after rent, bills, transport and food, it would not stretch very far.
But in China, even in Beijing, this is quite a comfortable salary, what a 35-year-old manager might earn at a medium-sized media company so I’ve been told.
It has taken me seven months to reach this stage. For about seven months now, my UK bank account has been in the red, where I’ve made fervent use of my bank overdraft to finance rent deposits and visa runs to Hong Kong. It is just now back in the black.
The Chinese bank account, after paying for three months rent in advance and a deposit, still has left a sizable residue that will easily tide me over until my next paycheck. Which I will use for a 20-day vacation in Thailand. Life is alright, for now…
My productivity lately has nosedived. Temperatures in Beijing meanwhile peaked – last week it hit 41 Celsius. Summer in general is a difficult time for me. I find it harder to concentrate on work.
It feels perverse to be indoors hunched over staring at a computer screen when people are doing summery things. Hormones also go through the roof (or is that just me?) and the mind drifts toward an addled state fixated on hedonism, idleness and pleasures.
I’ve got a couple of commissioned pieces on the go. My day job (at the TV company) has been more demanding of late, requiring more energy but really that’s an excuse. Another disruption is that I’ve been homeless for about three weeks now. I’ve been staying (and overstaying) on friends’ couches around Beijing, after me and other tenants were kicked out of our rooms by the landlord. Landlords have far too much power.
I finally found a new place I was happy with but can’t move in until June 11th, so tonight I will be sleeping on a couch at my workplace. I’m writing this post now at my office’s desk at 11pm Beijing time.
So what should a freelancer do during this season? I’d like to know what other freelancers do, so please do leave a comment. I guess many cannot really afford to take much time off if their livelihood depend on the income, and they don’t live in a cheaper location such as China. Summer is often a dry period for news and contracted freelancers for newspapers often take time off.
I guess summer is a time for reading, relaxing, doing what humans like to do, traveling, swimming, eating, drinking, lounging, sexing, snorkeling in sapphire waters on a James Bond beach, taking time off and making memories that when the cold and drab colours of winter come back will offer some reserve of sun.
Soon I’ll be reunited with my half Japanese, half Ukrainian Canadian girlfriend in Thailand for 10 days. It’s going to be awesome. In the meantime I will work on two 5000-word essays on the freelancing life in Beijing and my Chinese political heritage for two editors that might one day be powerful champions. I will try to write but I guess I will mostly read. And that is just as important.
Plenty of would-be journalists fancy themselves also to be photographers. It’s a visual way of documentation and taking pictures provides immediate feedback (something we crave) and a tactile form of expression.
But photojournalists, and especially their most extreme form the war photographer, are a breed apart. I have slummed it as a journalist, living in tiny rooms, subsisting on sweet potatoes, but those guys! They go from couch to couch, living off their assignments, eating whatever is at hand, and trying to go from grant to grant. It’s probably not like that, but I’ve known a few and read about more, and the truth is not unlike the popular image.
If you want to be a photojournalist, you have to dedicate yourself to that path. As a journalist and writer first and foremost, I don’t try to impinge on their vocation by assuming some photographer pose (at least, try to not to…), but I do like to dabble, and taking photos while on assignment, especially if you’re interviewing someone a little bit special or going somewhere new, it helps to have a camera as the imagery you take can always come in handy. I’ve had a few published, and it’s always nice to see photo credits mirror bylines as you feel the visual is mirroring the auditory. In other words, the photos and the words attain a stronger, more singular identity.
Here are some camera suggestions for journalists [they are not intended for professionals, photojournalists, or even amateur street photographers] -
The Canon EOS M (mark 2) is a small, compact-sized camera with the ability to change lenses. Inside is a sensor very similar to the sensors found in Canon’s entry to mid-level DSLR range. That means you get the same picture quality as the DSLRs but in a very unobtrusive package that you can carry around all day and shoot without fuss. If you attach the 22mm lens, it’s a small enough device to fit into a jacket or coat pocket. The 22mm lens gives you a 40mm equivalent view (all those old street photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson were taken on 50mm lenses).
