Teaching International Journalism, Part 3 -- Before You Go

Now that you've picked a place to go, it's time to prepare. Preparation is key so that you can hit the ground running, and really enjoy yourself and be productive once you get going.

#1 Get Acquainted With New Language(s).

There might be more than one in the place you are going to. You don't need to be fluent, but at least have an idea of what the language sounds like, and at the minimum, learn a few pleasant and funny things to say to break the ice. Download some language lessons onto your phone. Watch movies and listen to music in the new languages you might be encountering. Practice with pen pals on Facebook. Who knows they could become friends and guides when you visit. Take a language class. If you have extra time and money, get a language tutor before you leave, or take a language class somewhere. Visit a restaurant and neighborhood where your language might be spoken. You might also make friends who have friends in the country you are going to. Just make sure you are vague about your travel plans, so they don't give you two suitcases of gifts to bring with you. (It happened to me).

#2 Research History, Culture, Geography.

Read lots of articles about the place you are going to, including recent ones on news.google.com. This is also a way to do research on what kind of stories you'll be able to pitch. Look up wikipedia pages for more general information. Researching a destination will also help you stay safe. Pick up or read a few travel guides to really get informed and inspired before you go. Buy some maps and study them. Download the Lonely Planet guide to your destination. Read up on history, general and obscure. Undercurrents in societies run very deep, usually many centuries. If you are still in college, take related history classes. Watch documentaries about the place you will be going to. If there's a museum exhibit related to your country, go see it.

As part of your research, if you have more time, read some of the literary classics which originated from your destination country, written by people from there, not foreigners. Watch some of the film masterpieces directed by their own. This will give you something to talk about and discuss. It will show respect and admiration for the culture you are diving into. It will also give you invaluable insight into a place's DNA, storytelling vernacular and important reference points.

#3 Prepare Your Papers and Vaccinations.

Get a passport or get it up to date. It's never too early to start that process. Renew your passport at least six months before it expires because some countries won’t give you a visa if yours is about to expire. Have enough pages for plenty of new visas. Figure out if you need any shots for the place you are going to, and get them with documentation. Get whatever visas you need, including to several countries if you are planning on crossing borders. Better to start with tourist visas to get going, so authorities or bureaucratic red-tape don't slow you down. Get a AAA international driver's license. Make yourself a fake press card. You can never have enough ID in places you will be going to. In some countries, you may eventually need press accreditation, but you can only get that once you arrive anyway. Do use discretion in countries where press freedoms are limited, while you prepare your trip. Get updated travel information and advisories at travel.state.gov, not to worry yourself, but just to know what the situation where you are going is like. Finally, start looking at plane tickets, and which routes, airlines are the cheapest for your destination.

#4 Go See Your Doctors, Get Necessary Health Items

If you start traveling, you might not see one for month, years or even a decade. Being in as good of health as you can can also keep you safe and sound during your travels. So be up to date on everything heath-related before you go. Go see your primary care physician, dentist, optometrist, gynecologist, or physical therapist. Any necessary tests and dental work should be completed before leaving.

In terms of medical supplies you should bring with you, you don't need much, but I would recommend several prescription eyeglasses if you wear them or sets of contact lenses; contact lens solution and storage containers; sunblock if you are going to a sunny place; several toothbrushes and dental floss to get you going; a small but well-stocked first-aid kit; antiseptic and athlete’s foot cream; condoms or other contraceptives; and tampons or sanitary napkins, and of course any prescription medication you currently take. Other stuff you'll need you can buy locally, but this will be enough for when you first land.

#4 Figure Out Insurances, Health Infrastructures

Just to be safe, find out what type of health facilities will be available and where. No need to stress on health insurance as health services will be very cheap. You might want health insurance in case of severe injury though, but you don't really want to think about that too much anyway.

If you are worried, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, works with the Canada-based private insurer World Escapade Travel Insurance to offer insurance for international freelance journalists. You can be covered anywhere, but costs can go up the more dangerous place you are going to. You can also find an insurance policy which applies to travelers. There's also the International Medical Group’s “Expat Plus” plan www.imglobal.com which is really good, but expensive.

Again, unless it's a really severe injury, it's better to rely on locally available medical treatment, and to pay in cash. In case you have severe problems, it's better to take a plane home and get medical assistance in a place you know. You can also keep your own medical insurance even if it doesn't apply internationally, just for care when you are back home. More and more regular insurances also have international possibilities, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield.

#5 Research Your Infrastructure and Prepare Your Gear

What kind of Internet will there be where you are going? What kind of stores do they have? What do those stores sell? Will you be able to have an address for people to send you stuff you might need as a journalist? Is there any cheap place you can crash for your first few days? What kind of currency do they have? Voltage? Types of electrical outlets? Do they have Western Union where you will be going? These are important questions to answer so you know what you are getting into, and what type of equipment and how much cash you might need.

Answering these questions will let you know exactly what you want to bring. It's good to stay light but multimedia. It's good to have a sturdy backpack you can put everything into. I like to travel with separate audio recorder with full audio kit(cables, several mics, mic foam, little tripod stand for news conferences), still camera, video with light but useable tripod and tripod bag, a few lacie rugged hard drives, a durable, always dependable laptop (Mac?) with necessary cables and several power outlets, sd cards, and plenty of rechargeable batteries and chargers. You'll be able to buy voltage converters and adapters wherever you go so don't sweat about that. I would bring pens and notebooks, dried snacks, plastic bags, small flashlights, rubber bands and plastic zip ties, though, as these are light, all useful and easy to carry. I would also bring a small shortwave radio, to be able to stay informed at all times. Also bring plenty of locks and different chains to secure your stuff.

