How to become a foreign correspondent

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

I get asked this question a lot “how do you become a foreign correspondent”?
I’ve answered it a lot as well (one of these answers is posted here: http://maria.trombly.com/FAQ.htm#correspondent). But my perspective on this has changed over time as I gained more experience in the field, and as the industry has changed.

Traditionally, there have been two main ways to become a foreign correspondent:

1. Wait for the newspaper to send you.
2. Go on your own and freelance until someone hires you.

The first option has always been problematic, since it usually took years of working for a publication before they would finally send you overseas — and even then, the odds that they would pick you over someone else were pretty slim. Today, with newspapers shutting down bureaus right and left, the odds have become infinitesimally small.

The second options is also getting harder to pull off. With the increasing scarcity of journalism jobs back home, and the lure of glamorous work overseas, we’re starting to see large numbers of young people going to foreign countries in hopes that they’ll get in with somebody.

Fons Tuinstra, the founder of Shanghai’s Foreign Correspondent Club, recently wrote about this issue on his China Herald blog.

Some young journalists move overseas and write about local bars and restaurants for city magazines like “That’s Shanghai,” for low wages and long hours. Some get jobs with local English-language dailies like the Moscow Times, or they work for the English-language editions of local papers, helping clean up the grammar and occasionally doing some reporting.

Back when I started out as a foreign correspondent, these jobs were easy to get. Turnover was high, so even if a job wasn’t available just then, you could just wait a month for one to open up.

Today, my friends who are trying to do this tell me that competition for these jobs has gotten pretty stiff — even the competition for unpaid internships.

So the bottom line is: don’t expect to go overseas and have an easier time finding a job than back at home.

And if you think you can teach English while you freelance on the side, that’s not as easy as it sounds. You’re run ragged during the day, teaching, so you’re not going to have much time for reporting or pitching stories. As a result, the kinds of things you’re mostly likely to be writing — personal impressions about teaching English overseas — all the editors have seen a million times before.

In general, there are three things that will significantly increase your chances of getting a journalism job overseas (and they apply to domestic jobs as well):

1. Skills
2. Connections
3. Persistence

You’re going to need at least two out of three.

Let’s look at these in detail.

Skills

The kind of skills that help you get a job overseas are, first and foremost, language skills. You don’t have to have great language skills — you can start out by being able to ask multiple-choice questions, for example. Yes, this limits your interviewing abilities, but if you’re out there every day, asking mutliple-choice questions of everyone you meet, your language skills improve quickly. You can jump-start the process with language courses and books, or just a part-time tutor who’ll set you up with the questions you need for that’s day’s assignments, and help you get the pronounciatons right. With new online tools that automatically translate Chinese characters into, say, pinyin (Roman letters), reading ability is becoming slightly less important, but verbal skills are critical. Expect to spend a couple of years, at least, getting proficient before you’re able to go out and get a real job.

Subject-matter expertise also helps. Having a focused beat, especially one that is difficult for new-comers to break into, is a great way to get started. Possible topics include intellectual property law, technology, business management, and environmental science. Being an expert in an in-demand subject can help you overcome a lack of experience, or bad language skills. You can get industry expertise by working for niche publications back home, taking specialized courses, or producing a consistent blog about a narrow subject for a significant length of time.

Industry sources are great to have. One of my best hires was a young woman who, on top of her financial knowledge, had former classmates scattered across most of China’s major banks and brokerages. She could reach anybody anywhere. You can make these kind of contacts on a previous job, in school, by attending conferences and networking events, or by working directly in a particular industry.

Connections

It’s a dirty word, but given the choice between hiring a complete stranger with a stellar resume and hiring someone I know, or someone who comes personally recommended by someone I know, I’ll pick the latter. The reason is that people lie on their resumes. Even if everything written is the absolute truth, there will be significant issues omitted — such as, say, being fired for cause from particular jobs, or having no common sense. Only people who have something nice to say about the candidate will be asked to give references. Even clips can lie — how much of the story was actually written by the applicant, and how much was created by a copy editor tearing her hair out?