A quick note on fixed-length lenses (like the one in picture above) versus zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are useful things to have, and you’ll have to decide what you want. But fixed-length lenses are often sharper and because it limits you forces you to think more, and if you want to zoom you’ll have to move your feet! Getting closer to the subject is important for a journalist.
You’ll want the mark 2, not the first version of the camera, as the autofocus has been much improved. This camera has good colour rendition, takes nice looking photos with background blur and is quick and ready for action. It won’t be as fast focusing on moving subjects as a DSLR but the smaller size and lower weight might mean it’ll be taken out more. £300, including 18-55mm lens.
The Canon S120 is truly pocket-sized. It’s smaller than most smartphones. But the sensor it has (which is relatively large for a camera of its size) means it’ll be far better in low light. This thing is incredibly easy to use, is great for snapping out and about, day or night, for a landscape photo, or portraits at a bar. It’s quick to shoot video, just press the dedicated button, and takes smooth and great looking videos, even at night. Two cons: if you’re taking lots of photos battery life only lasts about half a day. And photos can look a bit too smooth (as in the in-camera JPEG processing will smooth over people’s skin and background details). £260.
Best for pictures of people
This camera is the best camera for portraits. Often when you take photos for articles, it’s the people that are important, the ones you’ve interviewed or have some role in the story. This camera is optimised for that with great skin tones, great fill flash and colour correction for every kind of lighting condition. It also takes good street scenes and landscapes, although the colour won’t be as accurate and vibrant for landscape and nature photography as the Canons. It has a fixed lens so bear that in mind and it’s more costly than the other cameras featured, but it works great, has a large sensor, would probably work well for years and looks like a journalist’s camera. £869. Consider the Fuijfilm X-M1 if you want to be able to swap lenses.
Consider the alternative, or the best quality photos for vastly less money than the digital equivalent:
Why is this cheap, plasticky thing better than the cameras above it? It’s simple. The sensors found in most compact digital cameras are actually very small. Basically, the larger the sensor the more information it can process, the better the low-light ability and more lower depth of field it can achieve. But this is for digital sensors which have become replacements for film.
The usual size for film is 35mm. This size actually dwarfs most digital compact camera sensor sizes (like the Canon S120 shown above, or even the EOS M). To get the equivalent 35mm size in digital, what’s called “full-frame”, you have to shell out about £2000 for a camera such as the Canon 5D mk3. Which are much larger and heavier than the Olympus camera pictured.
In other words, most film cameras have much greater low light and colour sensitivity than most digital cameras, because their “sensor” — each exposure of film — is far bigger than what’s available in digital cameras. Of course digital is more convenient, but if you’re on a more considered or more personal journalistic project, do consider film cameras. The one pictured costs about £50 in eBay and is noted for its accurate autofocus, sharp lens and smooth operation. You’ll have to do a bit of research on different film types, because they produce different tones, but the look and feel of the photos are different to digital. Most processing places are able to scan films too so you also have digital copies.
The iPhone camera is still better than most Android phone offerings. I’ve written before on its use and application as a camera. Images taken with an iPhone, sometimes from conflict zones, like Libya, have graced the front page of Time magazine, published in major newspapers and magazines around the world. It is discrete, small, works brilliantly and takes photos. The important thing is it takes photos. What’s in them is still up to you.
Choose based on how much weight you want to carry, how easy and unobtrusive it will be to take pictures, and how the camera will encourage you to take it up and shoot. Enjoyment is important.
Why I didn’t include any Sony cameras – because they have poor colour accuracy, which is fine for Facebook etc, but not so great for publishing in a journalistic setting. Their colour profiles lean too heavy on the greens and yellows.
Why I didn’t include any DSLRs – because they’re all pretty much the same now and they all work excellently and are all equally capable of taking brilliant photos. Any DSLR will work great.