If you were a young person with an imaginative mind and you lived in London or New York in the year of 1872 and you wanted to know what it was like to be in a far-away place on the other side of the world, you might have picked up a newspaper.
It might have been the New-York Evening Post or The Times and you would flick through to the foreign pages. There you would find reports from Indochina or South Africa or Japan, and it would be written with style and insight: a blend of personal description, of different manners and exotic practices, and a narrative of events.
It was reportage; the correspondent’s job not only to transmit news but to bring alive the details of a foreign country, offering tantalizing glimpses of another world for curious readers at home.
These reports would be sent via post to their editors, sometimes taking weeks to reach their destination, a letter correspondence from roving reporters that would bring the foreign to the domestic. This is where the term Foreign Correspondent comes from, and still in reports when the rare occasion a journalist needs to use the first person s/he’ll write your correspondent.
So far this year I have traveled to Thailand twice, but entirely not for journalism reasons. But I have also traveled to North Korea and this was for journalism. I filed two stories and a photo gallery. But they were features. I did not seek out war zones or conflict areas, natural disasters or political turmoil. I did not attend any riots or charter a plane to any typhoon-hit areas. When news happens, foreign correspondents will scramble and make a dash to the area affected.
Later this year I am planning to go to Myanmar. It seems a fascinating country (the second largest in southeast Asia) on the cusp of so many developments. I want to go and explore, seek out stories and get to know the place better. I had been developing a Myanmar story for months now, checking up on it, cultivating a source, and a major newspaper was interested in the story. But then someone beat me to the punch with a similar but not-quite-the-same story and the newspaper declined, so now I will attempt to sell it elsewhere.
There’re a lot of unknowns so I feel like I have to go there to get a better nose for the angles that might sell, that might interest editors who don’t really care. They worry not about how interesting something is, but how relevant and resonant a story might be.
I should do a lot of background reading (and video watching) to get a better sense of the country, arrange to go there, talk to as many people as I can find while there, and travel around inside. It might take a month or so. I cannot simply parachute in and expect to write things.
Should a freelance foreign correspondent be expected to dig into time and funds in pursuit of stories while living awhile somewhere new?
I don’t know. I only know what I want to do. And that’s to go to Myanmar. To see what it’s like, find stories and write them. But I will have to try to ensure the best chance possible of being published and being paid. Travel without publication and payment for a traveling journalist is not sustainable and an untenable luxury.
The above photo collects all the gadgetry that I use for my journalism work:
- Olympus digital voice recorder
- LG G2 smartphone
- Lenovo Ideapad S120 touchscreen laptop
- Canon S120 digital camera
The Olympus dictaphone was bought in England after I lost my previous Olympus. It cost £65. It picks up voices very well – defined from background noise. It has a little built-in stand that raises it from a surface, and the ability to slow down audio which comes in handy when transcribing interviews. There are fancier voice recorders out there (Sony do nice expensive ones) but unless you’re looking to record broadcast quality interviews, the Olympus is a lovely piece of kit.
The LG G2 smartphone is a new addition. My previous mobile phone (pictured in the top left of the photo) was a £60 “Softbank” smartphone bought in Hong Kong two years ago. A budget smartphone from 2012 is pretty ancient technology now and was starting to seriously slow, so I bought the LG secondhand in Bangkok for the equivalent of £165. The processor inside it is the generation ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S4 but a step behind the latest S5. So it’s still blazingly quick, and the G2’s camera is a massive upgrade from the Softbank’s and the screen is also about 1,600 times better. I use smartphones to jot down memos and article ideas while on the move; as a kind of scanner (with the camera) and as a phone obvs.
The laptop I picked up in Hong Kong & I wrote about it previously.
The Canon S120 camera was bought in Beijing earlier this year for the equivalent of £256. It works very well. It powers on quickly, focuses quickly and the best thing about it is that it’s incredibly small and unobtrusive. It also takes exceedingly good video. Photos I’ve taken using it have been published by The Telegraph and Aljazeera who paid me $450 for a photo gallery of shots I took in North Korea. I do also own a Canon 450D DSLR (which I used to take the above image) but I hardly use it these days. I didn’t take it to North Korea for instance because I knew it would be more conspicuous than a small compact camera and this would have a greater effect on the behavior of North Korean civilians, and because I knew that fiddling around with the DSLR would cause me to miss shots when the Canon S120 would make me a much more agile photographer.
I’m pretty happy with the equipment I have. The total cost is much less than a grand. Sure it’d be nice to have a Surface Pro 3 which has much better battery life than my current laptop (I like to work in cafes). And perhaps an iPad – for magazine subscriptions – and as a backup browser screen for reference purposes. But they are not essential. Upgrades would be a Samsung Galaxy Note 3: I love the stylus that comes with it; its features are very useful for a freelance journalist. And a Canon EOS M which is a camera slightly larger than the Canon S120 but with picture quality equal to DSLRs.