Fortunately, connections are easy to make. And you would think that journalists, of all people, should be good at making and using connections — after all, how can they dig up good stories, otherwise? The same techniques used for reporting can be used in the job search process.

Connections are also a sign of how ambitious a journalist is. A journalist should stay in touch with former professors and classmates, be active in professional societies, get involved in volunteer projects for the benefit of the journalism profession, help mentor new writers, and go beyond the call of duty when required at work. All of these measures help create connections. For example, the SPJ’s International Journalism Committee always needs volunteers and is a great way to meet people who have significant international exposure. The Committee to Project Journalists, Reporters without Borders, and other organizations also need help. Then, pretty much every international Foreign Correspondents Club could use help with its website and newsletters — you can help out foreign journalists before you even get to that country, and, by doing so, make important contacts.

Lately, I’m seeing a disturbing trend of journalists offering to work for free. As someone in a position to hire, it’s hard to turn down a reporter or copy editor willing to work for free. I have one ambitious young woman, Andrea Belair, who’s now interning as a copy editor for me — from Connecticut. It’s a great way to make connections, and develop skills at the same time.

It’s doesn’t bode well for the profession, though — is journalism going to be like art, or music, or acting, where young people subsidize themselves in their careers by getting paying jobs on the side? Am I going to go into restaurants and have servers tell me, “I’m just doing this for now. I’m really a journalist”? And having people willing to work for free entering the profession depresses wages for everybody — and journalism salaries are already low enough.

So I’m torn ont this issue. But, from a practical perspective, if you don’t have experience or connections, and you can get some by working for free or for little money, and you can afford to do
so, well, then you kind of have to, don’t you?

But I have to say this: there are other ways to do the same thing without working for free. Join professional organizations. Volunteer, but volunteer for non-profits. Write a blog. Take more courses and make friends. Write for industry newsletters. Go above and beyond the call of duty. But be kind to your fellow scribes and negotiate for the highest pay you can get.

Persistence

This is a key one. I will hire someone with no skills and no connections if they can demonstrate persistence. With persistence, you will get the interview you need, if you don’t know who or how or where and even if you don’t have a language in common. The journalist who hounds me for a job, who submits one sample article after another, who keeps accidentally bumping into me at events, who keeps plugging away even after I send them packing — that the guy or gal I want to have on my staff.

I want the kid who won’t take no for an answer. The guy who doesn’t recognize his own limitations. The gal who’s in way over her head — but keeps asking questions until she finally gets answers she can understand.

I want the guy who’s just gotten twenty “no comments” in a row, and still picks up the phone chipper, saying, “I just know the next guy is going to talk to me!”

I want the incurable optimist. The hopeless romantic. The guy who keeps chasing the story long after any reasonable hope is gone.

No matter how bad things get, these are the people who will never have problems finding work.

Insanity is often defined as “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” In journalism, this often works. If you ask the same question over and over again, eventually someone is going to get bored with giving you the stock answer and say something interesting. The secretary will put you through just to stop your annoying phone calls. Uncooperative sources, after long exposure to you, will start thinking of you as an acquaintance and then as a friend — just because of the fact of continued contact. And, at some point, if you’re doing something wrong, someone will take pity on you and help you fix it.

If you sit at a police check point long enough, especially if it’s freezing cold and raining, eventually someone will look the other way and let you slip through — even if they’re under strict orders not to.

Now, this isn’t necessarily the sanest approach to life, but it works for our profession.

Our industry has already been professionalized to an unconscionable degree. No more smoking, swearing, drinking, or gallivating. I blame it on the influx of women journalists. 🙂

If we got rid of insanity, too, where would we be left?

We’d be accountants, that’s what.

Anyway, tomorrow is another busy day at the office, so I’ll head off for now.

Signing off in Shanghai,

Maria