Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for September 2014

Is It Worth Doing Journalism Work Experience?

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For my degree in multimedia journalism, I was required to do during the duration of my course a minimum of 4 weeks of work experience. My first ever bout of journalism work experience came earlier though, when I was 17 and still at college doing my A-levels.

At the time I was unsure of what I should do at university – I was good at English and good at writing. Although creative writing interested, I knew deep down that I was incapable of fiction and journalism took on more appeal.

At The Guardian offices, on work experience,  September, 2012.

At The Guardian offices, on work experience, September, 2012.

So I asked a staff member at college to help me arrange work experience with my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer. I spent a week at the newspaper and managed to gain three bylines. Two lessons stick out from that week: 1. That you could source a story from the Yellow Pages (remember those?) – a lesson not that useful now but opened up my awareness of how stories and sources can be located & 2. How powerful use of language can be and how even a slight variation in word choice can influence readers.

After that week ended I grew more attached to journalism and its raggedy, amateur art.

When it came time to select courses and universities, my stepfather and I went on a tour of the different journalism degrees. Some presentations were much better than others. Some were downright off-putting. It came down to two choices: City University in London and Bournemouth University. At the time City Uni did not do only a journalism BA. It was History with Journalism. Bournemouth Uni appealed as it taught multimedia journalism which was NCTJ approved and because it was by the sea.

Anyway, I deferred for a year, taking a gap year which eventually turned into two. I started my course at age 20.

A list of media work experience/internships that I did from 2009-2012:

  • The Brighton Argus
  • Splash News
  • The Press Association
  • Catch22
  • The Guardian
  • The Beijinger

The Press Association (video department) was a great experience as I got the opportunity to interview Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and MPs, participate in a press scrum and attend a beer festival. The UK’s national news agency has a great scheme that if I had pushed more, perhaps I could have got on to, but it would have required a three year commitment or thereabouts.

The Guardian work experience was offered to me by the editor as I had written a couple of articles for her previously (unpaid) and so they gave me a week. It was a dream to enter The Guardian’s gleaming offices near King’s Cross, London and I saw a couple of journalists I’ve long admired.

It is very much worth doing work experience, but in my opinion it is not worth doing it overmuch. You can also get lucky. A few coursemates of mine got jobs from them, and one of them is now editor at a major publication. It can also be helpful to gain contacts as it can make it easier to pitch later on. An acquaintance here in Beijing occasionally writes for Esquire (UK) as he once interned for them.

It will really help your time on your internship if you can pitch story ideas. Do not be afraid to suggest ideas to your editor. It shows initiative, charm and power. Anyone who has a store of good ideas is a source of power for a creative outlet. You will be seen in a much better light if you have the confidence to pitch and the boldness to articulate them. You lose nothing. Even if your ideas are not accepted, do not lose hope, it only takes one to strike for you to be given an opportunity.

It helps if the staff like you too. I have found in my experience that if the staff take a shine to you, they will overlook any deficiencies or weaknesses you may have simply because they like having you around in the office. Do not underestimate how important this is. Having good social skills is a skill and intelligence in itself. And those who possess it have an equally legitimate skill as those good with numbers or a facility for study.

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One Year Anniversary: theluhai.com

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On September 22nd, 2013, I published this site’s first blog post. It set out the themes and aims; an introduction to a chronicle of my time spent trying to be a freelance correspondent. Since then the site has pulled in a steadily growing audience – last month hitting a milestone of over a thousand views.

Here is the first ever post: Welcome: mission statement

And here are the following two: What happened last time I tried to be a freelance foreign correspondent and 6 things I learnt about the freelance journalism market while I was in China.

Thanks to those who read and follow the blog. And big thanks to those who have taken the time to personally email me, and in a couple of cases, to even seek me out when they were in Beijing. It means an immeasurable amount.

Part two: what exactly is a freelance foreign correspondent?

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Riding the Pyongyang Metro.  Going to North Korea has so far been my only instance of travel + journalism. I aim to remedy this.

Riding the Pyongyang Metro. Going to North Korea has so far been my only instance of travel + journalism. I aim to remedy this.

