Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelance journalism

How to Become a Freelance Journalist in China

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This is a brief guide to the posts on this blog. I arrived in China in the autumn of 2012, and had just graduated a journalism degree. I learned the ropes of freelance journalism when I moved to Beijing.

This blog started in the autumn of 2013 after I had begun to freelance more professionally. The posts from previous years were written while I was still learning, but I hope that they may be of use to you.

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How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China? 

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Being a Freelance Journalist 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.

6 Things I Learned about the Freelance Journalism Market While I Was In China

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Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty. But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing.

A Year in the Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Part One: Freelance Journalists on their First Ever (Paid) Commissions

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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.

5 Things To Do Upon Arriving in a New Country as a Freelance Journalist

There are many more posts about freelancing, and the experience of freelancing in China. Please have a browse of this site if you are interested.

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The Luxuries and the Poverties of the Freelance Life

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It’s just gone a year since I went completely freelance.

Last year I was made to leave my job as a scriptwriter at a Chinese TV company. It was around February or March.

For over a year now I’ve been self-employed. I’ve not had “work” to go to — an office which demands time obligation. I’ve had no schedule other than that fixed by my own internal compass (a hazy, inefficient compass). I don’t wake up to an alarm. I don’t fall asleep feeling guilty about the lateness of the time. And I’ve had a freedom both luxurious and, at times, incredibly burdensome and crushing.

I feel no desire to wax and shine the wonders of the freelance life or working for oneself. If you want one of those crass, “inspiring” articles about “quitting the office job” to go freelance, please go read one of those.

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VIDEO: Travel + Journalism in Burma

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This video is the story of the time I spent in Burma. I went there in February 2015. I went there to travel and to do journalism. I wanted to see if I could combine the experience of traveling with the challenge of trying to find stories. As a freelancer, trying to travel and hunt down stories while you do so is a fun challenge. This was my first experiment trying to do that.

The benefits of traveling in this way are many. One of these is that you travel in a different way, as you try to get beneath the surface and look deeper than you might normally do. You also meet people, from locals to intrepid expats. The other big benefit of course is financial, as stories you find and sell helps to offset the money you spent traveling.

The video was shot using a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker.

Related:

The CNN article mentioned in the video is here.

The previous video I made is: A Year In The Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

2015: A Year In The Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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2015 was strange. For me at least. It was the quickest feeling year I’ve ever experienced, when months announced their arrival with the thought: “It’s April already?!”

I arrived back in Beijing in mid-January. And I went to Burma in mid-February for 18 days. I then reentered Beijing and into March, after travel, like leaping over stepping stones instead of passing time step by step.

Burma was a delight: charming, hot, earthy, and quite magnificent. It reconfirmed for me that travel, when done, is rarely regretted. In Burma I was fortunate to meet and hang out with a fellow freelance correspondent and his crew. It was wild and reminded me of stories expats tell of Beijing twenty years ago, when parties were mostly of the house kind and simply living there was pioneering.

I envy my Burma counterpart because that southeast Asian experience seems more reminiscent of the kind of old-school correspondence conjured by the likes of Graham Greene novels. Burma is like a country wrapped in amber, suffused with a golden light, and I do hope I make it back there sooner rather than later.

The year was also one of hardship. In March, I left a job that had been my main source of income for over a year. From March onward I depended entirely on my freelancing income and the transition was not a smooth one. Financially it was difficult, but the transition was the more harder simply because the routine of commuting and office hours that my former job had given me was suddenly stripped away. I was alone.

April through to July was difficult. That’s four months. Four months where I felt, at times, a great weight of loneliness and isolation. I would go so far as to say despair, especially when there seemed to be long hours which I spent just lain on my couch, dressed in nothing save denim shorts, sweating and thinking. That’s an image for which I am thankful as I now have a mental picture of myself that I hope never to reproduce.

Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty.

But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing. However, the freelance income from the previous year was supplementary to the income earned from my other job (the one I quit in March), which meant that, overall, this year I still earned less than what I earned the previous year.

There have been other milestones. But I do not wish to bore you, patient reader, with a list of achievements. Rather I wish to convey what being a freelance journalist abroad has meant to me.

And 2015 has felt like a transitional year. And educational, for reasons that are not so clear to me now but that I think, in retrospect, will probably guide me in the future.

Certainly, there needs to be a helluva lot more planning for 2016 if I am to make the most of my time, to make the most of what I can experience and to make the most of what I can do.

