Inspiration for freelancing abroad

The first freelance panel at this year’s SPJ annual conference, Excellence in Journalism 2012 focused on international journalism.

The panel, Striking out alone in the world: winning strategies for International Freelance Reporting, featured Kira Kay and Jason Maloney, co-founders of the Bureau for International Reporting, Jina Moore, contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and others, and was moderated by John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.

In a well-organized, sharply presented panel, they drew on their extensive experience abroad and working with other journalists My summary of their remarks starts with this:  It is still possible to be a freelance correspondent abroad, but don’t expect a glamorous life hobnobbing with world leaders in posh hotels. Especially without putting in a lot of legwork.

Some quick points:

1)    Develop your contacts, sources and ideas while here in the U.S. Jina Moore suggested that if interested in Vietnam, go to Vietnamese restaurants in your area and find out what they’re talking about. Write about people from the country or with connections to the country that you want to visit. Develop a reputation for being interested in the place and it will help open doors when you’re ready to go.

2)    How to pay for it?

The message by and large was tap into foundations and international reporting fellowships. John Schidlovsky rattled off a number of sources for funding, including his own organization, the Pulitzer Center, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and the panel was sponsored by The Stanley Foundation. Kira and Jason have incorporated as a non-profit so their fundraising could help their administrative overhead and provide for a bit of salary. Not something that will work for regular freelancers (it’s worth trying to get a newspaper or magazine to pay a small administrative fee, but don’t hold your breath).

Jina Moore said it was still possible to string together multiple assignments from a place to cover your costs — John Schidlovsky noted that one IFP fellow did 11 stories from Micronesia just by being creative about story approaches. But know that it is difficult in the Web era to repurpose an assignment for different outlets. Jina has developed her skills so she can work in both print/text and radio, and that helps her do more stories while traveling.  She cautioned, too, not to expect to pay for a trip by getting a plum assignment when you’re on the road.

3) planning a trip requires setting up fixers and multiple interviews ahead of time, before you’ve gone. You also need to network, to develop a group of editors that you can ping before going some place. Spend time in New York or other places where you can try to meet editors in person, to develop relationships.

Don’t just jump into a hot spot looking for stories, the panel cautioned. Yes, you can find great pieces, but also great peril. Jina Moore said she had never gone to Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan because she feels like she’s not prepared to be there.  That is, she feels unprepared to deal with the potential for being kidnapped or worse, or asking her organization to get her out if tthings worsen.

Kira Kay said formal journalist visas are a good idea unless you can’t possibly get into a country with one. Having one has helped her get out of difficult situations where local officials wanted to take her equipment and notes, but could not do so because she had an official visa. She also said to make sure you know who to reach out to for help if trouble erupts.

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