How to Become A Freelance Foreign Correspondent

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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.

5 Essential Marketing Tools for Freelance Writers

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Whether you like it or not, freelance writing is all about marketing. You need to not only market your services, but also market the idea of who you are and what makes you different than the millions of other freelancers out there. Writer Leo Babauta ruminates on the 10 Essential Marketing Skills For Freelancers in blog post for Freelance Switch: “As a freelancer (or potential freelancer), you live and die by your ability to sell your services. And unless you’ve got some kind of agent or marketing firm doing your marketing for you, you’ve got to be your own marketer. If you’re like me, that doesn’t come naturally.” Babauta has a point. Freelancing is all about doing-it-yourself, so if you want to push your career to the next level, here are 5 tips on how to market DIY style:

Blog. It’s been said many times before, but the blog is the new resume. If you don’t have a blog, learn how to start one up. And don’t just rant about politics and talk about your cat. Make your blog look professional, write about things that would look good to potential clients, and offer your services to others (with contact info, of course). If you are a designer, be sure that the design is clean and creative. If you are a photographer, the photos should knock them out. If you’re a writer, have only your best writing on your blog. In all cases, have a simple, clean layout with well-written words. If you’re not good at this yet, constantly learn and refine. Look at other professional blogs for inspiration, then tweak. Then edit some more.

Collaboration. One of the best ways to market yourself  as a freelance writer is to collaborate with others. Instead of only working by yourself, offer your talents on a project. If you’re a writer, offer to collaborate with other bloggers — if you give them some free writing (do a guest post), you have just reached a wider audience, and you’ve developed a relationship with another blogger. You can do the same with whatever service you offer — offer it up for free (or at a discounted rate) so you can develop relationships and reach a wider audience.

Listings. Be sure that you’re on all the freelance job sites, or at least the ones that apply most to the service you offer or the market you’re aiming for. You don’t have many words to make a pitch, so offer a few words to differentiate yourself and a link to your blog if possible.

Business card. Don’t go with anything tacky or overly complicated. Keep it simple, professional. The fewer items on your card, the better. Really, all you need is your name, your service and your email address, but you can put a slogan or logo if that works for you. Also, some have argued that the new business card is to simply say “Google me”. If so, be sure that you’ve researched your Google results thoroughly.

Email skills. This is how I do most of my marketing, in combination with the blog and collaboration ideas listed above. I’ll simply email someone to see if they’re interested. I’ll do a short pitch about myself and my services (a short paragraph) and make them an offer. If they write back, great. If not, you can either follow up or move on to the next one. Don’t be too pushy. Again, be professional, and offer a link or two to show samples of your work. People don’t have a lot of time to read emails, so be sure to keep it short. Be friendly and professional. And make them an offer they can’t refuse (not a “Godfather”-style offer, though).

To read the other 5 of Babauta’s tips, check out the full article at Freelance Switch.

How do you market yourself as a freelance writer? Any successes? Any failures? Let us know in the comments!

Best Foot Forward: How Freelance Writers Can Make Unforgettable Introductions to Editors

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As a new freelancer, you may be more concerned with getting your first clips than developing ongoing relationships with editors. Just keep in mind that everything you do from your first contact with an editor will make an impression, good or bad. While editors don’t remember every sloppy query, from the time a pitch catches her interest, you have a relationship going.

For example, early in my freelance career, I pitched a number of ideas to Marie Claire, a market I really wanted to write for. After collecting several rejection slips, an editorial assistant called. “I just wanted to let you know that we can’t use the story you pitched, but my boss likes your ideas and wants you to keep pitching,” she said. I polished another query, and sent it—and this time, the editor herself called to assign a story.  My persistence in pitching ideas paid off—and led to additional assignments from the same editor.

How else can you make a positive first impression with a market that’s new to you?

Pitch the right person. Not sure which editor handles a section of the market you’re querying? Call or email the publication and find out. Double-check the spelling of her name, and get her title correct. You’re already ahead of the writers pitching “Dear Editor” or emailing the wrong person.

Demonstrate your expertise. Every query you send should show the editor that you’ve done some background research on the topic. Don’t just pitch an idea on the link between laughter and health; mention a recent study that suggests a connection. Suggesting a profile? Do a quick interview with the person so you can include some live quotes in your query. You want the editor to think you’re smart, informed, and a tireless researcher—which I am hoping you are.

Strut your stuff.
Don’t just explain your idea and how you plan to approach it. Tell the editor why’re you’re qualified to write the piece. Freelancers almost always undersell themselves in queries. Don’t make this mistake. Highlight your relevant background and experience when you pitch an idea and make a compelling case for why the editor should assign the story to you. (That doesn’t mean you won’t rely on experts and/or anecdotal sources to write the piece, but all things being equal, personal experience with a subject is likely to get you an assignment over a writer who knows nothing about the topic.)
Reveal you “get” her market. I always tell writers to suggest what section the story they’re pitching belongs in. (For example, “Interested in this piece for your ‘Healthy You’ section?”) This tells the editor you’ve read her magazine—you wouldn’t believe how many freelancers pitch “blind,” or without ever looking at the publication they want to write for. Better yet? Mention a recent article or two, especially if they’re the same type of stories you’re pitching—and don’t be afraid to compliment a story. Editors like praise like anyone else.