So far this year I have traveled to Thailand twice, but entirely not for journalism reasons. But I have also traveled to North Korea and this was for journalism. I filed two stories and a photo gallery. But they were features. I did not seek out war zones or conflict areas, natural disasters or political turmoil. I did not attend any riots or charter a plane to any typhoon-hit areas. When news happens, foreign correspondents will scramble and make a dash to the area affected.

Later this year I am planning to go to Myanmar. It seems a fascinating country (the second largest in southeast Asia) on the cusp of so many developments. I want to go and explore, seek out stories and get to know the place better. I had been developing a Myanmar story for months now, checking up on it, cultivating a source, and a major newspaper was interested in the story. But then someone beat me to the punch with a similar but not-quite-the-same story and the newspaper declined, so now I will attempt to sell it elsewhere.

There’re a lot of unknowns so I feel like I have to go there to get a better nose for the angles that might sell, that might interest editors who don’t really care. They worry not about how interesting something is, but how relevant and resonant a story might be.

I should do a lot of background reading (and video watching) to get a better sense of the country, arrange to go there, talk to as many people as I can find while there, and travel around inside. It might take a month or so. I cannot simply parachute in and expect to write things.

Should a freelance foreign correspondent be expected to dig into time and funds in pursuit of stories while living awhile somewhere new?

I don’t know. I only know what I want to do. And that’s to go to Myanmar. To see what it’s like, find stories and write them. But I will have to try to ensure the best chance possible of being published and being paid. Travel without publication and payment for a traveling journalist is not sustainable and an untenable luxury.

For part one in this series go hereA post on travel + journalism is here.

All the Technology I Use to Do Journalism

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IMG_0635 (2)

The above photo collects all the gadgetry that I use for my journalism work:

  • Olympus digital voice recorder
  • LG G2 smartphone
  • Lenovo Ideapad S210 touchscreen laptop
  • Canon S120 digital camera

The Olympus dictaphone was bought in England after I lost my previous Olympus. It cost £65. It picks up voices very well – defined from background noise. It has a little built-in stand that raises it from a surface, and the ability to slow down audio which comes in handy when transcribing interviews. There are fancier voice recorders out there (Sony do nice expensive ones) but unless you’re looking to record broadcast quality interviews, the Olympus is a lovely piece of kit.

The LG G2 smartphone is a new addition. My previous mobile phone (pictured in the top left of the photo) was a £60 “Softbank” smartphone bought in Hong Kong two years ago. A budget smartphone from 2012 is pretty ancient technology now and was starting to seriously slow, so I bought the LG secondhand in Bangkok for the equivalent of £165. The processor inside it is the generation ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S4 but a step behind the latest S5. So it’s still blazingly quick, and the G2’s camera is a massive upgrade from the Softbank’s and the screen is also about 1,600 times better. I use smartphones to jot down memos and article ideas while on the move; as a kind of scanner (with the camera) and as a phone obvs.

The laptop I picked up in Hong Kong & I wrote about it previously.

The Canon S120 camera was bought in Beijing earlier this year for the equivalent of £256. It works very well. It powers on quickly, focuses quickly and the best thing about it is that it’s incredibly small and unobtrusive. It also takes exceedingly good video. Photos I’ve taken using it have been published by The Telegraph and Aljazeera who paid me $450 for a photo gallery of shots I took in North Korea. I do also own a Canon 450D DSLR (which I used to take the above image) but I hardly use it these days. I didn’t take it to North Korea for instance because I knew it would be more conspicuous than a small compact camera and this would have a greater effect on the behavior of North Korean civilians, and because I knew that fiddling around with the DSLR would cause me to miss shots when the Canon S120 would make me a much more agile photographer.

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I’m pretty happy with the equipment I have. The total cost is much less than a grand. Sure it’d be nice to have a Surface Pro 3 which has much better battery life than my current laptop (I like to work in cafes). And perhaps an iPad – for magazine subscriptions – and as a backup browser screen for reference purposes. But they are not essential. Upgrades would be a Samsung Galaxy Note 3: I love the stylus that comes with it; its features are very useful for a freelance journalist. And a Canon EOS M which is a camera slightly larger than the Canon S120 but with picture quality equal to DSLRs.

But I do not like to upgrade quickly. It’s a waste of money that could be spent on travel or experiences or stories. And in the next couple years everything will be that much better again. So don’t obsess about your kit, think instead about how to make the most of it.