Launching a Freelance Career

Starting a career as a freelance journalist can be brutal. You have to learn how to report a story, write it well, and find within you the confidence to get out in the marketplace and make a sale. As I’ve said here, you don’t need clips enough to write for free (or for too little money to make the writing worthwhile) but you do need some sort of track record, to demonstrate you can deliver the goods.

One way to separate yourself from the hordes of similarly eager would-be freelancers is to offer editors something they can’t get elsewhere: reporting from a far-off corner of the world. In other words, take yourself abroad and set yourself up as a foreign correspondent.

It worked for us. We began our freelance career by moving to Zimbabwe in 1987. We stayed three years, saw a lot of eastern and southern Africa, came home with exactly as much money as we had when we left, and had established ourselves with several newspapers and magazines.

You can’t just go anywhere. Near as I can tell, three criteria must be met:

It has to be a place of some newsworthiness.

It can’t already be overrun with American reporters.

The cost of living has to be very low.

Now that we’ve ruled out Paris and the rest of Europe, it’s time to open the world atlas like a dinner menu and get to work.

Zimbabwe worked well for us because at the time, apartheid South Africa was sustaining a series of low-intensity wars in its neighboring countries — Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and to a lesser extent Malawi. Stuff was happening. And most American papers, if they had Africa correspondents, kept them either in Nairobi or Johannesburg. Back then, any reporter based in apartheid South Africa had a hard time traveling to the rest of Africa. And Nairobi was 3,000 miles away. Finally, by trading our money on the black market, Margaret and I could live well on US$1,000 a month. We had a house in the suburbs of Harare with a live-in maid, a car, and a downtown office in a news cooperative where we shared three telex machines and two employees.

When I say, “stuff was happening,” remember that I’m talking about African stuff, so we were reliably able to sell one story a month to our client newspapers. (Our clients were such triple-A clubs as the Atlanta Constitution, the Dallas Times-Herald, the Kansas City Star, the San Francisco Examiner, and a few more.) Each paper would pay us $150 for a story, and, being far apart from one another, they didn’t care if we sold the same story to our other clients. We’d laboriously punch out a long yellow telex tape, start it through the ticker on one machine, wait until the tail was long enough to reach the next machine’s ticker, run it through there, wait again, run it through the ticker of the third machine, and, in a miracle of Crimean War technology, we could file a fifteen-inch story to three papers in an hour or less — provided the tape didn’t catch on a chair leg and break.

Nowadays the technology is better but the world more crowded, dangerous and expensive. So finding the right place from which to freelance might be hard. But not impossible. It may be time to begin thinking in this direction. More later about how actually one gets this done.

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