UPDATED: Dan Baum’s Twitter Guide to Becoming a Foreign Correspondent (Part 2)
[Ed. note: Author Dan Baum (@DanielSBaum) is currently telling his Twitter followers the story of how moving to Africa launched his journalism career. This is the second and last part in a TFT series of his collected tweets. Read the first post. Or jump to Part 2's *updated* second half.]
Margaret and I were staff reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We met there in 1985.
We both hungered to be foreign correspondents. Yeah, us and everybody else on the planet.
Neither of us was very accomplished — just workaday hacks at a B-minus newspaper.
So let’s dispense with any notion that we had a head start. We were nobodies. Really.
The Washington Post’s foreign editor gave us great advice. I forget his name now.
He said, “You can count the papers with foreign bureaus on two hands.” (Today, fewer.)
“To get a foreign posting with this or any other paper,” he said, “means kissing ass for 10 years.”
“It means enduring dreary years on the city, metro, and – if you’re lucky – the national desk.”
“Then, if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll get sent abroad. But probably not. It’s a crapshoot.”
“Instead,” he said, “Why don’t you just go? Set yourself up as freelancers. Papers need copy.”
“Newspapers like having stories from abroad that don’t come from the wires.”
“They like proprietary bylines. If you’re in a place where something happens, you’ll sell stories.”
It was a revelatory conversation, like kicking open a door and finding a magical world within.
We could go anywhere, without asking anybody’s permission, without sucking up to anybody.
We opened the World Atlas like a menu. Should we go to Europe? South America? Asia? Africa?
It’s fun to dream, but once this began looking plausible, the realities began to set in.
It took us a few weeks to identify three criteria that any future foreign base must meet.
These, I think, still apply.
1. The place must be at least a little bit newsworthy.
2. The place can’t already be overrun with reporters, particularly Americans.
3. The place must be very cheap to live and travel in.
Sounds simple. But the closer we applied all three to every corner of the globe, the harder it got.
The first two, for example – newsworthy but not overrun with reporters – are contradictory.
If the place is newsworthy, why wouldn’t every American paper not already have someone there?
That’s where criteria #3 comes in. And this is crucial:
If the place is cheap enough to live and travel in, you don’t need to sell many stories.
So it doesn’t have to be super-newsworthy. And therefore, the competition will be thin.
In 1987, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was a big story.
Most big papers already had a staff reporter in Johannesburg, and stringers elsewhere in country.
So South Africa was out.
But South Africa was keeping a series of low-intensity guerilla wars going with its neighbors.
The “Frontline States” were Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Angola, and Namibia.
Each had Pretoria-sponsored mayhem afoot. Mozambique and Angola had full-scale wars.
The South Africa-based reporters, amazingly, couldn’t report on this.
South Africa-based reporters were barred from traveling in what was called “black Africa.”
If the big papers had a second reporter in Africa, it was in Nairobi, 3,000 miles away.
So the Frontline States fell into the swale.
Now, as someone once said, “Americans will do anything for Africa except read about it.”
We had no illusions that we could sell even one story a week about southern Africa to US papers.
But when we looked into the cost of living in that part of the world, we saw we wouldn’t have to.
A story a month might do it. Even greenhorns like us, we figured, could sell one story a month.
Around that time I blundered onto a lawyer who’d just returned from Harare, Zimbabwe.
The place was paradise, he said. Mostly peaceful, drinkable tap water, plentiful food.
You can direct-dial international calls from there, he said – in the 1987 African context, a miracle.
The Associated Press didn’t even have an bureau there; only a stringer, South African at that.
We wrote him a paper letter and waited weeks for an answer: Few other American reporters.
What’s more, he said, the cost of living was very low, especially at black market rates.
If we could earn a thousand American dollars a month, we’d live well.
Then we wrote the Zimbabwe Ministry of Information and asked for permission to open a bureau.
After another few weeks, a typed letter on newsprint arrived: We were welcome.
Today, Zimbabwe might not be the place.
Central Asia – the Stans – is hot. But dangerous, and perhaps expensive.
Still, it would be worth investigating if there’s a country in that part of the world that might work.
Relatively safe. Not too expensive. Good air connections around the region.
I’m looking at Istanbul as an overseas freelancing base.
