How to get started as a foreign correspondent

Looking for outlets to send you abroad is actually the *last* step of a going-overseas process.

  • The first thing is, you need to ask yourself a few questions:
  • What level of risk can you handle?
  • How willing are you to learn foreign languages/how many foreign languages do you already know?
  • Where can you get a free place to stay?

So if you have friends or relatives in a particular country in Latin America who can offer you a couch, and you already know Spanish, and you’re comfortable with the level of stability (or instability in that country), then you go there.

I had a grandmother in Moscow, and the remnants of Russian from when I was a kid. (I only stayed with her for a couple of weeks, but it was nice to have her couch when I was getting started.) I was interested in warzones, and Chechnya was right there, and all the other post-Soviet wars.

My husband had a year of Chinese in college and a strong interest in their space program, so he picked China. He stayed in a cheap hostel when he first got there while he was looking for a job.

Then you buy a one-way plane ticket (I skipped on my last months’ rent to pay for mine) to whereever you decide to go. These days, I would recommend Latin America, the Middle East, and China. (If you go there to teach English, they might even pay for your ticket.)

When choosing a country, you look for two major factors:

  • A lack of local English-language talent. (That way, you’ll have less competition for the English-language jobs, which pay the most.)
  • Lots of changes. (Either military, political, economic, social or all of the above, which gives you lots of things to write about.)

Once you pick your country and find your free couch (or the reverse, as the case may be) then you call everyone you know who might know anyone in that country. You tell them that you’ll be over there, and ask to meet with their contact.

Then you get to that country, go to all of those people, and all of the people those people recommend, and all of the people *those* people recommend and you ask them all for a writing job. In addition to meeting with all your contacts (you’re a journalist, you should be good at that part) also go in and meet face-to-face with all the editors of local English-language papers, all the news agencies (AP, Reuters, AFP, etc…) and the bureaus of all the major papers — LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, NY Times, Wall Street Journal. Many of them use freelancers.

It took me three days to get a fulltime job in Russia, proofreading a Russian human rights newsweekly that was translated into English by Russian translators. It needed a lot of style work! Working there, I got my Russian up to speed, and I met all their correspondents — great people who were located throughout the former Soviet republics.

In my next job, I took them all on as freelancers.

Then you work your butt off — and keep following up with all your contacts because, chance are, your first job is going to suck. (Mine had cockroaches in the computer keyboards, and banana slugs crawling on the ceiling that kept dropping down into my hair.)