I’m writing this post thousands of feet above the East Coast and I plan to be dead asleep, in the upright position, once we hit the Atlantic. Groggy from the flight to Frankfurt, I’ll cradle my cumbersome “personal item” to my transfer flight – a.k.a the tote bag that weighs twice as much as my carry-on, because there’s no 17 pound limit on a purse.
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to establish myself as a savvy travel writer. I am, however, setting out to write. From Frankfurt, I’ll be heading to Amman, Jordan, to see if I have what it takes to pursue a career in international freelance reporting. With the number of Syrian refugees topping 2 million, I anticipate finding plenty of untold stories in this neighboring host country.
My decision to spend a month in Jordan seemed impulsive to many friends. So I want to take the time to share my rationale, along with my professional aims for this adventure.
Luggage for four weeks, plus a bag of goldfish crumbles for my host, Meghan.
Strategically speaking, I completed a masters in journalism last May and spent 10 days shadowing Nicholas Kristof, a humanitarian columnist for the New York Times, in West Africa shortly after graduation. Mid-July, I found myself back home in Minnesota, applying for daily reporting jobs, where having reported on malnutrition and child marriage in Mali didn’t really give me a competitive edge.
I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to build discipline by reporting under daily deadlines. But if I’m being honest with myself, there’s a larger part of me that’s restless to travel and report on humanitarian issues. I want to take advantage of the fact that I’m not married, don’t own a house, and don’t have kids, to connect with people who need a platform to voice their concerns far more than I need a sense of stability at this stage of my life. A little part of me may even want to take advantage of what youthful courage I have left, before I grow too cautious.
My desire to take a risk doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to cover violent protests and cities under siege. For now, I’m more concerned with covering the aftermath of conflict – refugee situations, rebuilding efforts, reconciliation initiatives and other stories that highlight the human costs of war.
Even if I don’t go looking for danger, I realize that it may find me, which is why I’ve taken certain measures to help ensure my safety. I attended a journalist safety-training workshop in D.C. last spring and am packing, dressing and preparing accordingly. For instance, I keep a rubber doorstop in my backpack to add another level of security to my bedroom door, I am wearing a leather belt to help thwart acts of sexual aggression, and I spent an extra $60 on emergency travel insurance. None of this can guarantee my safety; but then again, I could just as well be mugged or broadsided in my car back home where I’m likely to be less vigilant.
In any event, I’m already on my way to Amman, so you’ll just have to trust that I’ll use the buddy system at night and call home from time to time.
Safety aside, you may be wondering how I can afford to just take off for a month. Well, the skepticism you’re feeling is fully warranted. I really did just decide to invest a fraction of my savings in a freelance attempt that I may not even break even on. I was a skeptic, myself, until Amy Costello, producer of the podcast series Tiny Spark and former Africa correspondent for The World, challenged me to put my financial concerns into perspective.
I was searching for some professional female guidance, when I sent Amy a request to talk via the blank email form on her website. To my surprise, I heard back from Amy, who was on her way home from Dakar. During our conversation, she sensed my hesitation over money and prescribed a simple homework task: do the math.
She offered to review my budget next time we talked, to help make sure I hadn’t overlooked anything, and instilled confidence in my ability to make overseas reporting a sustainable venture.
The fact that many news agencies are cutting funding for foreign correspondents, said explained, means there are more opportunities to sell freelance content from far-flung corners of the world. Even if I’m the rookie playing journalist next to seasoned correspondents, there’s no reason I can’t still sell a story a two to recoup my expenses, or even profit like any other professional who gets paid for their work.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to upgrade to a fancy hotel and eat out every night. I plan to be as thrifty as possible, without compromising my ability to report well. It certainly helps that I’ve got friends living near Amman who are willing to host me and I figure I won’t spend more on taxi fares and street food than I would on gas and grocery bills back home.
I could hum and haw over the logistics of going overseas to freelance forever, but at a certain point the only significant thing left to do is buy that ticket. I have to admit, I was worried that I’d get cold feet before I followed through on this trip – mainly because there’s the added pressure of professional expectations that hadn’t influenced any of my prior self-funded trips abroad. But I’d already solicited more than my fair share of pep talks and I realized that I all I had left to do was commit.
If I had to boil down my conversations with Nicholas Kristof, Amy Costello, and Peter Greenberg their shared nugget of advice would be: “Just go and do it!”
There’s still the possibility that I may not access the sources I have my sights set on, or walk away with a first-rate story that any publication would offer to purchase. This is the uncertainty that I’ve come to terms with – the uncertainty that I’m sure every journalist I admire had to confront at some point or another as well.
This doesn’t mean I can afford to be passive. I’ve been curating sources, talking with mentors, and touching base with potential editors for the past three weeks. The larger my network, the greater my odds are of accessing fresh, compelling stories. I’m also pretty optimistic about tapping into the local freelance community. It’s a competitive field, but my sense is that the freelance community is largely supportive. I’ll learn soon enough, I suppose.
In the end, if I can sell three to five stories, placing one in a national-caliber publication, I’ll consider this trip a success. It’s about learning from my rookie mistakes in a safe environment and proving to myself that I can reasonably scale up my goals next time and the time after that.
I know there are lots of opportunities to apply for foreign reporting grants and fellowships, but until I establish myself as a capable writer, I’m stuck in a holding pattern. I need an editor of a major publication to vouch for my work in order to get funding, but I need a major clip before I can get an editor to vouch for me. Time to break into the cycle on my own dime.
If things don’t go as expected, at the very least, I expect that I’ll come home with enough material to try stand up comedy on the nights I have off from my pending serving job. After a few month of serving diners oversized portions of red meat and fries, I’ll have bottled up enough change and motivation to pack up my bags for round two.
How else does one reasonably become an international freelance reporter?