But I do not like to upgrade quickly. It’s a waste of money that could be spent on travel or experiences or stories. And in the next couple years everything will be that much better again. So don’t obsess about your kit, think instead about how to make the most of it.
Go to North Korea? Sure, why not. Write about entrepreneurs in China just because it interests you and you might learn something and get paid for it? Of course, yes! So take a 20 day trip to Thailand. Take a break. Think about things you want to do, the “bucket list” kinda stuff. Do them. Write about them. Get published; get paid.
Here are the five most recent articles I’ve had published:
- An ode to Chinese greasy spoons
- Is North Korea on your tourism bucket list?
- Bringing the world closer to North Korea
- Money helps in Burma but it’s time and love that matter
- Does getting a 2:2 degree hinder your career
The ability to live vicariously
From doing journalism, I’ve learnt that it’s possible to move abroad to a foreign country and in two years start and sell off a business. I know it’s possible to live on a farm in Wales and just make videogames for a living. I know what it’s like being a tour guide in North Korea. How tough and incredible it is being a British charity worker in Burma. What it’s like to travel southeast Asia first as a freelancer, then as a correspondent. The methods and tactics of how to catapult yourself into becoming a media brand and a TV chef in China. I know all of that simply because I have a good enough reason to search someone out and talk to them.
The ability to give it all up should you want
‘Cause maybe one day you’ll want the opportunity to work in a normal environment. Those jobs don’t come for free though, so you’ll have to be eagle-eyed and work hard at making sure you’re so good they can’t ignore you.
A piece there, a feature here, a report there. Freelancing can be piecemeal work and can sometimes leave you frustrated. Where’s my opus? you wonder. Where’s the work that I’ll be known for or at least acclaimed for in the short term? Staff writers have a greater chance of becoming known, to be appreciated and perhaps find fulfillment. But to be honest, the antidote is to start writing books. That’s the ambition, always.
The small-time salaries
It is possible to make a decent salary from freelancing alone, although you’re just as likely to see a shooting star in the morning. I’ve copped out a little bit by having another job which makes me about 40% more than what I earn from freelancing. This gives me leverage in what I want to write about: the freedom. But unless you have a very diversified freelance portfolio, are very productive or a star writer then it’s quite hard to be a wealthy freelance journalist.
The seeming lack of progression
If you work at a newspaper, progression is more obvious. The editor starts you off writing short pieces, nibs, round-ups, before giving you meatier reporting gigs, and then you become better known and start writing weighty features. When you’re freelance, progression is less clear. How do you move up as a freelancer? It’s a question I’m trying to answer. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it.
The overabundance of freedom
If you’re going to be a successful freelance journalist you’d better make damn sure that you’re organized, diligent and disciplined, independent and in possession of a giant’s store of initiative. For every well-chosen break or indulgent stroll in the park you should be working on the weekend pushing out that article or making plans in your “free time” to meet up with sources and always, always trying to make new contacts and rooting out possible stories.
So I traveled in late April to North Korea for a week. I wrote about it on this blog here. The trip, all inclusive, was through a Beijing-based tour company (tourism to NK is only permissible via these tour operators), and it cost me 1100 euros.
It was a significant outlay. 1100 euros (875 British pounds or 1448 US dollars) is a lot of money and I dug into my overdraft to stump up the cash. Yes, I did want to go anyway, but I knew I would have to find ways to recoup the costs. How would I do that? By selling stories based on my trip of course. I am a freelance foreign correspondent after all.
However, at the time, I hadn’t been commissioned for anything. No editor at any newspaper, website or magazine was expecting Korea-related copy from me. This is, in short, not the way to do things.
A freelance should really have stories already booked in before s/he travels. And then he does more research and maybe pitches one or two more. After he comes back from said travel and has filed his commissioned stories, he digs around his head and thinks up further angles.
At the least, you should recoup what it cost; all the expenses that it took to go. For North Korea, I have not yet done that. I have in fact paid off 79% of the 1100 euros I spent.
This comes from three sources: a profile of a manager of one of these NK tour companies; an investigative feature on the growth of North Korean tourism; and a photo gallery.
The profile was published online by The Telegraph, and fetched me 150 pounds. Al Jazeera published both the feature and photo gallery, and the two together was worth $900 (both items each making up half that number).
The photo gallery was a useful reminder of how to diversify. If you have video or photos, it always pays to ask your editor if they want an edited together video or a photo gallery. Always ask if they’ll pay for it though – never believe your stuff should be free!
I haven’t yet pitched anything revolving around something like a travel narrative on my experiences traveling in North Korea, but that’s quite hard. It’s already been done quite a bit, so I’ll have to come up with a unique angle. But it’s good practice for next time, and for future trips. Travel + journalism is fun, yo.
