Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Top 5 Laptops for Journalists (who like to work in cafes, travel, and write)

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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:

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The laptop I own: the Lenovo Ideapad S210

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.

Freelancing in Istanbul: the breakthrough – by Samantha North

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For this newbie freelance journalist in Istanbul, July 1 was a day of celebration in more ways than one.

Istanbul

Istanbul

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: A Diary

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Photo may not resemble reality.

7.40am

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.

8.30am

I usually dismiss the alarm and sleep more. The Day Job doesn’t mind that I come in late.

9.15am

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.

9.30am

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.

10.00am

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.

10.35am

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.

11.30am

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.

12.30pm

Go for lunch. The dilemma everyday: eat bad canteen food for free, OR, eat better food not for free?

1.30pm

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.

2pm

Take a nap.

2.30pm

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.

3pm

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?

4pm

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.

5pm

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.

6pm

Clock off, swipe out of The Day Job.

6-9pm

Eat dinner. Head to bar, drink.

10pm

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.

Review: Letters to a Young Journalist

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Inspired by Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist, this immensely readable book is thought-provoking, wise, and, for the young journalist who already knows the basics, extremely nourishing.

Written by Samuel G. Freedman, an author and journalist, whose day job is teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the introduction is enticing: “Thirty years ago, when I was a good deal like you, I drove off to start my first job as a newspaper reporter….I was a few months short of nineteen then, and I didn’t even own a white shirt or navy blazer for the occasion.”

Published November, 2011. 206 pages. “Structure liberates writing”.

This is not a book to learn the building blocks of how to structure an article or the process of reporting. For that I recommend ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction’ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists’, both of which were excellent education. But Freedman does provide inspiration and rock-hard nuggets of wisdom.

Although coming from an era few student journalists would recognize now — of local newspapers with individual departments covering crime or arts for example — those with a literary bent will appreciate chapters focused on reporting or writing or career.

One section entitled In Praise of Gradualism struck me as a much needed antidote to impatience. In it he says that for those in their early twenties the important thing is to develop your day-to-day skills, even if it’s at a small and humble publication.

“I can say that I have never seen a truly gifted young journalist go unrecognized. Maybe in the short run but never over time. There just isn’t that much excellence loose in the world that news executives can afford to ignore it.”

He goes on to cite several named journalists, a few of whom he taught, who went on to work at the likes of Rolling Stone or The New York Times, charting their personal qualities and rise to eventual success, remarking how each internship or lowly job was important to the opportunity that followed.

The emphasis here is on the individual drive to become better: “What looks like spontaneous creation…is so much more often the end result of an assiduous work ethic and a conscious effort to develop skills”.

Some may find the book too high-minded, American or preoccupied with art and literature, but then you come across lessons like this: “what does the article intend to say? What one central idea would animate the article, a decision that guided the remaining reporting in a more focused, channeled way”.

This is a short book with insights that illuminate every so often, and though parts may at times be preachy, it was a deep comfort to be reminded of journalism’s ambitions and a career choice that can offer some of the slow satisfaction of art.

**

Other book reviews:

Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

War Reporting for Cowards

 

How a story about Chinese journalism students led to a chance at The New York Times

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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/

Postscript

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.

Movin’ up: from poor freelancer to slightly rich writer

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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 120/month...apologies for the hat.

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.

“‘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…

What should a freelance journalist do in the summer?

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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.

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The Great Wall Music Festival, May, 2013. It was fun.

 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm

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