Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘how to freelance

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.

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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

Finding story ideas: Tip #1

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My notebooks. Moleskine. I use the little one for to-do lists, jotting down story ideas and reporting. I use the larger one to write out drafts, diagram article structures, and make long-term plans. And make notes obvs.

As a freelance journalist, your entire existence is dependent on coming up with story ideas.

Some of the stories that I find most interesting to report and write about are trend stories — pieces on new social and cultural phenomena.

Once is a freak; twice is a coincidence; three times is a trend

It’s often about noticing the patterns that might be lurking in the environment (are more people wearing funny hats? Why?), or in your social circles.

For example, I noticed that among my Chinese female friends in Beijing, who are in their 20s and tend to be well educated, with high salaries, several seemed to be working as secretaries for their (male) bosses. I wondered whether they were happy with this, if they wanted positions with more executive opportunity, or whether they were in fact happy with their lot. I sent off a pitch outlining why I wanted to explore this. It was rejected (the editor explained that they had already done a lot on the glass ceiling in China), but it was a worthwhile exercise.

The point is, if you happen to notice something, then that noticement (yes, “noticement”), could be spotting a wider trend.

From my reading and from noticing an increasing interest among friends, I successfully pitched a piece about how Chinese people are increasingly becoming Buddhist again. It’s that kind of cultural phenomena I find fascinating. (The piece is here, if you’re interested).

A lot of pitch-able story ideas are about these new changes. It’s interesting, kind of newsy, and importantly helps to capture the zeitgeist.

For the freelance journalist, it almost doesn’t matter if the trend or culture is actually changing. You need only ask the question: is it changing? Then you’re 50% toward a story idea.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 13, 2015 at 8:17 am

How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig

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It had all started with a burning desire. The time was 2009/10, the setting mostly my university dormitory. It was the first year of my journalism degree and I had one hot desire to be published in a national newspaper.

And in late spring, in the dog months of the academic year, when students were beginning to laze around dorms and on campus, settling into dreamy thoughts in the warming days when finally the effort was rewarded, culminating in a byline freshly and eternally emblazoned on a piece of paper that had been printed by The Guardian.

I went about it quite systematically I guess, looking back. At first it all started with asking questions. You’re watching TV with your flatmates and something is mentioned on the news or in a sitcom. “Huh, I wonder why that is?” or “yeah that’s interesting, but I wonder if X is also like that?”

One time I was thinking about Robin Hood, because the film starring Russell Crowe was due to be released. I thought to myself “hmmmmm…I wonder if there are real-life Robin Hoods?” IDEA! 

At the time I was also reading books like ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction‘ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists‘ which I either bought or loaned out from the uni library, and paying particular attention to the sections about pitching. They mentioned that you should always pitch to the relevant editor, the editor who’s responsible for that section ie music or film or business etc. It advised that having a name and addressing your email to that name was vital. I proceeded to ignore some of that advice.

I checked online and on Wikipedia and found that there were indeed several cases of real-life Robin Hoods.

I found the phone number for The Guardian’s switchboard and asked them to direct me to the ‘music and film desk’. They did so and I found myself speaking to an editor. I proceeded to pitch over the phone (not really something you should do often). I explained to them that I had this article and that it would be good to coincide with the release of the new film.

The editor explained that they had already planned some content around that movie. After this failure, I proceeded to blanket email the desks of most of the national newspapers with my article. Here was the email I sent:

Hi there, to coincide with the release of the film Robin Hood, I have written a 600 word article on real-life Robin Hoods.

The article is structured in a list system, with each figure as a headline and subsequent info. They range from modern to historical times.
The article could go in the paper, or in the online edition.

My name is Lu-Hai Liang and I have published in local papers and student media. I am a Journalism BA at Bournemouth University.

Thanks for your time, please get back to me if you are interested.

Suffice to say, my first ever pitch was a no-go. But I continued to walk the road between asking questions and then turning those questions into saleable pitches. It’s not completely natural to think in this way. It requires, like many skills in life, commitment, patience, and most importantly, practice.

It took me a few pitches more before I struck lucky. And I was very fortunate – sometimes it can take 10, 20 pitches before you land your first. In fact, it took me a long while before I got a byline in a national again – more on that later.

This is the pitch which led me to my first ever paid freelance article:

Dear Ms. Wooley,

Would the Guardian be interested in a short article about the difficulty of Chinese exams, specifically the gaokao, the chinese university entrance exam, which chinese teenagers have just taken. The exams are the only thing considered by universities, so no interviews or recommendations, and ‘questions’ on the exams include obtuse prompts such as: “Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground”.

Many thanks, Lu-Hai Liang

Notice the difference between this pitch and the previous one. I am addressing a named editor. I’m offering interesting, tantalizing details about the article. There are many flaws too. First of all, I’d already written most of the article – not something a regular professional freelance should do (we just can’t afford to). There’s a very noticeable looseness in the sentences, like as if a breathless, eager young journalism student had written them. One line sentences, not multiple sub-clause sentences, are the name of the game in pitches. But there’s a certain charm to the pitch I suppose.

Here is the editor’s response:

Dear Lu-Hai Liang
This sounds quite fascinating. Can you send me any cuttings of your work?
Alice

Very terse. Editors are terse people. Busy folk, they are. Below is my response:

Dear Ms. Woolley,
I’m a Journalism student at Bournemouth University. I have written by-lined articles for my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer – including a news report, film review and band interview. I’m going home tomorrow where my copy of the newspaper is, so I can’t scan them for you until tomorrow.

I’ve written up the article for your consideration. For a journalism student, by-lines are, of course, much needed. Any edits or further information needed, please let me know.

I have also written for my student magazine. My online portfolio can be found here: http://buzz.bournemouth.ac.uk/?author=299

Many thanks, Lu-Hai
p.s. I will scan the cuttings and the magazine article for you tomorrow, if your interested.

And then her response, which was one of the sweetest, finest emails I’ve ever received:

Lu-Hai
I really like your article!
I will need to edit it a bit but I would like to use it in Education Guardian asap. Too late for next Tuesday’s issue but hopefully the one after.
No need to scan your cuttings as I am happy with what you have done.
Do you have a mobile number for any queries?
Best, Alice

The 400-or-so-word piece was published by The Guardian, both online and in the newspaper. My fee was £151. I was deliriously happy.

It took me 2 years before I was published by The Guardian again (online and unpaid), so don’t think it’s so easy to break into but it’s much much more accessible than people realize.

***

If you’re serious about freelancing I am sure you have the wherewithal to Google how to do it, read the right books and practice. But here is the single most important piece of advice and inspiration that I’ve come across (which unfortunately cannot find the source):

“You know as editors we always want pitches, actually I’m surprised sometimes I don’t get more”.

And here is an uncommonly good guide to pitching: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/08/how-not-to-pitch/279193/