Reporting Overseas And Making Contacts

Olivia Crellin in Ecuador

Olivia Crellin reporting for The Guardian International Development Competition from Ecuador

Graduate Olivia Crellin has freelanced internationally for major news providers. In the second of a three-part series, she shares her tips on finding work overseas…

One of the great aspects of starting out abroad is that when you pitch your story to the international editor of a paper back in London, New York, Sydney or wherever, he or she is not asking themselves whether you are a 22-year-old,  fresh-faced graduate or a seasoned pro.

All they want to know is what the story is about and in as few sentences as possible. Ideally that pitch email should be less than 200 words.

This set-up is a great leveler. As long as your ideas are good (and yes, there is a certain amount of confidence needed to stick by these and shop around with them a bit) you have a head start.

Being somewhere where others aren’t

You are on the ground. Instead of competing with every journalism graduate for those coveted internships in London, you may be the ONLY journalist in Yemen when a revolution happens – as was the case with my friend Tom Finn – and then EVERY outlet will want a piece of you.

The first piece of professional journalism I had published was a sports blog on Chilean rodeo for The Economist, of all publications!

The editor liked the idea and knew he needed my local byline, so he invested the necessary time and effort into the piece during the editing process and I learned a huge amount just from that one encounter.

Network like crazy

When you arrive in the country, or even before, don’t be afraid of getting in touch with the competition.

They can help with mundane issues, like telling you where the best places to rent are, or what to do if you have a visa crisis, or which specialist shops sell the home comforts you crave!

While you will definitely feel much lower on the food chain than the bigger correspondents for outlets like the BBC, Al Jazeera or Financial Times, these journalists can be great sources of advice, contacts, and work.

I would often get hand-me-downs from other journalists who couldn’t take work like fixing or radio interviews because they were busy with other stories or on holiday. They can also become great friends (or salsa partners!) in what is often a lonely business.

Local journalists or photographers, especially those who work for international media, are also very good people to know. This is their country after all.

While their grasp of English and contacts might stop them from writing for UK or US media, they will probably still have great ideas they could feed you and may even be willing to collaborate.

I almost set up a mini-bureau with a Reuters cameraman, New York Times photographer and another Chilean journalist – the idea would be that their contacts and local knowledge combined with my English would generate more work for everyone.

When you get back home keep those contacts up. You never know when someone may be looking for a fixer or an expert in the country you have just come from.

Local English-language papers

Doing what I did – taking an unpaid internship at an English language paper in Santiago for the first four months – is also a shrewd move, which I would definitely recommend.

These establishments are full of people with contacts, connections and knowledge of the country you have just arrived in and will automatically give you a platform for your work. If you are lucky the editor will be a journalist with more experience than you and could also act as a mentor.

Producing work for one local outlet, even if it is very small, can help you to focus and keep you writing (unlike just blogging, which can sometimes feel pointless, difficult to sustain and alienating), while plans for bigger ideas that you can pitch back home can continue to develop until you feel ready to tackle them.

The social atmosphere of papers like these is also invaluable and can give you a safety net of people who know you and can help out if you have any tricky situations or are finding it difficult making friends with locals.

If these papers pay for work, then offer to freelance for them too. Don’t underestimate the paper’s status as a go-to for international media.

My first on-air journalism gig was for the BBC on my second day at the paper when a producer phoned up asking for a specialist for a story they had come across. Two hours later, when I was chatting away with the show’s anchor, I was that expert!

Olivia Crellin is a freelance journalist who has covered stories overseas for the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian and The Economist. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter @OliviaCrellin.

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