I have only realized, in the past week, that I had mislaid a small but significant resource. And that is the simple to-do list. For much of the time I have been in China, I have relied on to-do lists, dutifully scribed in my small Moleskine notebooks either in the morning or before I went to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. It provides structure to your day and a sense of purpose.

This blog continues to be a source of solace and power. By making a timeline of 2015 for myself (a previous blog entry), I could see the year all the more clearly, laid out in front of me. It’s a great tool as I can objectively examine the time I used, to see what could be learned, what themes and patterns might be picked out, and what could be improved.

And writing in this blog is always a great way to work things out for myself.

Finally, theluhai.com (I pay annually for the URL) has paid for itself many, many, times over in freelance commissions from editors, and others, who have found me via this website. If that doesn’t sway you, if you’re a freelancer, to start your own website — the lure of work and money — then I don’t know what will.

Seminal posts of 2015:

The weekend of February 13th: getting ready for Myanmar

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

I’m still broke

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

Is this goodbye Beijing?

There is much to look forward to and next year I hope to be more footloose. Being trapped in Beijing, to where I will probably return in the spring, is not good for the soul. And traveling is a great way to slow down time as it focuses you on the present. However, I will still need to base myself somewhere, and will probably need my own place to call “home”, so reconciling wanderlust and home comforts will be a defining tension, as is common for wandering writers.

Beijing itself has been the great uncaring mass it has always been. The spring was lovely, with uncommonly blue skies, summer was hot and sweaty as usual, autumn was very mild, and winter was very cold and very polluted, although this offered journalistic opportunity.

I have been traveling and basing myself in Beijing for three years now and I am tired of the place. I’d quite like to base myself somewhere else now to be honest. But what I want, as is common for all people, does not accord with what others may want. This is a reference to the nature of foreign correspondence. Editors want journalists who have a native expertise and that means Beijing, and China, and the knowledge and contacts I have accrued from being there are what makes me valuable to them.

There is a meeting I have in London in early January that is important for me and I don’t want to say too much for fear of unnerving myself. But I’ll reveal more once we get to it.

For now, happy new year. And thank you for reading.

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The previous year’s summary

A video showing a year in my life, compressed into five minutes

Finding story ideas #2: meeting sources

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“The source of a river or stream is the original point from which the river flows. It may be a lake, a marsh, a spring or a glacier. This is where the stream starts”.

This is a continuing series focusing on ideas and suggestions about how to find and come up with story ideas. To view previous entries in the series, use this tag. 

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a Chinese journalist. As a tech reporter, she has covered China’s rapidly developing tech industry.

She told me things of which I was only very dimly aware or not at all. She made them clearer to me and painted pictures and scenes of China’s technological landscape that, heretofore, I barely understood.

Who are your sources? And where are they?

Perhaps one of the greatest training that a stint on a local newspaper can provide is the lesson on how to locate, maintain, and cultivate sources.

I cannot say that I am as well trained as a reporter on, say, The Bournemouth Echo or The Hastings Observer in this matter, but I distinctly remember observing a journalist “working the phones” when I did work experience at The Brighton Argus when I was still a journalism student.

It was around 11am, and she had already done a bit of reporting in the morning frenzy, and now there was a lull. So she picked up the phone and started calling up her contacts — her sources. From what I could gather, these were police spokespeople, town councilors, heads of housing associations, neighborhood watches, local business people; those pillars of society that are often the first receivers of news.

When she got through to these people, on the phone, after dispensing with the pleasantries, her first question was: “have you got anything for me?”

What may be obvious to those on the inside is not obvious to those on the outside

Recently, while I was at a bar, I got talking to a couple of architects. One of them told me that a lot of foreign architecture firms had been shutting up shop in China in the past couple of years.

I was immediately piqued.

When I asked him to elaborate, he was dismissive — “I thought this was obvious”, he said — implying that it was common knowledge. But the fact that he was an architect (and an employee of one of the most famous architecture firms at that) made him inoculated to this piece of information.

Among architects, in China, it might indeed be common knowledge. But to those on the inside what may seem common knowledge is often completely unknown to those on the outside; people outside of that information circle.

The job of the journalist is to get inside that circle, pluck out the information, and then to distribute it to those outside the circle — in other words, the general public.

What if you’re going abroad, and starting out as a freelance foreign correspondent?

