Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘advice

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

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