June 14th, 2007
High school questions about being a foreign correspondent
By Maria Trombly
A writer working on a piece for high school students just got in touch with me about what’s it’s like to be a foreign correspondent. I love talking to non-journalists about what I do.
I get to say things like, “I write the first draft of history.”
Wow. I must really be important.
I get to talk to world leaders and titans of industyr.
Other journalists know that in practice, our profession is a much needed but vastly under appreciated public utility. Sure, we get to talk to people who are doing great things. But we don’t usually get a chance to do great things ourselves. What’s the old saying? Those who can, do. Those who can’t do, teach. Journalists are probably somewhere closer to the “can’t do” side — which is why, I think, many journalists, when they leave the profession, go into teaching.
We’re always on the sidelines, never in the game.
But anyway, in case you’re interested, here are my answers to her questions:
Q: Please describe the work that foreign correspondents do.
Foreign correspondents do all kinds of work. They cover politics, business, technology, energy, conflicts — every kind of beat imaginable. Some start their careers by working for local English-language publications and cover local news. Many new journalists in Shanghai, for example, write restaurant reviews and lifestyle pieces for local expat magazines.
Q: How dangerous is the work?
Some is dangerous. Some isn’t. Right now, I cover business news in China — not dangerous at all. In the mid-90s, I was in Chechnya and Afghanistan, That was pretty dangerous.
Q: What are the working hours?
It varies for every journalist. Some work during the day, 9 to 5. I typically work 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., then work again in the evenings, from 9 p.m. to midnight. That’s because a lot of my sources — and all of my editors — are in the U.S.
Q: What are the job opportunities for a foreign correspondent? How easy or difficult would it be for a newcomer to break into the field?
It’s getting harder all the time. I help a lot of young guys and gals get started, as do many other foreign bureaus. There’s a lot of turnover with overseas operations. Many people come over and find that they don’t like it very much — the work is too difficult, and too low-paid, and its very difficult to get ahead. Young journalists overseas face all the same challenges as those just starting out back home, plus extra ones: they’re usually in way over their heads at their first jobs here, they have to deal with cultural differences, they have to learn a new language and new customs and be far away from their regular support systems. Some struggle for years and never make it. Others seem to do well right from the start and it can be very disheartening to those who don’t.
Q: Can you estimate the number of foreign correspondents from the US? (and from Canada, if you have any ideas about that)
Sorry, don’t have those numbers.
Q: What income range?
Sorry, don’t have those numbers, but I would guess is very broad.
Q: What education and training?
From my experience, foreign correspondents come from all sorts of backgrounds. Journalism and English degrees, finance and economics, business, philosophy, languages, math — everything and anything. Many have no training when they start. Success seems to be correlated more to energy and adaptability than to background.
Q: Are there trends happening?
Yes — major newspapers are cutting back on their bureaus, but specialized business publications are adding staff.
Q: Could a person with a disability do this work?
Yes — but in the more modern, handicapped-accessible areas. Unless your disability is something like a reading disability, in which case it won’t impact you much — or, at least, no more than it would anywhere else.
Q: What personality traits increase the chances of succeeding?
You have to be really adaptable. Like different kinds of people. Be willing to try new things. Have a high tolerance for risk. Be willing to work very hard for few rewards, especially at the start.
Q: Is there anything a high school student can do to prepare for the career or to find out if it truly interests them?
You can try traveling overseas in an exchange program or on vacation, and writing about your experiences while abroad for a high school paper or your blog. You can also cover a foreign country without leaving home. For example, you can find an interesting story — such as a local company finding a Chinese partner – and email the people overseas or call them with your questions, and do online research about what they do. I routinely cover foreign countries from outside the country. For example, I cover Japan from China. I wrote about India for years before going there. You can make contacts and build up a story portfolio without ever getting on an airplane.
Q: Who employs foreign correspondents? Are some freelancers?
There are a lot of freelance foreign correspondents. There are two ways to get to be a foreign correspondent — to wait for your newspaper or magazine to send you, or to go overseas by yourself and freelance until you find a job. The most certain way is option two — it guarantees that you get to go overseas.
Q: What do they do when not on assignment overseas?
I don’t know. Probably work their regular jobs.
Q: What role does technology and the Internet play?
