Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

5 things to do upon arriving in a new country, as a foreign correspondent

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Not as a traveler of course, but as a journalist, and maybe even to set yourself up as a freelance foreign correspondent.

Try to book in some stories
This is important. Some may find the prospect of traveling and going to a new locale stressful enough without having to think about reporting and deadlines to deliver on top of everything else. You’re a professional journalist, you need to be on stories 24/7. Having stories to do will give purpose and focus to your journey.

You should be pitching lots of ideas to a varied smorgasbord of publications well before your flight. A little research goes a long way – find out about new trends, in culture, society, business, look for the stories behind them, related to them, the human sides. You’re going to be a reporter on-the-ground, this gives you an advantage to staff reporters who are nowhere near the action, writing their stories about Columbia, Japan, etc on their London desks.

You could, for example, find expats. Many newspapers have a section devoted to expatriate life. But business editors, food, culture editors are also interested in Brits who are abroad doing interesting things. They have to be truly interesting though – are they an interesting person, in an interesting field, with a story that changes over time or demonstrates a trend? Look on websites, many countries have English-language publications for expats. Having a few stories to do when settling in somewhere forces you to make new connections, orientate yourself journalistically and establishes your presence in that country. Oh, and the moolah helps too.

Make contacts
But how? Well, go to events – gigs, lectures, art exhibitions, trade fairs, expat gatherings, open mic nights, hobby gatherings – you have to get yourself out there and start meeting as many new people as possible. And ask for business cards wherever appropriate. Ask for recommendations, maybe your new found friend knows someone with a business or is a musician, great – everything helps, to establish your feet and antennae for potential stories. Most locals, unlike reserved Brits, tend to be open and friendly toward foreigners so make best use of your exotic status.

Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable. Having journalist friends opens a massive amount of routes and having people to bounce ideas around or to work on stories together is priceless. In Beijing, I’ve had the fortune to make several journalists’ acquaintances and it can be a true inspiration to hear their stories of how they got into journalism.  

Attend talks, lectures, debates
I’ve found these events the single easiest way of making the best relevant contacts in one go. In Beijing there are two particular hot-spots and that’s at The Bookworm (a bookstore), and regular lecture events given by professors and intellectuals in Wudaokou, a student area in west Beijing. The Bookworm hosts regular cultural events and often feature eminent people. I’ve attended talks given by Mark Kitto, a former columnist for Prospect with a long and colourful history in China, and Martin Parr, a world-renowned British photographer.

What’s more important than the speakers themselves are the audience. After the speaker finishes, if you hang around or wait to speak to the speaker, you’ll find a lot of the audience can be just as interesting. I’ve met journalists from Chinese media in the audience who’ve subsequently become contacts. I’ve met scientists, academics, diplomats and trade officials. I often ask for business cards. An audience member I once met talked about doing her PhD in Beijing and told me, off the cuff, that China is the world leader in nanotechnology research – possible story and readymade contact there.

Start a blog, journal, diary
A blog can encourage writing and reporting, without the drain of thinking ‘Will it get commissioned?’ – you always have a back-up, and well written blog-posts are advertising for your work, and could lead to commissions. Even if you land one or two off the strength of your blog, that is reward enough, and it’ll strengthen your writing and research skills anyway. Also of course, book deals and invitations to give paid talks can arise, it happens – Adam Westbrook is prime example. Many a China writer’s career has been launched off the back of a blog, even media businesses have been bought and sold from blog-like beginnings. Danwei.org and Tea Leaf Nation were both humble online-only publications, with the latter recently bought by Foreign Policy for an undisclosed sum. Keeping a journal meanwhile will force you to seek out new experiences and will be a nostalgia-ridden chronicle of your hapless time spent trying to chase freelance and foreign dreams. Perfect material for a book…

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 21, 2013 at 12:20 am

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