Is North Korea On Your Tourism Bucket List? – Aljazeera (includes photo gallery)
In Beijing, from where I freelance, I often like to sit in cafes to work. The coffee is a good accompaniment and there’s a better chance of random interactions, which I like. To go to these cafes, I used to lug around a heavy, chunky laptop that I’d had since 2009. The £400 Novatech laptop (a British brand and a university gift) powered me through uni, plus a year and a half in Beijing.
Unfortunately, it died when it suffered a big knock, and so I replaced it with this:
Best affordable all-rounder
Lenovo Ideapad S210 Touch
It is small, light and very portable, about the same size as an 11-inch Macbook Air. It has an Intel Core i3 processor (which is fine for my needs), a touchscreen, runs Windows 8, and it was a bargain when I bought it in Hong Kong in January for around £318. The laptop has one major flaw however and that is a very short battery life. It lasts about three hours meaning I never can forget to bring its battery charger if I bring it out, which is an obstacle to the pick-up-anywhere-and-write mentality I value.
But, it does have a terrific keyboard. The little thing is great to write on, and how it feels typing out each letter and getting into a groove is a criterion on which I place unequal importance. Writing for a living is an inestimable joy and anything I can do to accentuate that I will. Therefore, this list will place a disproportionate weight on the typing experience.
Best battery life
Macbook Air 13-inch
I am reluctant to list this laptop. It’s easy to move around of course, being so thin and light. The trackpad is the best you can find. The battery life with 13+ hours is also class leading, so you don’t need to look for power sockets in a cafe every time, which is what I need to do.
For clearer text the screen resolution needs to be bumped up – the Macbook Pro’s retina screen is a clear improvement – which helps the eyes when you do as much reading as I do. But this is not the worst thing. No, the Macbook Air, and someone needs to say this, has perhaps the horriblest, most horrendous keyboard to ever grace such a costly machine. The Macbook Pro is better, but its slimmer brother has keys that are flat, squelchy and unresponsive. It’s like typing on a potato.
I would not say no if some kind stranger pressed one into my hands, but I would find no additional satisfaction from writing on a Macbook Air.
Budget alternative: Get an iPad and a third-party keyboard dock. Download the Microsoft Word app for further writing productivity, or alternatively just use a free writing app and send it to yourself via email. The iPad Air also has great battery life and doubles up as a fantastic way to subscribe to magazines etc, especially when you’re freelancing from overseas.
Most fun and portable
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Most fun? What does that mean? It’s not really a metric tech sites can measure in their laptop reviews. And yet, I think the Surface Pro, which is a laptop in tablet form, is quite a fun little computer. It’s thinner than a Macbook Air and lighter.
In order to do any serious work, you’ll have to buy the separately sold keyboard attachment. They come in two types. One is touch responsive, meaning you’ll have to hammer on a flat piece of plastic with no buttons, or the other one which does have buttons. The latter keyboard is not great – it’s somewhat flimsy but I think it works fine enough, almost a novelty pleasure.
I like the Surface Pro because it’s a sleek tablet, with all the power of a laptop, and you can put it together like a writing transformer. Just taking it out of a bag, setting it up and magnetically attaching its keyboard is a cool experience. I realize how geeky and boyish that sounds.
Budget alternative: The Asus Transformer Book T100. A tablet that comes with a keyboard dock for a very cheap price. It runs Windows 8.1, comes with Microsoft Office installed and a processor that is not too bad. The keyboard dock is cramped and not that fun to use however.
A great Windows laptop, with a fantastic keyboard
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro
Lenovo is famous for the extra effort they put into keyboard design, and you’ll find superior keyboards across their range. Their ThinkPad line is especially well known for keyboards that resemble desktop typing with high, raised keys that provide excellent tactile feedback. The Yoga 2 Pro is an ultrabook with an HD touchscreen, a processor more than able to handle photo and video editing, and a neat trick of being able to fold over its body to become a tablet. Typing is fast, smooth and groovy.
Budget alternative: The Yoga 2 (without the “Pro” suffix) costs £400 to £700, depending what size you choose, otherwise the aforementioned Ideapad S210 Touch is a good bet although it is hard to find.
My favourite keyboard, and a killer machine
Dell XPS 13
This is a premium ultrabook with top-end specs. It looks great, is as thin as a Macbook Air but looks sturdier and more robust. Although the battery life could be improved (only about 6 hours), it does feature a higher resolution screen than Macbook Airs, meaning reading text is easier on the eyes.
This is an expensive machine, indeed the costliest on this list, but I’ll pay it to use that magnificent keyboard. The keys are wider and fatter, each click giving out robust feedback. The font of every letter demands to be hammered with vigour; powered by whisky and tobacco.
Typing on this thing is addictive, as if every hit is a small smack of satisfaction. For us modern writers, we will never get into the mechanical groove of typing on a typewriter like Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway or even Hunter S Thompson. For me this keyboard provides a semblance of the same thrill.
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.