By Newley Purnell
Columbia Journalism School C’13
Breaking into major U.S. news organizations can be challenging. Staff jobs are often scarce, and many outlets tend to rely on a group of trusted freelancers. Early-career journalists eager for bylines might have better luck freelancing abroad.
That’s what I did when I moved to Bangkok six years ago. I was interested in journalism but had little formal reporting experience. I had been an English major in college and had written for a student news magazine. After graduating, I worked as an editorial assistant at Random House, then took several freelance writing classes and decided to try journalism full-time.
Once I arrived in Thailand, I networked with other journalists and took on whatever freelance assignments I could get. I learned on the job and covered a wide array of stories, including the aftermath of a flood, developments in residential real estate and jazz concerts. By the time I left, I had clips in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and I had covered breaking news as a stringer for ABC News Radio.
Here are some tips for freelance reporters who want to establish themselves overseas:
Master Your Country’s Top Business Topics
Before you leave, read as much about the country’s economy as possible. You can skip the standard reference books. The Economist and The New York Times publish extensive, up-to-date country guides online that draw on recent news to help bring you up to speed. The World Bank maintains a database of key growth statistics.
Once you arrive and get settled, start by asking people in the business and nonprofit communities which issues they care about the most. In Thailand, I spoke with members of the US-ASEAN Business Council, a group that advocates for American businesses in Southeast Asia, and officials at the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. For a bigger picture, I interviewed economists at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, headquartered in Bangkok. And I chatted with government officials at Thailand’s Board of Investment, a group within the Industry Ministry that promotes foreign investment. To find these groups, I simply scoured the Web, read the local English language newspapers and asked business people I met at social events if they could recommend industry groups or speak with me directly.
Keep Your Eyes Open
Sometimes, a new business story will just fall out of the sky, and you just have to have sense enough to look up. In 2011, for example, Thailand was struck by a flooding crisis that had a clear and immediate impact on regional business. Several of the country’s key industrial estates were swamped by the worst seasonal rains in decades. The damage hit automakers and hard drive manufacturers especially hard. There was an obvious humanitarian angle, as well, with hundreds of people killed.
I had never covered hard drive manufacturers or flooding, but I had distinct advantage over many American reporters with more relevant experience. I was there.
Having heard that global hard drive manufacturing chains had been affected, I checked the website of a leading manufacturer, Western Digital, and found that the company had been forced to suspend production at its Thailand factories. I contacted the company to confirm the problems and interviewed an analyst at the technology research firm Gartner.
Separately, I traveled to flooded areas in Bangkok, spoke with residents and took photos in an effort to gather local color. I also spoke with infrastructure specialists in Thailand who told me how the government handled the floods, and sought feedback from Thai officials regarding plans to fix water management problems.
Think — and Pitch — Regionally
Overseas freelancers can make themselves more valuable to editors in the U.S. by becoming knowledgeable about not just their home country but the region at large. Familiarity with neighboring territories and a willingness to travel are vital.
I was based in Bangkok, but I reported on issues throughout Southeast Asia. (Bangkok is a hub for Southeast Asia, and flights within the region are cheap.) Most of the business reporting I did was from Bangkok, but I pitched two stories on universities in Singapore to the Chronicle of Higher Education, then spent several days there interviewing sources. (Singapore is just a few hours from Bangkok by plane.)
I also traveled to neighboring Myanmar to report on the aftermath of a massive cyclone that hit that country in 2008. Because I was so close to the country and ready to jump on a plane the next day, I successfully pitched the story to ABC News.
As a freelancer with a flexible schedule, I also pitched and wrote travel stories throughout Southeast Asia. I wrote about motorcycling through northern Vietnam for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and took a five-day car trip along the Mekong River, from northern Thailand along the Laos and Cambodia borders, for the magazine.
Specific Industries, Specific Publications
At home or abroad, journalists can gain an advantage by researching issues their colleagues don’t have the time or desire to study. Although obscure topics might be more difficult to pitch, there is far less English-speaking competition overseas.
In Asia, I studied the issues surrounding rare earths elements, which are used in manufacturing smartphones, laptop computers, missiles and hybrid cars. I learned that China refines the majority of the world’s supply of rare earths and that an Australian mining firm is building a new rare earths refinery in Malaysia. I covered the issue for BNA’s Daily Report for Executives, a general business publication.
Understanding topics like these allow you to report on them for a variety of publications. At BNA, I wrote pieces for publications like Infrastructure Investment and Policy Report, International Environment Reporter, International Trade Reporter, Privacy and Security Law Report and more.
Foreign correspondents’ clubs, widely considered venues for casual socializing, can offer real reporting and networking opportunities for newcomers. In Bangkok, I attended talks by foreign and local academics and policymakers at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. I also met diplomats, representatives from the nonprofit world, and even members of the Thai military.
There are foreign correspondents’ clubs in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and other cities around the world. You may also be able to take advantage of interest group gatherings, like those of the San Francisco-based Asian American Journalists’ Club, which has an Asia chapter.
Email is easy and convenient, especially given the time difference between the U.S. and Asia or elsewhere, but successful freelancers pick up the phone. They call their editors to check in, follow up on stories, or simply ask if there’s anything else they can be doing to help out. Err on the side of over-communicating.
Don’t restrict your dialogue with editors to pitches, invoices, and other administrative details. Give them updates on all the stories you’re monitoring. Even if those topics don’t warrant coverage yet, folks at headquarters will know you’re watching them diligently.