Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelance journalist

Freelancing is lonely — that’s fine, just try to lay down roots wherever you can.

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The life of a freelance writer is categorized by loneliness, but this loneliness pervades all life, to varying degrees. And this depends on how much you feel it in the company of others, and how much you feel it in the company of yourself.

Traveling and staying in various places in Asia solo; waiting at the airport solo; checking into a hotel and staying there solo; eating at a restaurant solo; residing in a cafe solo, is something I’ve done many times. Note that I don’t use the word “alone”. Because I don’t often feel alone when I am traveling.

I often feel free and relaxed, rarely troubled, fixated on the present and the immediate future (“where shall I go to eat now?”). It’s just one of those things you learn about yourself, and that I only really accepted very recently, when I was in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

You realize that perhaps not needing company is okay.

There have been times in Beijing — my early days — when I was quite alone. It was tough, but not awful.

Sitting now, on my couch, typing this on my laptop that’s propped up on a desk chair, and looking out at my balcony — filled with the bright but cold light of November in Beijing — I feel fine. Healthy. Relaxed. Money is okay. There are things I want, but very little I need. My thoughts always bend to the future (the curse of an overactive mind), but I try to remain in the present and to enjoy it and to appreciate it.

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Being a journalist and being rich has little to no connection

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I’ve been pondering something. The connection or correlation between how prestigious a publication is and how much that publication pays. When I first had the idea for this blog post, I had an alternate title:

“The Correlation Between a Publication’s Prestige and How Much It Pays”.

Journalists often develop an understanding of where publications stand in the hierarchy of prestige. That hierarchy may have individual quirks, dependent on your beat, but there will be some commonly held tacit acknowledgements.

That, for example, The New York Times is right up there, significantly above USA Today — even though USA Today has a higher circulation — and that “The Gray Lady”, on an international level at least, probably sits above The Wall Street Journal in terms of byline prestige.

Magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Esquire are many writers’ dream destinations in which to be published. They form the Royalty.

Next come the venerable Dukes of Journalism: The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Times (of London). Adjacent to these are The International Names of Standing — The BBC, CNN.com, Al Jazeera, The EconomistTime. 

And there are now digital titans who, like Knight errants, have a glamour of their own: VICE; BuzzFeed, disrupting things.  

And yet, often, when I tell people about some of the publications I’ve been published in, they expect an amount of money I should have been paid commensurate to that publication’s prestige.

When I tell them the amount that I am actually paid, they are shocked.

And appalled.

So why do it?

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Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Brent Crane is an American journalist who moved to Asia in 2014. He has since traveled around China and Myanmar, scoring bylines in the Daily Telegraph, Vice, Aljazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com

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).

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

My chosen topic was the unprecedented dangers of freelance reporting from the Syrian civil war and how this related to the sea change that was taking place in the world of journalism in general. I’d been turned on to the idea from a book that I found in the AI office, a memoir by freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy called “Under the Wire”.

It took me forever to narrow the subject down from “the problems faced by freelance war reporters” to “the problem faced by freelance war reporters in Syria and why this matters for journalism as a whole”; but I had a lot of help from the editors at AI.

Pitching is something you can only get better at with practice, but that experience did teach me to never stop asking myself “Yeah but why should anyone care?” when formulating a story idea. A topic being interesting is not enough. It must be newsy in some way if an editor is going to bite.

My 1500-word feature went through numerous edits. It was a major learning experience for me.

To research it I spoke with eight highly accomplished freelancers, most of whom had reported from Syria. Being able to pick their brains about how they operated as freelancers was invaluable to me as an aspiring journalist. And also they made for great first-time interviewees, having all been in my shoes at some point. Talking with them humanized the field.

Before that, a freelance journalist in my mind was a kind of mysterious character and freelancing was more of a theoretical career choice than a realistic one. Actually meeting some lone wolf writers I had a kind of lightbulb moment: If these people can do it, so can I. That was a huge confidence booster for me and a major push for me to take the leap.

And for the first time in my life I’d actually made an actual sum of money writing. Holding that check for $200 in my hands I thought anything was possible.

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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.