Most of the stuff you travel with should be your journalism gear. You can always buy cheap clothes locally. Good broken into, work-in-all-condition shoes, including running away from tear gas or worse, can be hard to find so you might want to wear those while you travel. Become proficient in multiple media skills and have the gear which will allow you to do this. You should be able to shoot photos and video, prepare radio and TV news and features, post on social media and report urgent news via mobile devices. I would buy a new smart phone once I arrive at my destination. It will be much cheaper and easier to get coverage this way.

Cash is important before you go, though. You want several big currencies if possible (dollars and euros), in clean, crisp bills. Old, dirty bills often times will nor be accepted. You want a dummy wallet, with not much money in it, in case you get robbed. You want several hiding spots and pouches for the cash you will be carrying around. Don't expect your credit card to work.

In addition to all your IDs, passport, visas, driver's license, etc... you also want to email those to yourself, and have photocopies of each you keep separated from originals.

If you do bring clothes, make sure not to have clothes that stand out too much, and especially avoid camouflage, or anything that makes you look like the army, police, rebels, an activist or a mercenary. This could get you into serious trouble.

#6 Make Contacts, Get More Ideas and Build Your Team

Even if they might become your frenemies, or your main competition, try to contact as many journalists in the country you are going to before going. Contact them at news agencies, English-language outlets, wire services and bureaus. Find them through their bylines. Once you get their emails, be friendly but bold as well. Do they need anything you can bring? Are there any new job opportunities they know about? Anyone going on vacation soon who might need a fill-in? Email bosses, email new arrivals, email old hands. Can you accompany them on an upcoming trip just to help? Don't be excessively pushy, but don't hesitate to be bold, it's part of the work, so you might as well start now. Some journalists might want to hire you as "quote getters", "sound catchers", weekend videographers, vacation fill-ins, so establishing a good relationship with them is very important.

When doing this, if someone does bite, and agrees to write back or Skype, you can also work on starting to constitute your own team, your future friends/collaborators, and possible employers. You can ask them about fixers, translators, drivers they might recommend. Maybe someone needs a roomate, and that will get you cheap housing.

You can also contact press officers from local and international non-governmental organizations and foreign embassies, and find out from them if they might need any media help, or if they know of any reporting opportunities. Find lower-level employees from NGOs, who might be even more helpful. You could also ask them about story ideas, and initial sources you might initially pursue. Ask to get their latest press releases, and get on their email lists to get invited to future media events. You can also start contacting regional experts from universities and think tanks, to get ideas from them as well and make initial contacts with future "expert" sources. None of this energy will be wasted, as much of journalism work depends on networking.

#7 Make Your Pitches

Once you have a few ideas, make some solid pitches of initial stories you are thinking of pursuing, and contact foreign editors from media outlets you might want to work for. They are usually based at headquarters outside the country you are going to, and may have different relationships with the people you've already contacted. These would be the big bosses who have their hands on the real purse.

Tailor each pitch specifically for the target client. Know your potential clients. Look at their websites and see what type of information they provide. Make your story pitch concise, clear and interesting. If you are making a written pitch, summarize your idea, explain your own angle, make clear the news peg which makes your story relevant, and give the names of a few people or organizations you might be interviewing. Don't be muddled, that will get you nowhere. Also don't hesitate to follow up every week or so, until you get a response.

When pitching, also have your own website, which you can link up in your email. Have your social media all decked out and ready for exposure, highlighting your best work, and hiding embarrassing work. Also include two-three links of your best and most relevant clips.

As your date of departure gets closer, follow up with everyone you've made contact with, so they remember you and can start getting to know you better, and expect work from you, whether or not they've agreed to a pitch. At this point, they might have a story idea for you. There are many media outlets interested in foreign news. My next posting here will be devoted to that list.

I freelanced for Christian Science Monitor, France 24, AFP video, Radio France Internationale, DW Radio, World Vision Radio, and what was then Current TV, among others. I always pitched stories before traveling, and sometimes worked in teams, to minimize risks and benefit from teamwork, so some of the pitches were through other journalists I worked with. Whatever the setup, the pitch always took place before any work was done, to know there was a guarantee. When you work for an outlet for the first time, but they agree to the pitch, they will often give you a kill fee, even if your story doesn't run.

#8 Back-Up Plans and Trial Trips

It's always good to have back up plans. You can always teach English locally to make ends meet initially. Getting a step ahead there would be to get certification Teaching English as a Foreign Language. You also want to diversify. When first in Indonesia, my first real foray abroad in the mid to late 1990s, I taught, but also played soccer and in-line hockey on semi-professional teams, wrote for supermarket and trade magazines, helped produce a news television show in English, wrote features for English-language local newspapers and magazines, started an advertisement brochure business and did radio voice-overs for news programs and commercials. I also worked as a fixer for other journalists. I rarely made any money working for foreign media outlets, but made enough money until the economic crisis over there and the collapse of the local currency to survive.

If you're still hesitant, I would also recommend trial trips. Go on a two to three week trial trip, where you report like crazy and try to sell as many stories as possible when you return home. Did you enjoy the trip? Were you able to break even or even make some money? Was it the best time of your life? Trial trips are a great way to know if foreign freelance reporting is the thing for you.

If you enjoyed this lesson plan, here are all the chapters in My Guide to Teaching International Freelance Journalism.

Part 1, Geographies


Part 2, A Brief History Until Today


Part 3, Before You Go


Part 4, Potential Clients


Part 5, When You First Arrive


Part 6, Surviving the Game


Part 7, Books and Films To Educate and Inspire


Part 8, Perceptions


Part 9, Ethical Considerations


Part 10, Migrations and the Other


Part 11, Going Glocal


Part 12, Musings, Behind the Scenes and Critiques


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