It wants to join the EU, it’s a secular bulwark against extreme Islam,
It walks a delicate line between East and West. Centrally located. Fascinating in every way.
But the list of possibilities is long. India? Southeast Asia? Caracas? Mexico?
Remember, if the living costs are low enough, you don’t need to sell that many stories.
The stories you do send, though, are likely to get noticed – if, of course, they’re good.
Since you’re going to live in that country as a journalist, its best to go above the radar.
Write the country’s ministry of information and introduce yourself.
Ask for permission to open a freelance news bureau.
Some countries may refuse. Too bad. Go on to the next.
It’s one thing to drop into a country for a week to write a story, without local press credentials.
We do that all the time. But to live in a country as a journalist, it really helps to be legit.
Can’t stress that one enough. Let’s take another short break.
When Margaret and I learned that Zimbabwe would allow us to open a freelance bureau there,
We began packing. Not so fast, said the foreign editor of our paper, the Atlanta Constitution.
He said he receives stories from freelancers overseas all the time, and doesn’t trust them.
“I don’t know if they’re CIA plants,” he said. “I don’t know who they are or what their agenda is.”
He suggested we slow down and take time to introduce ourselves to foreign editors all over.
So we prepared a packet — a two-sided folder.
On one side, my resume and clips, on the other, Margaret’s.
In our cover letter, we explained our plans and said we were asking for nothing up front.
All wanted was one thing: Permission to call collect. This was, of course, before email.
(I’ll eliminate here a lot of cute stories about filing from Africa in the pre-internet age.
Using a telex – a machine the size of a dishwasher that took an hour to send 700 words, etc.
Nowadays, you’d do this differently, of course.)
Point is, we prepared this packet and then were careful about who to send it to.
Here’s a rule to follow when dealing with editors:
Never – never – send anything to an editor without calling the paper or magazine first.
Call the switchboard and ask for the top editor’s secretary – or “assistant,” since that’s courant.
Introduce yourself as a writer who is planning to move to X.
(This advice is crucial even if you’re not going abroad. Even if you’re just pitching a US story.)
Ask which editor is most likely to want to hear from you. Then ask for that editor’s assistant.
Ask the editor’s assistant the following questions:
How do you spell the editor’s name? What’s the best day of the week to email her?
What’s the best time of day? You have to ask because magazines have rhythms.
You don’t want to be calling or emailing while the editor is scrambling to close an issue.
You want to pop up on her screen when she has the leisure to consider your proposal.
Then ask what the editor wants. A long pitch? A short one? Two lines or two pages?
You want to make the editor comfortable. You want her feeling assured that you know the mag.
That you understand its sensibilities and quirks.
You want to give editors exactly what they want at exactly the moment they want it.
Ask all these questions and write down the answers in a file or a little book.
Never contact the editor without looking at that information first.
More on this at www.theproposalfactory.com.
Now consider other media. We were newspaper reporters when we left for Africa.
But we bought two radio-quality tape recorders and two good microphones.
We taught ourselves how to be radio reporters, and got call-collect permission from NPR.
Radio turned out to be a moneymaker for us. We reported for NPR, BBC, German Radio, etc.
You’re out there in the wilds getting a print story, you may as well do radio, too.
Especially now, with digital recording and the internet, which makes filing so easy.
In fact, for about $5,000 you can now buy a broadcast-quality digital video camera.
They’re not much bigger than footballs, and it would open up television to you.
Remember: If something happens and you’ve got the shot, people will pay for it.
(We once asked a National Geographic photographer the secret of NatGeo photography.
“F8 and be there,” he said.)
If we could have been doing television as well as print and radio, we’d have cleaned up.
Back then, the technology was impossible. Now it’s childishly simple.
In 1987, we collected about a dozen newspaper and radio editors willing to let us call collect.
Then we flew. We ended up staying in Africa three years. We traveled everywhere.
We broke even on our three years: We left with $20k and came home with $20k.
More than that, though, we became somebody in journalism.
We raised our profile above the pack. We broke into magazines for the first time.
It was the stroke that began our careers, and I’m constantly amazed that more don’t do it.
I hope this is helpful.
I’ll post this, in proper order, at www.danbaum.com.
That is all.
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