Reporting: How to make the jump
Updated: Jan 17
A quick, completely unproven guide to how to be a foreign correspondent.
Occasionally, I'll get calls from young journalists who are getting ready to make “the jump.” That bold, honest, and starry-eyed decision decision to pack up everything, move abroad, and try to hack it as a freelance journalist. I realized that the questions I get tend to follow a similar pattern, so why not share it here for everyone?
Here's the thing about freelance work. There is a mountain of advice on the internet, glossy success stories and expensive j-school degrees, but in reality there is no good roadmap that works for everyone. Some people go right out of college, work odd jobs, and do just fine. Others have entire careers in newsrooms stateside before getting transferred abroad with a whole salary and benefits package. Most do a combination of the two. In all likelihood, so will you.
The best thing you can do for yourself is call other journalists, ask how they do it, and figure out a plan that works for you.
Don’t be shy about calling and asking for advice. ESPECIALLY if you are a woman, a Person of Color, or another member of an underrepresented demographic. We will talk to you, because we did the exact same thing when we were starting out, and we want you to have all of the support you can possibly get before you take a risk like this. The more of us who are out there doing good work, the better off the industry will be.
I only ask that if you ask for help, please pay it forward by helping others.
Before you go:
1) Have a plan.
The first question I ask a caller, is what are your languages? I'm hoping you have experience with a language that you know you can use, or at least a willingness to learn one quickly. When you can get to a point where you're able to hold basic conversations, set up your own interviews, and do your own fact checks, it makes a big difference. You’ll be able to avoid racking up expensive translation fees, and you’ll be taken more seriously by your sources and your editors. Second question. What experience do you already have?
Many freelance journalists work in a newsroom close to home before they make the jump. It's helpful because it gives you a clear understanding of how reporting works, what best practices are, and what editors need and want. You’ll learn how to take feedback. And you’ll probably get some insider tips on which coverage areas are lacking, and where you can fit.
If you aren’t in a newsroom, that's ok! You can start freelancing as a side hustle from anywhere, honestly -- and I’d recommend doing so. There are grant programs from the Pulitzer Center, IWMF, and others that can fund freelance reporting trips and reduce the risk to your budget.
You don’t have to be a professional journalist to do this, either. (I started doing freelance stories in college, and most editors didn't ask.)
2) Moving abroad as a freelancer is a financial risk. How do you prepare? This piece of advice is an NPR editor, and he's totally right: Before you leave your home country, you’ll want to save about 2 - 3 months of living expenses, park it in a bank account, and never touch it. This is the fund that you will use if things go terribly wrong and you have to come home.
You’ll also want to consider family responsibilities, etc. that might factor into a decision to move far away for an undetermined period, where your finances will be unstable for a while. Many full-time freelance journos make less than $35,000 a year.
When you arrive in a new country, it can take a while to start getting assignments. It can also take months to get paid after you land that first story. If at all possible, you will want to build in some padding. In an ideal situation, you’ll want to go abroad with a few months’ worth of living expenses in the country you’re moving to. This sucks, because it's a lump of money you might not get back, and you're taking this risk without the backing of an employer. But there are ways to manage this -- including grants and freelancing part-time before you go. I'll outline more in another post.
3) Third step: Figure out an editorial plan. Where are you going, and why?
Take out a map. Which cities grab your attention? Hopefully one where you can use a language that you speak, and cover the issues you’d like to cover. A low cost of living is essential. Having a friend or two (or a friend-of-a-friend!) can always help. Relative safety and proximity to ongoing conflicts is a consideration. How's the airport? Hospitals? Sometimes I’m half sure I picked Istanbul because the mass transit system is so dang good. While you conduct this research, brainstorm what you’ll cover in your region of choice, and how. Are you a photojournalist, a writer, or both? Is there a specific conflict that draws your attention, or is it more topical -- like increasing violence faced by migrating people, the rise of authoritarianism or the impacts of climate change? What can you bring to the table that isn’t being covered yet?
Track down cheap or used equipment and start using it. Read some books, start getting in touch with local experts and shaping some pitches. My sample size is small, but the most successful reporters I know had a main issue they wanted to cover and lear aboutn when they left.
4) All that boring bureaucratic stuff is actually really important Research the visa and press freedom situation in your target country. What’s the process and cost associated with getting permission to live there? Do you have to register as a journalist? Can you legally drive a car there, without getting a local driver’s license?
What kind of taxes will you pay as a freelancer or independent contractor? Will you pay local taxes or taxes from your home country? (Living in Turkey on a journalist visa, I pay U.S. taxes. While a lot of business expenses can be written off, I set aside about 15% of each pay stub for tax season. More on this later.) Does the place you’re going have a solid local health care system? If not, is there an expat health insurance plan you should sign up for? If you’re covering a war, do you need additional insurance for that?
Hooray! You’ve arrived! Start writing down e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.
1) Take notes. An editor I greatly admire told me that the minute I touched down in a new place, I had to get all my thoughts down on paper. Because those things you notice and see first -- they're things a reader or listener would want to notice, too. And they fade to normalcy so quickly. You’ll never have that perspective of a 'true newcomer,' ever again.
Language classes can be a great way to acclimate and meet new friends. Take pictures, do the tourist stuff, say yes to every new friend who offers to bring you along somewhere. This is the moment to soak it in, gather string, and fall in love with your new city. Real journalism comes from a place of love, respect and open curiosity. Not judgement or fear.
