How to become a freelance foreign correspondent

January 12, 2012

By Helena Williams

Last year was the year of the freelance foreign correspondent. The tumultuous events of 2011 gave freelance journalists unprecedented access to breathless, breaking news stories in the Arab world – unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where embedding restrictions applied, freelancers were free to travel and compete on the frontline.

With the increasing attraction of becoming a foreign correspondent, last night’s Frontline Club event brought together four freelancers working in ‘Arab Spring’ countries in a workshop for budding international reporters.

Chaired by BBC Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell, the panel consisted of Tom Finn, a journalist based in Sana’a, Yemen; Portia Walker, who covered Yemen and the war in Libya; James Longman, who worked with rebels in Syria; and Ruth Sherlock, who has spent last year chasing the Arab Spring.

PREPARATION

Body armour, Hostile Environment training and sufficient funds aside, there is little room for techno-phobes when it comes to freelancing. The long list of ‘killer’ equipment for a freelance journalist includes a smartphone, adapters, satellite equipment and a computer with a camera – as video is quickly becoming as important as writing.

“There are two really useful things a journalist can have – a Kindle, because you’ll get bored, and a converter which plugs into a cigarette lighter in a car, so you can charge anything,” adds Walker.

She, like many journalists, found the hard way that if batteries run out copy can’t be filed on time.

Being web-savvy is also essential. A thorough knowledge of software like BGAN and Tor can save time and lives, but common sense is also key. 

“In Syria, one of the main reasons you are captured is to get information on people you’re working with. Keep your passwords safe,” Sherlock advised.

THE STORY

Finding an original angle can be difficult with other journalists around.

“Go to places that aren’t the biggest news story, because all the freelancers will be there. When news breaks where you are – which it will – it will force you to think of more creative ways to getting a Western reader to read,” said Finn.

“Make yourself the go-to person. Before you go to a place it’s about making the right contacts,” added Longman

Having the right contacts – usually, relying heavily on the local population and not being afraid to liaise with fellow journalists and fixers – is key to becoming a successful correspondent, as well as knowing the country you are working in.

“If the story is really big and you are at the beginning of the game, bigger names can help. But keep your independence. I got the edge as a freelancer by being with the local community. Don’t underestimate the kindness of locals on the ground,” Sherlock said. 

 “You have the duty as a journalist to learn the language of the country you are living in,” added Finn

PITCHING

According to Finn, pitching should be short and to the point.

“Get them excited, and keep it simple.  An editor of the Guardian once told me, ‘let your tweets breathe’. Remember, you have a limited space to say things,” he said. 

WHAT NEXT

“Don’t start with ‘I’m going to be a foreign correspondent.’ Start with ‘this country is interesting’. Have a point of view, and have a niche,” said Finn.

The freelancers agreed that anybody can buy equipment, but few are passionate enough to see it to the end. The glamorous ideal of being a foreign correspondent parachuted in and out of warzones is dead – instead, journalists have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul and push past setback after setback.

“You’ve got to know your story inside out. Develop a real passion about a place. Overcome your shyness, and just go for it,” added Walker