Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelancing

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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February 20th — in Thailand

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I’ve been to Thailand before. It’s a fun place.

It’s 5.17am and I’m in my hotel room, just off the road, in some seedy town on the island of Phuket.

I’ve been here a few days and I’m still jetlagged, operating English hours under the hot, Thai sun.

I’m here for a week, making the most of cheap flights and southeast Asian weather, before returning to the grim cold of Beijing.

Today I woke up, went to buy a ticket to go to Krabi (I need to catch the boat in a couple of hours), had some food and then went back to my hotel.

I then slept until early evening, whereupon I took myself to the beach and swam, bobbing up and down until the sun sank into the ocean. I jumped up at that moment, the moment it disappeared, as if I could jump higher than the horizon.

I went back to the hotel and showered, and had dinner and then walked the length of the beach and back. (I did the drinking and the partying yesterday). Then I binge watched the show Californication. I took a break to write the rest of chapter one of a novel I’ve started writing. And continued my binge until I felt the urge to write again, which is where the past meets the present in this blog post.

I’m here alone, traveling solo. Several people have asked me about how it’s been, traveling alone — from the guy at the check-in at Heathrow airport, to the travel operator I bought my ticket to Krabi from, it seems like it’s almost a predicament rather than a position of possibility.

But I like traveling alone. You can do whatever you want. And right now, it’s unalloyed freedom. Balance is important and this week in the sun and the sea and the palm trees and the delicious pad thai and the sense of feeling you get from detaching from “reality” (which is often a reality spent staring at a screen and endless, pointless updates) is a week worth its weight in gold.

It’s a week that will sunny up the weeks to come, and help the creativity flow. I’m a writer and so I chose a week of sun. It seemed like a good idea.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 19, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Where I am right now

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Published on Monday, December 7, in The Independent, p. 23.

After four weeks in Yunnan, I am back in Beijing. Before I fly back to England for Christmas I am staying on a friend’s couch in Beijing.

Recently, I was published for a piece analyzing international affairs. It was my first time writing such a piece for a national newspaper. I asked the editor for advice on tone, to which he replied: “It’s supposed to be written in an authoritative manner, by you, our correspondent, who knows about China’s approach to climate change”.

The pressure was on. Certainly I did not want to write an article with my name on it, and my picture, a first for me, that had holes in it — or a poorly researched piece that could make me look like a fool in the printed paper, and online, for an audience of millions.

But the piece was well received by the editor and appeared in Monday’s issue of the paper. As a foreign correspondent I have made progress since August, when I received a phone call from London, from the foreign editor of The Independent, asking me if I was available to write a story.

The call came around 6pm my time, which is about 9am in the UK, and of course I said “yes”. The editor knew me because I had, some months ago, Tweeted him on Twitter asking if I could contribute to his paper. We exchanged messages but nothing came of it. As no-else was available at that time, that day in August, he suddenly remembered me and gave me a call.

That evening, I rushed around Beijing, doing interviews, calling people, and wrote up my story in a Starbucks. The story I wrote impressed the editor and was printed the following day. From then on I got more work with The Independent.

A couple of things to note, especially for any budding freelancers out there. While I was on the phone to the foreign editor, even though it was my first ever time speaking to him proper, I still asked him if I could have a higher fee for the article I had not yet written. He said “yes”– he’d give me a bit of a higher rate (he didn’t have much of a choice) and so I established, from the beginning, a precedent for getting higher rates from them.

It’s important that freelancers do not price themselves out of their jobs, and importantly, price other freelancers out of their jobs.

It’s important that editors respect you, and that you respect yourself and your work. It is a question of confidence that you value yourself to a point where you feel you can ask for better payment. But it’s a good habit to have.

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

Satisfying moments when freelancing

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 20, 2015 at 6:12 am

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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Pitchable outlets #2: The Independent

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This a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to follow this series as it continues.

Status: medium-high / 1st tier

Reach: The Independent is a respected name in journalism. Launched in 1986 alongside a brilliant advertising campaign, the young Independent was a major fresh voice in British journalism. But with shrinking circulation over the years and financial difficulties, it is now a very lean operation drawing the majority of its print readership from London.

But it has some major names on its books; heavyweights such as Robert Fisk and John Pilger. And its website and social media presence is much improved. People still look to The Indy, as it’s colloquially known, and its innovative editorial stances, such as the bold cartoon splash for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, draw much praise. It remains a vital part of British journalism, although its international coverage is hampered by a small budget.

Accessibility: I have mainly pitched to the features desk and international desk, as a freelancer, at The Indy. I have been published in The Independent on Sunday (The Sindy) and the tabloid version of the paper The i.

There’s no real need to pitch separately to these three papers, as the staff for this national newspaper numbers around 140.  The email format for The Indy is the initial of the first name dot last name @ independent dot co dot uk — ie j.smith@independent.co.uk.

Ease: The main problem with getting published in The Indy are the small budgets they have. Freelancers will have a harder time as the newspaper fills its pages with the coverage it needs, and will not be so interested in topics that bigger publications such as The Guardian cover. That said, there are definite opportunities for freelancers to get an Indy byline if you have a unique story or angle.

Payment: The last time I was published in The Indy was this month — 4th July 2015 — in the newspaper and online. I received what they said was their standard rate, which is 15p a word. This is not a very good rate.