If I Were To Break In Today

Letter to an Aspiring Correspondent

PRAGUE – Foreign correspondence is dead. Long live foreign correspondence!

So wrote the British journalist-scholar Timothy Garton Ash not long ago. I couldn’t agree more, as a freelance foreign correspondent who has trained hundreds of young, aspiring colleagues in Prague – and just guided my 17th batch of trainees in how to secure their first foreign-datelined article.

Despite the plummet of foreign-reporting budgets and rise of the not-quite-a-journalist “Citizen Journalist,” various traditional and online media continue to allocate space for serious contributions from abroad. As Garton Ash rightly noted, there’ll always be a need for credible correspondents to do the “witnessing, deciphering and interpreting” of global events and trends for audiences back home.

What I can’t guarantee wanna-be correspondents, though, is that you’ll find full-time work abroad. Or can live exclusively off freelancing. Or will always be paid for material many editors now expect for free. You’ll surely have to hustle, as many do in a city like Istanbul. Or you may ultimately settle for a bit of foreign reporting on the side, coupled with a teaching, editing or PR-writing job.

But that said, nothing should discourage the hardier of you to at least try.

Some surely will, to judge by the burgeoning of journalism programs world-wide, many of which seek to “internationalize” both curriculum and practical experiences for students. (See here and here.)

With this in mind, my latest training in Prague for the Transitions Online Foreign Correspondent Training Course gave me pause to consider how I myself broke into the business – and how I’d modify it today if I were to start over again. Here, then, is a revised roadmap to foreign correspondence.

From the outset, I’d arm myself with two marketable skills, not just one. In my day … Not to sound like a dinosaur, but when I started in journalism two decades ago, reporters reported, photographers shot, cameramen filmed, editors edited, and so on. We specialized – and the industry respected and appreciated the skills involved with each. Rare to do two of them well.

Today, the frenzy for all-things-multimedia means many journalists thirst to be a jack-of-all-trades, one-man-show like Kevin Sites, toting enough gear to present text, audio, video – and cut it themselves. More worrying, though, many clients now demand this juggling. Quality suffers, inevitably.

How unusual is it to find, say, a talented writer and photographer? Very. The lowered standards are obvious, with so many uninspired snapshots and shaky footage that media outlets post online.

Nevertheless, that’s the new reality. Not surprisingly, I myself have begun to take my photography more seriously in recent years, to not only enhance the appeal of the “packages” I offer, but also to supplement the modest income I generate from these assignments.

This means that even if you’re a sharp reporter with a literary flair, don’t rest on your laurels. Take a hands-on course in photography or documentary filmmaking, to broaden your skill-set. If you’re out in some exotic corner of the globe, interviewing unique people doing unique things, why wouldn’t you offer editors a story both written and visual? It’d be short-sighted not to.

This leads to a tip as true today as when I first broke into the business: invest in yourself, invest in all the gear and technology you’ll need. Like any self-starting entrepreneur – and that’s what you’d be – stomach the fact you’ll have to sink cash into start-up costs, to reap greater returns down the road.

Back in 1994-95, I overcame my concerns about the cost to snail-mail my portfolio from the Budapest post office, then to call long-distance to editors – to check if they’d received the darned thing. Perhaps today you could get away with using only an IPhone to do all your reporting, recording, writing and correspondence, as a young Italian foreign correspondent I know does from Ukraine. Yet as I did early on, you may also need to eat the costs of your initial assignments, to establish yourself first. If you have no track record, no credibility, why should they throw expenses your way?

OK, so let’s say you’re now armed with both the tools and skills to get started. In which country will you plant a flag as your new base of operations?

Before you lunge for your dream city – London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo! – think strategically. Choose someplace affordable. Breaking into foreign correspondence is hard enough without the stress of feeding yourself. You ready to subsist off ketchup packets, ramen noodles, tinned meat or baguettes?

Yet cost of living is only one factor. The shrewd move is to strike a balance between a country that’s “hot” news-wise versus one too far off-the-beaten path. Meaning, if your heart is set on a hotspot that also happens to be of vital importance to your home audience – or is embroiled in a headline-grabbing conflict or crisis – well, you wouldn’t be the only moth drawn to that flame.

Let me guess: you’ve long been fascinated by the Arab-Israeli conflict and want to move to Jerusalem? Do you realize Israel reportedly hosts the highest per-capita number of foreign correspondents in the world? So why would a novice like you go head-to-head with fierce competition?

