How to Become A Freelance Foreign Correspondent

Being a foreign correspondent is one of the most romanticized jobs in the journalism world. The thought of breaking news in far off countries and meeting fascinating other cultures is nearly irresistible to journalists who seek adventure. Ebyline freelancer Beth Dickinson is one of these adventure seekers, she is a foreign correspondent stationed in the Middle East. She has trekked the globe to cover stories in Africa and Latin America, and her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and The New Republic (and many more). She is regularly a guest on NPR affiliate stations, the BBC, ABC News, France24, Sirius XM radio, and Washington’s WTOP. We recently caught up with Beth to hear some stories about working overseas and to get some advice for other freelance journalists who want to break in to foreign correspondent work.

Hi Beth, give us a little background of where you are working now and what you have been up to?

I’ve just spent the summer in Latin America, covering various staging grounds of the drug war. Prior to that, I worked as an editor at Foreign Policy magazine in Washington for three years. I was Nigeria correspondent for The Economist (a stringing gig) in 2007 and 2008.

What countries have you worked in, and which place was the most interesting to cover?

My first love has always been reporting in Africa. I feel alive when I’m working stories there in a way that I’ve never experienced in another region. There’s such a depth of complexity and narrative that is under-explored. Unlike a city like New York, or D.C., where there are hundreds of journalists clamoring for a story, you’ll often find yourself the only person digging around, which is challenging and exciting—and also humbling.

More broadly, I love covering places on the move. When you arrive in a city like Lagos, Nigeria or Santiago, Chile, you can feel the momentum of a place whose best day are ahead. There is a sense that entrepreneurship and global shifts in the economic balance have suddenly made anything possible.

What is one memorable story that you’ve worked on, and what made it so exciting?

I just finished a month in Colombia, reporting a really heartbreaking story about changes in the violence in an impoverished port city called Buenaventura. The city is Colombia’s largest port—but that fortuitous access to the sea has also transformed the area into a battleground for drug cartels and gangs, vying for a piece of the illegal narcotics trade northward to the United States.

Anytime you cover a story like this, you have to constantly be thinking about the safety of your sources and the people you are talking to. It’s very easy to carelessly publish quotes or details about people’s lives that could then be used against them in the future. You have to remember in a case like this that it isn’t about the story, at the end of the day. It’s about the people—and you have to craft your reporting in a way that is fair, representative, and narrative, without it being exploitative.

How do you pitch your stories to editors? Are you pitching blindly, or do you mostly have relationships with editors already?

I have a number of relationships with editors, but I also pitch cold. When I write someone I haven’t worked with before, I find it’s helpful to try and find a connection to that person as an ‘in.’ For example, I’ll ask a fellow journalist or colleague for advice on who is best to contact in an organization. Alternatively, I just try to pitch as surgically as possible. Find the relevant editor and write them directly. I think the best pitches are short and to the point. Editors are busy and they get far too many emails. So they’re not likely to take well to a 1,200 word pitch.

How did you get started as a foreign correspondent?

I wrote an email. During my junior year of college, I reached out to several New York Times correspondents in Africa and asked if I might be able to intern with them. I would find my own funding; I just wanted the chance to learn from their work. I ended up heading to Senegal to intern with Lydia Polgreen, the bureau chief in Dakar. Everything I know about journalism, I learned from her incredible mentorship.

The best way to become a foreign correspondent is to become a foreign correspondent. If you want to write from Yemen or Finland or Brazil, just go there, prove you can write, prove you are easy to work with, and prove that you are reliable, and you will find editors ready to accept your copy. It’s not the most lucrative model at first, but there are lots of creative ways to make it work while you build editor contacts.

For people without extensive language skills, can they still be foreign correspondents?

Yes, though making an effort to learn makes a huge difference. For example, in Nigeria, I spoke a little bit of Yoruba—really not much, but enough for ‘party tricks,’ as I would say. Those few greetings and expressions opened countless doors for me, because it gave a sense that I was invested in understanding the place. Genuine interest is always appreciated.

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About Ebyline Staff

Ebyline connects quality content creators around the globe with brands, agencies and publishers in need of trusted, original content. Follow Ebyline on Twitter.

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