Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

The Illusion of Journalistic Success

with 3 comments

I am not yet a successful journalist. Not by a long shot. But this month has been unprecedented for me, in the breadth and depth of bylines. The succession of published articles has been such that a friend of mine remarked that I seem to be “on a roll”. 

And yet, many of those articles that have now, finally, been published have been months in production. Days spent hunched over my laptop in my parent’s house, in the kitchen, making flagrant use of their landline. One article took over two months from its initial filing to its eventual publication. I spent many nights wondering if those articles I’d been labouring over during the summer had been all in vain.

Meanwhile, I wait for all that freelancing moolah to hit my bank account, meaning I’ve been living on vapours here in Beijing, having had to borrow 2000 RMB (£200) from a friend just to live on. (Moving over has really sapped my finances – I really should save more of a nest egg before coming over next time). In other words, journalistic ‘success’ is not really very real. When you hear about a journalist or writer whose career seems to be on the up, more likely they’ve been agonizing whether all that hard work, the meticulous reporting, cultivating of a story’s sources, the carefully put together prose hasn’t all been worth it. And of course they are likely to be dirt poor.  

But I have a good thing going on. Especially with a certain left-wing current affairs magazine. The editor there seems particularly keen to have me keep writing for them. It could be the start of something beautiful…

As a journalist, and especially as a freelancer, your eternal mission will be finding good editors. Editors you can have healthy, nurturing relationships with. They are your gatekeepers, your lovers – every pitch is a minor seduction – your employer, your critic, defender and promoter. If you hit on a good one, be sure to keep ’em. It could be the start of a long career and the very least a path you should walk until you’ve explored its length.  

Life lessons

I met the other day Malcolm Moore, 34, The Daily Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent. We had lunch after a short email correspondence and Malcolm spoke, after my prompts, about his route into journalism, the life of correspondents, the battle of getting your pieces accepted by editors, about the difference between Shanghai and Beijing. 

Like many 30-something journalists I’ve spoken to, his route into journalism is haphazard and pretty much accidental. He came across ever so slightly jaded. I had to wonder if he wasn’t just doing it just to put off a young, starry-eyed naif. I told him that perhaps I’m missing out, by concentrating on freelance, on the training and education instilled by the grind of daily deadlines of a staff reporting position or of being in a newsroom. He rebuffed that and said simply, “You do not want to be in a newsroom”. And made it sound like a hellish, grueling experience. 

In some ways it reaffirmed my mission of aiming, ultimately, to be a narrative non-fiction writer or essayist, in the mold of the Adam Gopniks, John Jeremiah Sullivans and Malcolm Gladwells. But to be that, to get into such an esteemed position also requires superior reporting skills and the sensibility of a finely-honed detective (Gladwell himself said he needed the ten years he spent at The Washington Post as a reporter before he could elevate himself to writing books and New Yorker pieces). 

Whatever happens, it’ll certainly be an adventure, and despite financial concerns for the future, raised by Malcolm (thanks buddy!), I look forward to whatever lay ahead. Sometimes, the struggle itself is the reward.  

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 29, 2013 at 10:02 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] 6. The Illusion of Journalistic Success […]

    • Great piece, which I can totally empathise with at the moment.

      Sam North

      August 10, 2014 at 8:42 am

  2. […] written before about how success in journalism can be illusory. How being published in a big newspaper, with your […]


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