On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to settle in someplace too remote. You may find it tough to sell reportage from a place that too few people have heard of, let alone care about.

In retrospect, I was fortunate to have chosen Budapest in the early 1990s. In reality, though, Budapest chose me – it was my father’s hometown, as he and his family had fled the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Post-Communist Hungary overlapped three compelling story-lines: the wars of the former Yugoslavia, raging to the south; Eastern Europe’s drive to join quintessentially “Western” institutions like the NATO military alliance and European Union; and the struggle of the nuclear-armed, resource-rich ex-Soviet orbit, led by Russia, as it transformed from dictatorship to “democracy.”

When you move to a country, don’t think you’re there to just cover that country. Turn the entire region into your “beat.” Follow developments in each country, connect the dots, draw parallels, create an archive for yourself. While Hungary was rich in Hungary-specific stories, my reportage – for the Christian Science Monitor and many others – typically used the country as a microcosm of some trend that “opened a window” onto the region as a whole. In Budapest in the late 1990s, selling one article – say, for US$300 – was enough to cover the rent of my one-bedroom flat in central Budapest.

From 2006 to 2011, I embraced my new base in Slovakia the same way: with some unique stories of its own, but more so to illuminate the whole post-Communist-cum-EU-member community.

Skip to 2012. Where would I go today, if I were you? The Arab Spring sure is a hot story – and a smart, curious audience cares about the fate of those epic revolutions. But how many foreign correspondents do you think are currently camped out in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya? And today, in Syria?

If I’m a greenhorn, I may opt for Morocco. Home to less competition, and it provides choices. Offer clients the occasional Morocco-specific story with a more exotic dateline – Casablanca! Or, use Morocco as a window onto trends across North Africa. Or, as a base to parachute elsewhere in the Arab world. Morocco also boasts its own restive minority and region. Worth the occasional feature-story!

A place like Kyrgyzstan holds similar traits. Post-Communist, post-Soviet, predominantly Muslim Central Asia straddles the great divide between Christendom and the Islamic world. Kazakhstan is the region’s heavyweight and contains huge oil reserves; Turkmenistan sits atop the world’s fourth-largest natural-gas field. The latter is hermetic; the former, home to several foreign correspondents. But Kyrgyzstan? It offers the same local-regional appeal of Morocco – with a touch of civil unrest to boot.

One final example: the country I now call home, Lesotho. Never heard of it? Neither had I, really, until my wife – who works in international development – told me late last summer that we’d be moving here with our kids. Lesotho is remote indeed, surrounded entirely by South Africa, a “Mountain Kingdom” of just two million souls with the “highest low point” in the world.

So I’m starting over, once again. This time in both journalism and journalism-training. With my journalism, I’m following the same blue-print outlined above. I don’t cast myself as a “Lesotho correspondent,” but my new sphere of journalistic interest is southern Africa. With each story idea I pitch, I try to answer the questions that every editor around the world asks: Why does this country, this situation, this story, matter? Why should we care? Why should our audience read/watch/listen?

Lesotho itself is possessed of unique stories with an exotic dateline. I’ve also drummed up several arguments for why my clients and their readers should care: With the world’s third-highest HIV rate, tiny Lesotho opens a window onto how she and her neighbors are coping with the epidemic. With the Chinese here as the greatest foreign investors, tiny Lesotho opens a window onto a Chinese economic expansion verging on neo-colonialism across the whole of Africa. Nearly two decades since the end of South African apartheid, its legacy of racism resonates within Lesotho. And so on.

The formula, then: carefully choose a country, carve a broad beat, and make a robust case for why editors should green-light an assignment.

A last point. While much of the game-plan above mirrors what I myself endured 17-18 years ago, the Information Age has added an important new wrinkle. Wherever you decide to go, create your own blog. Post everything journalistic you produce on there, from text to photos to video clips.

The blog is not just a modern-day CV, but a space in the ether to hang your shingle, to announce you’re open for business, where clients and others can find you. I’ve evolved from blog-skeptic to true believer, for it’s the most effective marketing tool to “build your brand” as a freelance journalist.

Quite simply, your site enables you to show, not tell editors who you are, what you do, what your capabilities are – far more convincingly than any sheet of paper that lists your experiences, achievements and references.

None of this will make you rich. Nevertheless, foreign correspondence remains a noble mission. Despite all the technological advances, the audience needs us in the field more than ever. As Timothy Garton Ash put it: “All my experience cries out to me: there is nothing to compare with being there.”

Follow Michael on Twitter @mjjordanink

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.