I’m telling this story in reverse, for which I apologize. But here’s how we got to that first night in Nairobi: Starting a career as a freelance journalist can be brutal. As in any other field, you need experience to prove yourself, but you can’t get that experience without first having experience. As I’ve said here, you don’t need clips badly 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. Margaret and I were reporters at The Atlanta Constitution in 1986 — she in the Savannah bureau and I in the main newsroom in Atlanta. I’d worked in Asia for The Asian Wall Street Journal; she’d lived in Mexico and had reported for the Journal-Constitution from Cuba. Both of us itched to get back out into the big world. We applied to several papers that had foreign correspondents, and the Washington Post’s foreign editor gave us this invaluable advice, paraphrased here:
Just go. Getting a foreign posting at this paper would mean working on the city desk for years and sucking up to the national editor. Then, if you’re lucky, you might get a national bureau. Do that for years while sucking up to me, and maybe, with a lot of luck, you’ll get a foreign posting. You’d be much better off just picking a place on the map and setting yourself up there as freelancers.”
The place on the map we chose in 1987 was Zimbabwe. 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, London, and Moscow, 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 collectively called “the front-line states” — 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 10-year-old Peugeot 504, 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. (Although once, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune put a story of ours on the AP wire and the Chronicle picked it up. So both San Francisco papers had the same story, with the same byline, on its front page, even though only the Examiner paid for it. The Examiner’s editors could have been furious about it, but I recall them being quite understanding.
To file our stories, we’d sit at one of the office’s communal telex machines — a device about the size of a dishwasher — and laboriously punch out a long yellow telex tape, applying about ten pounds of pressure to each keystroke. This we’d feed through the ticker on one machine; it read the holes we’d punched in the tape and converted them to letters and numbers. We’d get it going (thumpthumpthumpthump…) wait until the emergent end 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. Often it took more time to file the story than it had taken to report and write it.
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.
When Margaret and I decided to launch our freelance career by going overseas, we got some more good advice: Introduce yourselves to editors before you go. Editors who receive unsolicited work from overseas reporters they don’t know tend to be suspicious they’re getting CIA or other countries’/factions’ propaganda.
These being the days before websites, we made up a folder that had my clips and resume on one side and Margaret’s on the other. We send a packet to the foreign editor of every American paper that had one. We also sent one each to NPR and Mutual Radio.
All of them called us. And all of them said the same thing: We won’t give you any money up front, but we’d love to hear from you. What we exacted from them was permission to call collect and their Telex numbers. Today, of course, the equivalent would be the editor’s email address.
For $150, papers the size of the Kansas City Star and the Dallas Times-Herald could have proprietary bylines from Africa in their pages. They liked that. It livened things up from the usual wire-service copy. Of course, getting the stories to the newspapers was always a trial. Telex is cumbersome, to say the least. And the Kansas City Star didn’t even have its own machine. We used to file to the reservations Telex of a hotel on the other side of Kansas City, and the paper would send an intern over in a car to pick up the copy.
Point is: If you’re thinking of launching your freelance career by going abroad, do an appropriate amount of spadework first.