It’s fantastic. I can cover so much more than I ever could before the Internet was around. The web — and email — enables me to reach people and companies that I would never be able to find otherwise. It also helps me find employees and new markets.
Q: How do foreign correspondents use mathematics in their work? Or do they?
I was a math major in college and honestly, all I’ve ever needed was high school math. I need to calculate percentage increases on a regular basis, and that’s it.
Q: How important are communication skills? (Obviously, the job is all about communication skills, but I need a comment regarding the importance).
Communication skills are super important. A communications degree is absolutely useless. You have to be able to connect to people of very different backgrounds and personal styles, express yourself verbally and in print, learn new languages, and, often, speak before groups. These are all great skills to have, and some people are naturally better than others, but all can be improved with practice. Sales training is actually fantastic here — get a telemarketing job, or cold calling job, while in college.
Q: Can you comment on the importance of decision making skills? By this, I mean are there occasions when foreign correspondents must make good decisions or judgments? Situations where a bad decision could be tempting, but could have negative consequences.
Yes, but this is more about common sense, I think, and having good policies in place ahead of time. Like: don’t go for rides in the middle of the dark in war zones with mass murderers. You might get killed. Or it might work out, and you’d have a great story. Unfortunately, you don’t usually know until it’s too late. I recommend that people don’t trust their instincts. Instead, get a good set of guidelines (your media outlet, or the Committee to Protect Journalists has a good set) and follow them blindly. You might miss some opportunities for great stories, but it’s better to be on the safe side. No story is worth it if you’re too dead to file it.
Q: What type of work have you done as a foreign correspondent:?
Business reporting. International politics. War reporting. Cultural reporting. Hell, I’ve even done a restaurant review. Twice!
Q: How long have you done this work?
I started being a foreign correspondent in the early 1990s, in Russia.
Q: What interested you in becoming a foreign correspondent?
I wanted to be Hemingway.
Q: What is the social value of your work?
When I was a war correspondent, I was often the only person reporting on really bad things that were happening — drawing international attention to events. That was really important. Now, I’m covering the single biggest economic transformation the world has ever seen, here in China. Hopefully, other countries will be able to learn form what China is doing. I’m helping chronicle all that.
Q: Could you provide a short anecdote — something interesting or funny or weird or frightening? (Something that would interest students grade 6 through 12.)
Well, Michael Jordan saved my life once. Two colleagues and I were trying to escape from a war zone where we had been taken prisoner by rebels, and two people working with us had already been captured and killed. A friendly police officer smuggled us away from where we were being taken prisoner, drove us close to the front line, and dropped us off. We would have to walk the rest of the way, on foot, right across the main area of the fighting in order to get to safety on the other side. We had been walking for a couple of hours when a truck full of rebel soldiers drove buy — then slowed down and stopped. The soldiers jumped out and motioned with their guns for us to get in the back. We did, and the truck drove on. We thought they were going to drive us to a field headquarters and execute us. Then one of the soldiers asked us where we were from. One guy was from the capital — what the rebels were rebelling against. He couldn’t say anything. Another guy was from Moscow — and Russia was backing the capital against the rebels. I was from the United States, also not on the rebels’ good side. So I said, “I’m from Chicago.” And the soldiers said, “Oh, yeah, we know Chicago. Al Capone, bang, bang!” And I said, “No, that was years ago. Chicago is a nice city now. We have the Chicago Bulls.” And we talked about basketball. They loved Michael Jordan. But this was when Michael Jordan had temporarily quit the team to play golf or baseball or something. “What will the Bulls do without Michael Jordan?” I complained. “He was lead scorer! He was the heart of the team!” The soldiers felt sorry for us and let us go, and dropped us off at the start of a path that led to the other side of the front lines — but around the worst of the fighting. A few hours of walking later, we were safe.
Q: What do you find rewarding about the work?
I feel that I’m doing the most important job on the planet.
Q: What do you find stressful?
Being away from family for long periods of time.
Q: What advice would you offer a student who is considering this field?
Study languages, economics, history, geography, business, technology, or science. Or all of the above. You can take some journalism courses, but really, I don’t look for that when I hire people.
Q: Would do to it all over again if you could?
Absolutely. Except next time, I would avoid those rebels who took me prisoner. But then, those other two guys would have been killed. Oh, wait — I would warn them.