2) Keep your expenses as low as possible. Stay in a hostel while you find a place to rent that’s as cheap as you can manage -- preferably with roommates. I always recommend getting furnished places too, especially when you're starting out. Remember that you might not stay long if the assignments don't come in. You want to stay mobile.
Maintain your equipment, (store with batteries OUT in humid climates!) and identify trustworthy repair shops. I tend to keep my kit as basic and durable as possible, but then upgrade as things break and fall apart. Remember, you're basically a small business now, and any equipment costs will come out of your own pocket. Do your research and make sure every piece is a smart investment.
Eat whatever the local residents eat when they’re on a budget. Try street food, walk the neighborhoods, and avoid spending lots of money in areas catering to tourists. Keep your entertainment cheap and local. You're here to learn!
3) Network with journalists in your city
Many cities have WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels where foreign and local journalists swap advice, sources, and event locations. It's a great source of camaraderie and support, which you'll need in the coming months. Track these groups down, as well as contact numbers for government sources and experts on the topics you’re covering.
Make some friends, watch how they work, and learn from them. Get a sense of who covers what, and which outlets might be looking for new freelancers. But remember that journalism friends shouldn’t be your only source of social interaction. Otherwise we end up in a groupthink bubble. Make friends, not bubbles!
4) Pick a story and start!
When I moved to Turkey, I was hit with an absolute wall of imposter syndrome. Editors weren’t responding to my pitches, I wasn’t getting assignments, I could hardly speak any Turkish. All the other freelancers in Istanbul seemed to be doing amazing work so effortlessly, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. A beautiful friend of mine told me to just chill the F out and start working on something, even without an editor on board. She was right.
Six months in. Got your sea legs yet?
1) Start building a healthy workflow. You're self-employed now. Each editor and outlet is now a client. Each one will have different needs and styles, and you'll want to tailor your work for each one.
I’ve found that at least at first, it's helpful to write for a mix of outlets with different needs. This allows for a steadier income stream, and gives you a feel for the type of work you like best. I keep a list of editor contacts by my desk, so that when I come across a story I can check over my shoulder, see where it might fit, and pitch accordingly. You can even zero in on a single topic, and then pitch different angles to several editors. That way, you only do the background research once -- and each interview can inspire you for a new spinoff story. (But never use the same interview in multiple articles.) Overall, it’s helpful to always keep a few things in the works -- a couple things you’re working on, a few pitches out to different editors (never the same one at once), and a few ideas that you’re gathering string for. I keep a list of “Assigned, Pitches Out, and Developing Ideas” on my desk so I can always remind myself what to prioritize today.
There's always housekeeping: I set aside a couple of hours every Tuesday morning to go over finances, log receipts, and send out invoices, for example. I also keep and update 'source decks,' which are Excel spreadsheets of sources and contact information, arranged by topic and time zone.
If you aren’t getting assignments, don’t stop working. Develop a personal project, or do some local travel and hone better pitches. Get feedback and advice from peers. Apply for grants. Just don’t stop!
2) Don't forget to 'build your brand.' (I know, barf)
I hate this part too. You want to be working, not tweeting, right? But it's free advertising, and for some reason people seem to think we're more successful if they see it on Twitter, Instagram, and whatever ballyhoo they come up with next.
A good rule of thumb is that when a story comes out, you should set aside time to to thank everyone who helped make it happen. Background sources, interviewees, editors, any kind of local hires like translators or photographers ESPECIALLY. Thank them publicly (by tweeting stories and pull quotes, tagging those with a social media presence), or by simply emailing a link with a sincere note. It's genuine, it's what you would want someone to do for you -- and it also helps get your story out there in a way that doesn't feel icky.
When you find yourself with downtime, create a portfolio website, curate your photos, and reach out to new potential clients. Even if you aren’t an amazing photographer, go for some walks and take some shots of your new home. Consider it practice and advertising for your new self-employment.
Another healthy addition to your workflow is a side gig that’s completely unrelated to journalism. Most of us teach English classes at some point, but income streams like AirBnb, copywriting, and Upwork can also be fantastic options.
3) Narrow in on a client or two: As you work for different outlets, pay attention to the experience. Did you agree with the editorial decisions the outlet made over your piece? Did they treat you and your local colleagues with respect? Are they ethical, are they fair?
Editors we like: Respond to pitches quickly, pay decently through direct deposit, and give a thorough edit. Bonus points if they’re kind. If you find one of these, give them a reliable stream of your best work and never let them go. They are perfect unicorn angelbabies and must be protected at all costs.
Editors we don’t like: Unresponsive, don't pay on time, and tend to work for prestige publications. I generally don’t spend too much time trying to please them. The freelance whisper network will tell you who to avoid, but otherwise sites like WhoPaysWriters.com can help you weed out the baddies.
Focus your best pitches on the outlets you’d like to keep working for, and build a good working relationship. Ideally, that can grow into a contract or staff position, and then you’re not a freelancer anymore!
4) Protect your mental health You will probably not sell every story you came to write. You might find yourself lonely and isolated in a new city, not really knowing what you’re doing. It’s ok. We all do this. Remember that you’re not alone, but that this is also something to take seriously. Set aside some of your time and budget for self care, and stick to it.
Some publications offer free, confidential therapy hotlines to staff and freelancers. Other times you can find affordable therapy in the country where you live. Research some options and find something that works for you. Oh, and call your mom. Or similar maternal figure. They miss you.
All that said, everyone is different.
Don't worry so much. You'll do great. Just remember to stay calm, stay flexible, and don't forget why you got into this job in the first place -- it's a hell of a ride. What worked for you, what didn't? Leave a message in the comments.