Ask questions. If you have the opportunity to have a one-on-one with an editor at a writers’ conference or other event, consider it a conversation, not a pitch. Yes, you can share your great ideas with him; that’s why you’re there. But make sure you ask the editor about his vision for the magazine, what types of ideas he’s looking for, or what he loves to see in a story. You’ll impress him with your desire to give him what he wants, and will come away with the meeting with invaluable information for future pitches.

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Make a positive one every time, and you’ll be more likely to get as assignment, even if your first pitch doesn’t sell.

What are your tips for making a good first impression with an editor? Have you ever had a first introduction nightmare? Let us know in the comments!

Turn Your Mobile Phone Into A Multimedia Journalism Tool

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In the old days, let’s say way back in 1999, broadcast journalists had to lug around bulky recording devices and oversized cameras. These days, most journalists have all the tools for capturing a great story in their pocket. Your smart phone is the new Swiss Army knife for professional and citizen journalists. Non-profit MobileActive.org has created the Mobile Media Toolkit, which collects different tools and resources that help 21st century journalists to use mobile technology efficiently.

The simple fact is that using mobile phones in media production isn’t always as easy as it seems. Finding the right tool and using it correctly to reach the broadest possible audience requires knowledge of the mobile landscape. The need for guidance in the industry is apparent.

The Mobile Media Toolkit provides guidance on tools, resources, and case studies of how mobiles can be used for reporting, news broadcasting, and citizen media participation on a variety of platforms and in a variety of circumstances, especially when expanding copywriting services.

If you’re looking for a one-stop resource for all things mobile, the mobile media tool kit is the place.

Here are a couple of reasons Mobile Media Tool Kit says they are revolutionizing citizen and professional reporting.

Create Media on Your Phone:

  • Mobiles phones are always with you. Knowing how to capture multimedia on your phone will enable you to capture breaking news and information at a moment’s notice.
  • Mobiles are portable and unobtrusive recording devices, and can be used in places where camera crews are banned. There are, essentially, always there.
  • Journalists have reported that recording video or audio interviews with mobile phones often helps subject stay relaxed and comfortable.
  • Location-based reports can add valuable geographic context to reports. This will help content reach specific audiences who are often looking for news relevant to their environment and location.
  • Depending on your budget, a mobile phone can act as a cheap recording device and save you money you might otherwise spend on a fancier recording set up.

Share Media Via Your Phone

After creating content, one of the best ways to create an audience for that content is simply to publish it online. There are many online platforms which will let you self-publish content and build an audience for that content. Web publishing can be quick, easy, and supports all kinds of information that can be uploaded from mobiles (including audio, video, photo, and location information).

There are many reasons to know about and create platforms for publishing mobile content.

  • If you are creating news content on your phone, you will need a platform to publish your content. For multimedia content such as text, audio, videos, or photos, online is often the best publication medium.
  • Most people carry their mobile phones with them everywhere. By making it easy for the general public to upload content captured on their phones, you can increase the reach of content, speed of coverage, as well as diversity of the content you showcase.
  • News consumers, especially on mobile phones, are becoming increasingly participatory. Letting users participate on their mobile phones is the next step, as it makes participation easier and more accessible to a wider audience.
  • Not only can user-generated content drastically increase the amount of content you have, examples show that more people may seek to access this user-generated content as well.
  • These platforms can work with a variety of publishing platforms (like online publishing, the radio, or mobile phones), and in some cases, can plug in directly to your current infrastructure.

Deliver Content Mobile to Mobile

There are many reasons to disseminate content to mobile phones.

How do you use your mobile phone as a reporting too? Any aps or hacks that help you do your job?

Is Ghostwriting Op-Eds an Unethical Practice for Freelance Writers?

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Opinion pieces have long been an esteemed venue that showcases the voice of experts and a ideas of activists within the pages of a newspaper. But how would your own opinion of the Op-Ed section change if you knew that these pieces were not written by the the names on the byline? In a piece for The Guardian, journalist Dan Gillmor opines for the op-ed page, and the practice of hiring ghostwriters to pen pieces under famous names.

He refers to “bylined opinion pieces that are quite obviously not written by the supposed authors. Op-ed pieces that run under the bylines of famous politicians, celebrities and business people are almost never written by those people, just as they rarely author their autobiographies. They don’t have time. Their staffers and PR people, or paid ghostwriters and content writers in the case of books, do the research and writing for them.”

Gillmor looks to place blame on publications for the unchecked use of ghostwritten materials.

Unfortunately, newspapers often don’t check to see if their op-ed contributors are shading the truth or lying outright. The evidence is clear that some editorial page editors don’t believe it’s their responsibility to vet for accuracy and truth what they publish, unless the material comes from their own staff – and, of course, even that doesn’t guarantee veracity.

What do you think of ghostwritten op-ed pieces? Are they unethical? Many freelance writers ghostwrite for a living, but are there certain ghostwriting gigs you just wouldn’t take? Let us know in the comments.

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