Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘the independent

Goodbye, the Independent. You were good.

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the-independent-gettyOn the 13th of January, I visited the offices of the Independent. I was in London for a week. I met the editors of the foreign section, in person, for the first time. I’d been writing for them in Beijing.

They introduced me to their colleagues, bought me lunch, and kindly explained their daily schedule. I was given a tour of their offices. I even had a sit down meeting with the editor of the Independent, Amol Rajan, with whom I took a selfie.

Thirty days later, the owner of the Independent announced that the newspaper was to close.

These two events are unrelated. But seem to be in a series of events in my career where I felt I had seen a new dawn, that I was on the cusp of something — catching one of those all important “breaks” that you hear about.

Alas, it was just the latest in a line of false dawns. A catalogue of failure.

I’ve written before about how success in journalism can be illusory. How being published in a big newspaper, with your byline, can seem fantastic. But the glory quickly fades. And the financial compensation is paltry.

But you do it anyway.

The closure of a newspaper is always sad news and brings with it dozens of newly unemployed journalists. The Independent is and has been for some time the smallest of the national titles in the UK. But it punched above its weight, carrying big hitter writers and was renowned for its bold and agenda-setting front page splashes.

But you can only look to the future and consider where your next piece might be published.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 16, 2016 at 1:56 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.

Capturing a scene in 200 words & getting paid for it

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In the past, newspapers sold on the grimy streets of London or New York City often contained evocative accounts of far away lands. Telegrams would be sent from the Crimea, from Prussia, Indochina, Arabia, Austria-Hungary, and other exotic places.

Whether describing a war, some local ascendancy, or natural disaster, these early foreign correspondents would write in a style now rarely seen, exciting the imaginations of readers back home who could not see (there being no TV) nor travel to foreign countries.

A “vignette” is defined as “a brief evocative description, account, or episode”. They were a popular form in early American newspapers. Indeed, that sublime piece of “reporting” — The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, written about the American Civil War, could be taken as a long, extended vignette.

I wrote the following vignettes for The ‘i’ newspaper, a British national newspaper, that still finds a place for them. I enjoy writing them. It’s a romantic form that allows the writer to claim some lineage with explorer writers like Wilfred Thesiger or Marco Polo. Well, that’s how I like to think of it anyway.

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The ‘i’ newspaper, a sister title to The Independent, pays £50 for each 200-word entry.

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November 4th — in Beijing

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I’m homeless.

But it’s self imposed. I moved out of my apartment and I’m currently crashing at a friend’s place. I don’t have my own accommodation in Beijing anymore.

On Friday I will be flying to Yunnan, a province in southern China. It’s a beautiful and diverse part of the country. I’ll be staying with a friend and then we’ll travel around the province a little. I am looking forward to it. I’m a big nature lover and Yunnan has plenty of it. It’s something that Beijing, being a huge urban agglomeration, lacks.

October was a much quieter month than September. Here are a couple of pieces I wrote recently. One is about China abandoning its one-child policy after 35 years — big news. The other piece is about craft beer and coffee in Beijing. The latter piece was something I enjoyed writing. It took me a night and a day to put it together, and its more descriptive style brought to mind the older form of foreign correspondence, when those living in foreign lands sent home vignettes and descriptions as well as news; trying to capture the zeitgeist of exotic locations in which the writer lived but who readers back home could only imagine.

I hope that perhaps I can do more such writing. Although capturing the zeitgeist is harder than it may initially appear.

November and December will probably be downtime for me, which makes up for a mediocre and somewhat depressing summer, a summer where I traveled nowhere and did not do many summery things.

But I took the long view and the wintry downtime is something I feel I need. I will be flying back home in December for Christmas, staying with my family in England. I bought a single ticket. Will I be coming back to Beijing? It’s likely, but the question of when will hang around for a while I think.

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.