Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Telegraph

An update on North Korea: the costs of freelancing from the Hermit Kingdom

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So I traveled in late April to North Korea for a week. I wrote about it on this blog here. The trip, all inclusive, was through a Beijing-based tour company (tourism to NK is only permissible via these tour operators), and it cost me 1100 euros.

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

It was a significant outlay. 1100 euros (875 British pounds or 1448 US dollars)  is a lot of money and I dug into my overdraft to stump up the cash. Yes, I did want to go anyway, but I knew I would have to find ways to recoup the costs. How would I do that? By selling stories based on my trip of course. I am a freelance foreign correspondent after all.

However, at the time, I hadn’t been commissioned for anything. No editor at any newspaper, website or magazine was expecting Korea-related copy from me. This is, in short, not the way to do things.

A freelance should really have stories already booked in before s/he travels. And then he does more research and maybe pitches one or two more. After he comes back from said travel and has filed his commissioned stories, he digs around his head and thinks up further angles.

At the least, you should recoup what it cost; all the expenses that it took to go. For North Korea, I have not yet done that. I have in fact paid off 79% of the 1100 euros I spent.

This comes from three sources: a profile of a manager of one of these NK tour companies; an investigative feature on the growth of North Korean tourism; and a photo gallery.

The profile was published online by The Telegraph, and fetched me 150 pounds. Al Jazeera published both the feature and photo gallery, and the two together was worth $900 (both items each making up half that number).

The photo gallery was a useful reminder of how to diversify. If you have video or photos, it always pays to ask your editor if they want an edited together video or a photo gallery. Always ask if they’ll pay for it though – never believe your stuff should be free!

I haven’t yet pitched anything revolving around something like a travel narrative on my experiences traveling in North Korea, but that’s quite hard. It’s already been done quite a bit, so I’ll have to come up with a unique angle. But it’s good practice for next time, and for future trips. Travel + journalism is fun, yo.


Is North Korea On Your Tourism Bucket List? – Aljazeera  (includes photo gallery)

Bringing the world closer to North Korea – Telegraph

North Korea – a journey in 8 photos

The Illusion of Journalistic Success

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I am not yet a successful journalist. Not by a long shot. But this month has been unprecedented for me, in the breadth and depth of bylines. The succession of published articles has been such that a friend of mine remarked that I seem to be “on a roll”. 

And yet, many of those articles that have now, finally, been published have been months in production. Days spent hunched over my laptop in my parent’s house, in the kitchen, making flagrant use of their landline. One article took over two months from its initial filing to its eventual publication. I spent many nights wondering if those articles I’d been labouring over during the summer had been all in vain.

Meanwhile, I wait for all that freelancing moolah to hit my bank account, meaning I’ve been living on vapours here in Beijing, having had to borrow 2000 RMB (£200) from a friend just to live on. (Moving over has really sapped my finances – I really should save more of a nest egg before coming over next time). In other words, journalistic ‘success’ is not really very real. When you hear about a journalist or writer whose career seems to be on the up, more likely they’ve been agonizing whether all that hard work, the meticulous reporting, cultivating of a story’s sources, the carefully put together prose hasn’t all been worth it. And of course they are likely to be dirt poor.  

But I have a good thing going on. Especially with a certain left-wing current affairs magazine. The editor there seems particularly keen to have me keep writing for them. It could be the start of something beautiful…

As a journalist, and especially as a freelancer, your eternal mission will be finding good editors. Editors you can have healthy, nurturing relationships with. They are your gatekeepers, your lovers – every pitch is a minor seduction – your employer, your critic, defender and promoter. If you hit on a good one, be sure to keep ’em. It could be the start of a long career and the very least a path you should walk until you’ve explored its length.  

Life lessons

I met the other day Malcolm Moore, 34, The Daily Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent. We had lunch after a short email correspondence and Malcolm spoke, after my prompts, about his route into journalism, the life of correspondents, the battle of getting your pieces accepted by editors, about the difference between Shanghai and Beijing. 

Like many 30-something journalists I’ve spoken to, his route into journalism is haphazard and pretty much accidental. He came across ever so slightly jaded. I had to wonder if he wasn’t just doing it just to put off a young, starry-eyed naif. I told him that perhaps I’m missing out, by concentrating on freelance, on the training and education instilled by the grind of daily deadlines of a staff reporting position or of being in a newsroom. He rebuffed that and said simply, “You do not want to be in a newsroom”. And made it sound like a hellish, grueling experience. 

In some ways it reaffirmed my mission of aiming, ultimately, to be a narrative non-fiction writer or essayist, in the mold of the Adam Gopniks, John Jeremiah Sullivans and Malcolm Gladwells. But to be that, to get into such an esteemed position also requires superior reporting skills and the sensibility of a finely-honed detective (Gladwell himself said he needed the ten years he spent at The Washington Post as a reporter before he could elevate himself to writing books and New Yorker pieces). 

Whatever happens, it’ll certainly be an adventure, and despite financial concerns for the future, raised by Malcolm (thanks buddy!), I look forward to whatever lay ahead. Sometimes, the struggle itself is the reward.  

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 29, 2013 at 10:02 am