One of the single best things you can do, upon arriving in a new country, as a journalist, is to make contact with other journalists. Best of all, local journalists. They will have a different understanding of what’s going on in that country than foreign journalists. Both are valuable.

But the fact that local journalists speak the local language (obviously), use and interact with the things that they are reporting on like locals, means they can pick up on things that outsiders may miss. Specialty journalists (tech reporters, political journalists etc) often hold information even more unknown.

Other sources can be niche publications, journals, blogs, and event organizers. When I spoke to the tech reporter, she told me things that could turn into around half a dozen stories. And having contacts herself, she can be a springboard onto the next step. It was a very productive talk. And all it took was an email, a few text messages, and a focused chat, while I sipped on a coffee, on an otherwise lazy afternoon in Beijing.

Related:

Six things I learnt about the freelance journalism market while I was in China // Five things to do upon arriving in a new country, as a foreign correspondent

Pitchable outlets #3: CNN.com

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This is a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to see more in the series.

Status: medium-high / 1st tier

Reach: CNN, short for the Cable News Network, was the first 24-hour cable news network and the first all-news TV channel in the US. It launched its online counterpart CNN.com in 1995. Since then the website has grown into one of the most widely read news publications worldwide. It has numerous bureau across the globe and international channels such as CNN Espanol and CNN Philippines.

For an idea of reach, one of my stories for CNN.com scored over two million page views.

Accessibility: CNN.com’s China section is well developed with broadcasting staff based in Beijing, and editors in Hong Kong. Its China coverage is excellent, even if their TV broadcasts still tend toward the bombastic, with deeply reported online articles and news features that are often informative as well as entertaining. They have a good stable of Chinese news assistants who help in producing short-form video, and in Will Ripley they have a video correspondent who makes use of innovative reporting techniques.

My contributions to CNN.com have been in news features covering cultural trends in China. I made contact with their China editor via Twitter — I found her Twitter account, Tweeted a message to the effect of, “Hey, do you take freelance pitches?”, and she replied in the affirmative. She then sent me her email address via private message on Twitter.

I’ve published two articles about China for CNN, and a travel story for CNN’s online travel section. The pitch for the travel story was forwarded on to their travel editor by my China editor.

I’ve also had a story killed by CNN (my first kill and for which I did not receive a kill fee). The story had been commissioned, but then subsequently killed by someone who had been standing in for the editor who originally commissioned it.

CNN has a roster of staffers who report breaking news and generate stories. For a freelancer, you will have to pitch original ideas; ideas that a freelancer would have the time and flexibility to cover. For instance, these could be stories from China’s rural areas or under reported regions and industries, which staffers may not have time to get to. Their email format is: firstname dot lastname @ CNN dot com.

Writing style: CNN.com has a quite distinctive writing style. They tend to use short paragraphs — one sentence or two sentence paragraphs are not at all uncommon. What this means in practice for the journalist is less writing, and more reporting. Both of the articles I’ve had published took months before they were finally published as numerous rounds of back-and-forth took place. My editor would often ask additional questions and for information to be added, all of which meant additional reporting.

Each paragraph in their articles contain important items of information. This does not mean their articles are not stories. CNN.com articles often contain narrative, but they will be truncated and will fulfill a purpose. Numerous angles will need to be covered and reporting will need to be deep and varied. The prose style is snappy and chatty but authoritative.

For a story about how Buddhism is once again colonizing the hearts of Chinese people, I used an interview with a young man who wanted to become a monk. The interview transcript ran to several pages, and was immensely useful, but his story was condensed into a much shorter version in the final piece. It nevertheless formed a vital part of the article, and demonstrates how a journalist needs to filter information in order to master the narrative.

Payment: CNN have paid me $300 for 1000 words, for articles. This is not bad, but, considering the amount of work involved, not great either. They will pay more for photos to go along with a story (ie a photo gallery) but only if you agree to relinquish copyright of your photos to CNN.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

Burmese Days

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I hadn’t done much reading or planning before I went to Burma. I had a very rough idea of where I’d travel to, but nothing was laid out — these days I don’t even book accommodation. For some reason I thought I’d take a month for Burma, which is far too long. I spent 18 days there in the end.

It was February when I went, a cold and damp month in Beijing. I left the city at night, on my way to the airport, sleet falling on my face, two days after Chinese new year. I remember that I was feeling a little down, for wintry reasons.

Trepidation was accompanying me. The country was an unknown, a chasm only to be filled in by retrospect.

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