Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for September 2013

What exactly is a freelance foreign correspondent?

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Let me try and define it.

You go to a country. You might stay long. Or not for long before returning ‘home’.

You’re in China. In Beijing. And you explore the society and journalism topics about it all, and you pitch and write about them, about China. You grow your list of clients. But you’re also interested in South Korea. About their hi-tech but traditional society. So you read up about it. Maybe make some Korean friends. To ask questions.

Then maybe you hit on something you find fascinating. And salable. An idea you can sell. So you find contacts and maybe a Korean translator with journalism experience. You sell the idea. You book a ticket to Seoul. You find other ideas to make it worth your while. And you do your reporting while gazing at the skyscrapers and wacky advertisements and strutting South Korean girls in their converse shoes, miniskirts and perfectly arrayed hair.

Yes, you look a lot at those girls. Somehow exotic and yet familiar.

You do your reporting and you jet back ‘home’.

You become known for your interesting subjects and your unique take on China. You are also noted for your diversity (South Korea, maybe Japan and south-east Asia too).

You stay a year in China.

You become ‘famous’.

You decide to go to Brazil.

Because why not.

It’s lovely, the sand is warm. And heard you something about the…


For part two in this series go here

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 30, 2013 at 12:10 am

6 things I learned about the freelance journalism market while I was in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property. Say you’ve taken an interest in computer hacking, or maybe the latest developments in south-east Asian fashion. And generate even a casual expertise and a few contacts in this area, and dig around for stories and news unknown to others (and trust me, there is a lot of stuff that is unknown to editors), then editors will be clamoring for your attention.

If you’re a freelancer based in Latin American, South Africa or South Korea, say, then you’ll have access to stories that lots and lots of publications will want. Make sure you roam around topics and subject areas and find suitable publications accordingly.

There are holes and niches to be filled even at the biggest and most renowned publications

One regret I have is that I didn’t try to pitch more publications while China-bound. The areas I’m most interested in – culture and society means a lot of my potential markets are high-brow magazines like Prospect, New Statesman and broadsheet newspapers. Hard markets you may think. But because I was on the ground and had the balls to pitch them meant my potential for commissions was higher. The fact that you are there in a foreign locale (and China is massively in demand as a news source) and have ‘local’ knowledge makes you immediately sexier to editors.

You have to make the best use of your location and specificity

Simply because I was based in China, I felt like I had the access and privilege to write about the whole Asian continent. I wrote an article for The Guardian about job prospects in Asia, I wrote about India’s economics and entrepreneurs and of course about China. I did not have to be in China or Asia to have had written these articles. But simply by being there, my authority  to write about them increases.

Specificity? That means making the most of your skills and potential. For example, writing about politics, technology and business is quite difficult unless you have sufficient contacts and experience. Certainly you could try – for smaller magazines, websites and B2B papers, but the bigger papers will be harder to entice.

What subjects interest you? And what about those subjects could you write that is feasible? Will you be able to get access to interviewees and enough information? Think small to begin with – insights, observations about trends, culture, little aspects of society of the country you’re in before jumping into 2000-word features about the sex trade in Brazil for example.

Money is and probably always will be an issue

When you’re young and starting out, don’t expect to be making lots of money. By all means, please please don’t write for free. But don’t expect to be living comfortably off your earnings. Being based in China helps. Most things are dirt cheap, but I still ended up in debt once I got back to England. You are making a name for yourself – writing about a different country, translating that foreign news to an audience is massively impressive. You will be read by thousands, or even if it’s just hundreds – foreign news is consumed by elites and influential people. It’s about the kudos and the glamour, not the money.

Having journalist friends opens an exponential amount of doors

While in Beijing, I befriended several journalists. I used LinkedIn, personal recommendations and events to connect with my fellow journos. I’ll write about how easy it is to do this in a future blogpost. One contact was particularly helpful – he gave me advice, introduced me to a news agency journo (who emailed me potential freelance opportunities) and also put me in touch with editors looking for more China stories. It’s a knock-on effect. Be generous, be helpful, connect people.

