Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for August 2014

4 awesome things about being a freelance journalist and 4 terrible downsides

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The Awesome 

The freedom

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.

The variety

Here are the five most recent articles I’ve had published:

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.

The downsides

The bittiness

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.

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An update on North Korea: the costs of freelancing from the Hermit Kingdom

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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.

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

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.

Links:

Is North Korea On Your Tourism Bucket List? – Aljazeera  (includes photo gallery)

Bringing the world closer to North Korea – Telegraph

North Korea – a journey in 8 photos

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.