Teaching International Journalism, Part 5 - When You First Arrive

Airport Arrival

The airport arrival may be the most harrowing, difficult experience you've ever had.

You're carrying expensive gear. You want to keep it all with you. The arrival hall could be swarming with thieves, even if they seem to be working for their government.

I've written about this experience previously, oddly, throwing in some comparison to media scrums and also writing about not getting people you interview arrested, not sure what was going with my writing that day.

Taxi drivers may attack you as if you are their last hope to eat food for dinner. It's important to remain calm. If you've built up contacts, maybe a friendly person, or someone you decided to room with to start out, came to pick you up. That would be great. It is well worth it to have someone there for you on arrival day, just to help you navigate the complicated arrival process and keep your gear safely with you. Make sure you have your passport at the ready, but that you hold on to it tightly. The same goes for your proof of vaccinations.

Initial Lodging

Your choice of lodging also has risks and rewards. If you are able to find a family renting out a room in a relatively safe place, that's probably your best bet. They will cook for you, teach you the language (you can tutor for them in English in exchange), give you story ideas, even maybe give you access to a car and driver.

You can also start out with a hotel on the cheaper side which has good enough security to start out, before quickly finding a room or a roommate in a safe place of town. Keeping your gear safe, buying a local cell phone and Internet card for your computer, and looking for a safe place to stay with Internet connection should be your only priorities as you start out. Avoid houses or hotel rooms with too many balconies and easy access by thieves, as you will be robbed. Here's my own unedited, stream of consciousness writing on being robbed in Dakar, Senegal.

Your Frenemies

Other foreign journalists may be friendly or not. They may pretend to be friendly. They may be helpful or be very competitive. Just be aware of all the possibilities, always take the high road, be polite, have that newcomer's friendly energy and enthusiasm, keep your cool, and just do your thing. But avoid taking someone else's work as well, as this could really make you enemies, and a pariah of sorts. This is called turf-jumping.

If you are friendly and helpful to other foreign journalists, without taking away their work, they might eventually offer you strings, part-time gigs or even full-time work. A string is a dependable freelance gig.

It's also a good idea to try to be friends with local journalists, who might have more original story ideas, and who might be willing to work as your fixer / translator / co-reporter, if they get a cut of your eventual freelance pay.

Meet People, Build Your Team and Keep Smiling

You are new. This is your opportunity to meet people. Everyone you meet will all have advice and story ideas for you.

This includes officials at embassies, non-governmental organizations, political parties, environmental groups, activists, journalists at local newspapers, television and radio stations, musicians, artists, the local bartender, the street hawker, the store cashier, etc...

You are the new kid in town. These people will want to get to know you, to size you up, so don't hesitate. People are generally much friendlier outside the United States, at least on initial contact. On your daily errands, and nighttime excursions, meet more people who can be a part of "your team", such as friendly taxi drivers who can become your driver for reporting excursions ... also possible fixers, translators, muscle, security, for whenever you are working on a story.

A fixer is basically someone who knows a place or a topic, and takes you by the hand while you are reporting. A fixer who can speak several languages and whom you can trust with information and equipment is very useful. If you can't find one yourself, ask other journalists to point one out. You negotiate how much you pay them.

Coming Up With Stories

What is surprising to you, controversial, sickening, being talked about all around you will probably make for a good story. Has anyone invited you to a small town? Go! There may be many stories there.

Become a news junkie. Look at everything which is being written about your place. Follow locally produced news. Be inspired by other work. Imitate with your own twist. Whenever you are reporting, bring a video camera, a still camera and your audio recorder. Document everything including yourself for social media. Take pictures and video of everyone and everything, you won't regret it. Write notes so you know who is who. Back everything up constantly after a day's reporting. Go multimedia so you'll be able to sell it to different media, unless you are a hyper-specialist, in which case keep excelling at what you excel at.

Budget Your Life

You need to spend in the beginning, but don't spend too much, until you are actually making some money. Have all that cash you brought with you well hidden, so your arrival doesn't turn into a disaster. It's a good idea to have several months worth of money to last on, or have access to a Western Union where a friend or relative can wire you some money you left behind with them.

The most important purchases in the beginning are making sure you have a safe place to sleep and for your gear, Internet connection where you live and/or for your laptop, a local cell phone, and getting necessary local press accreditation. Otherwise, you can buy food or drinks for people you are networking with, and some clothes which make you look more like a local.

If you get desperate in the beginning, don't hesitate to try to work for a local English as a second language media, work for obscure publications in English, industry and trade publications relevant to your country, become a translator, substitute at the local expat schools, or work at local schools as an English teacher, or find work as a bartender / babysitter / tutor, whatever you can find do it to make the trip continue, and to give yourself a chance to survive a little longer. As a journalist, multitask, broaden your horizons, pitch in all directions, work for free in the beginning, offer your services to other journalists, you never know what will stick and what your good will will lead to.

Contracts and Double Dipping

When you start actually getting pitches accepted, make sure you follow through extremely professionally, and quickly, like you life depended on it, because it might. What you get paid will vary greatly, from as low as say $50 for a story to several thousand dollars.

Sometimes you will be asked to sign contracts for exclusive rights to your material. Read contracts carefully. Sometimes, you won't be asked anything. In this case, don't hesitate to "double dip", or to adapt a story for different outlets and for different types of media, several times. That's why it can be very useful to work a story from all media angles, and with additional material. Learn to work with editors as they keep asking you for changes. They might drive you crazy, but don't lose your cool, even if I did eventually.

Once you get going, keep pitching ideas incessantly, until you find the people you like working for, and who like working for you. Here's an articles with more tips on pitching like a pro and double dipping. Once you have enough interesting work to keep you fed and alive, you can start focusing on higher quality output, and really zero in on your own interests and inclinations.

Riding the Lows, Culture Shock and Being Homesick

You might not always be making good money, but you will be getting invaluable skills in survival and street smarts, as well as a world adventure you could only have dreamed of before you left. It might be isolating at times, but at least you won't be in an endless, non-productive rat race with bosses and sniffling cubicle colleagues you can't stand.

In the end, you will be your own boss with a flexible schedule, your own moral compass, living to tell and experience exciting stories from faraway places with rich cultures and amazing people. When you are down and out, treat yourself to a local vacation, since anyway no one is expecting you at the office. Your mini vacation could turn into a treasure trove of new story ideas. Hop a border and get your visa renewed. Scratch something off your bucket list you wouldn't dare try at home.

You might have culture shock at some point and be very homesick, or be in total despair, or lying in a hospital bed out in a village without even a name and without electricity, but in the end that's all part of the fun and experience. Get out of your shell and habits. Start new ones. Pursue new hobbies. If you play a sport, join a local team. Adapt yourself. Go out and mingle. It will be intense. It will be full of wonder and discovery. Worse comes to worse, it's not for you and you come home with lots of stories to share.

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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