Freelancing is super f-ing fun and empowering

I had a blast. I’d have 2000 words to write in a day. The anxiety and pressure was…uncomfortable. But I felt awesome. The freedom to write articles you’ve come up with, to delve into topics you’re fascinated by and to talk to and meet people whose experiences outweigh your own is like the crack-addiction of a cocaine fiend.

It’s exciting, free and opens doors to experiences that you could never pay for. Enjoy the ride.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 27, 2013 at 8:00 am

What happened last time I tried to be a freelance foreign correspondent

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I finished university last year. After a busy summer (presenting, Olympics, work exp at The Guardian), I decided to go to Beijing,

I had no definite plan, no accommodation and I knew exactly four people who lived there, one of whom was a stewardess I had met a couple months prior. I had vague ideas about brushing up on my Chinese, exploring new opportunities and freelancing.

The first couple months were kind of miserable to be honest. I had few friends and I was just hemorrhaging money. I made very little progress journalistically and I was aimless and wondering what exactly I should be doing.

I then answered a chance call-out for interns for The Beijinger, a listings magazine aimed at expats that pre-dated Time Out. How wonderful, you might think, being an intern! Great!

But it was an opportunity. I still wasn’t making any money, I made enough just to cover rent. I was in the office three days a week. The managing editor of The Beijinger was a loud, rambunctious 30-year-old Manc, and his deputy was a very tall and louche Scouser. No, I am not making it up.

December came and I chanced upon a publication online called The Gateway. It’s a business newspaper aimed at students. I immediately dashed off an email to the editor asking if she would be interested in business articles focused on the booming economies of China and south-east Asia.

She would.

Meanwhile, a Chinese girl I was courting ended things abruptly. And that stewardess? Well, she was always flying everywhere, that’s the problem with stewardesses.

Anyway, January was my best ever month for freelance journalism, in terms of pure £. It was a grand whopping total of £700. But by then I had been given a full-time role at The Beijinger so I received a modest pay rise. I wrote some of those freelance articles in the office – something I would not recommend.

I spent a total of 7 months in Beijing, going to some great events, learning a lot (about magazines, staff banter, freelancing, women) before my visa ran out. I even got two great big commissions from The New Statesman which I royally fucked up. Lesson there: if you’re working on something ambitious, be sure to have already done some groundwork on it before pitching.

In a future blog, you’ll find out why I’m returning for a second round.

For more about my experience at The Beijinger, see here.

The Beijinger office.

The Beijinger office.

Welcome: misson statement

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The idea of the foreign correspondent still holds a certain pull on the aspiring journalist’s imagination. If you’re of the literary persuasion, you’ll think of Graham Greene gallivanting among the exotica of south-east Asia, or of Ernest Hemingway filing his dispatches from Franco-ridden Spain, braving bullets and swigging Valdepeñas.

Or else you think of crusaders like John Pilger, the Aussie who brought the horrors of the Pol Pot regime to the attention of people around the world.

It’s the most adventurous, intrepid and romantic of journalism’s repertoire.

Hemingway and a small tiger.

Hemingway and a small tiger.

Budgets are tight nowadays and newspapers can ill-afford to maintain many international bureaux and send reporters across the globe as they used to. But some enterprising people decide to head off pretty much on a whim, going it alone.

Deborah Bonello of did it. Graham Holliday of Kigali Wire did it. And Kate Hodal, the Guardian’s south-east Asia correspondent did it.

So perhaps freelance is the best way to do it. You get the freedom to explore what you want to explore. Write what you want to write and travel wherever you want to go.

This blog will track a journey to be an in-demand freelance foreign correspondent. It will be a mixture of journalism tips and tricks, insights and news about the country I’m in and how you can make the most of it, as well as looking at the romance (both of life & love) of a foreign correspondent’s life. Because, let’s face it, that’s part of the fun.