Whudduya wanna know?

Rather than have me drone on aimlessly, is there anything in particular you want me to address about the language, the researching and writing process, or the business of making a living as a writer? Please address questions to: danbaum@me.com.

Let the Plan Rule 8

I know you’re a writer. But you’re also a human being who needs to eat, sleep under a roof, and travel. So I recommend multiplying your income streams by adding radio and maybe even television to your bag of tricks.* 

When you talk to NPR, as you should, having sent them a packet offering your services, you should also talk to CNN**. Ask NPR what kind of recorder and microphone you should carry to gather broadcast-quality actuality (a radio-industry term for the live sound you hear in a report — interviews, explosions, chickens clucking, etc.) Ask, too, how to get your sound to them and write down their instructions in detail.

Margaret went on a junket organized by the the government of Angola, which was eager for the world to know that it still held the town of Cuito Cuanavale in its long ground war against the South African Army. At one point, Margaret had to cross a river on a rope-and-slats footbridge and, bless her heart, she kept her tape deck running with the microphone sticking up out of her shoulder bag. On the tape — which ran on All Things Considered and for which she was paid well, you can hear her feet rattling on the slats, her breathing hard, and then, suddenly, voices yelling frantically and the whistles and booms of incoming artillery rounds. Great actuality, as they say in the biz. It would have made great television, too, but broadcast-quality cameras weren’t small enough then to tote around. 

Google “smallest broadcast-quality video camera” and see what pops up. (This is what comes up today, but six months from now could be different.) Show the list to the people at CNN with whom you’re negotiating permission to call collect and whose email addresses you are collecting. Ask them what they’d like you to carry and get detailed instructions for getting your footage to them. 

I can hear you now, saying, “but I have no experience in either radio or television!” Let me tell you another story:

On that same trip to Angola,*** Margaret met a nice man named Noel Grove, who was a staff photographer on assignment for the ne plus ultra of photojournalism, The National Geographic. She asked him: “What’s the secret of NatGeo photography? and he replied “F8 and be there.” (F8 on a camera is the most basic F-stop, the one at which you’re apt to get approximately the depth of field of a naked human eye, good for a quick shot and for freezing action. You’d use different F stops for artistic effects; F8 is plain Jane.) The important part of Grove’s advice, though, was, “be there.” You may have no television experience, but if you’re on the scene when disgruntled elements of the FARC attack the presidential palace and you have the footage that nobody else has, you’ll be golden. This is why you want the smallest and lightest audio and video recording gear you can get — so that you’ll have them with you all the time. Be there. 


* It must also be said, if mumbled disgracefully down here, that certain stories are better told on television than in print. When the space shuttle blew up or the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad began, did you run to your newspaper? No, you hastened to CNN. No medium is inherently more legit than the others. People get information all kind of ways and it’s a privilege to to feed the public’s right and appetite to know with as many tools as you can muster. Just because you sent CNN footage of the attack on the presidential palace doesn’t mean you can’t also write a 4,000-word think piece about it for The New York Review of Books. 

**Here’s how you, a total newbie in television, should approach CNN: Call the main number in Atlanta and ask whoever answers the phone to switch you to the Latin America desk. If the person says that CNN has no Latin America desk, say this: “I am an independent correspondent based in Bogotá, Colombia, to cover Latin American news. To whom should I offer my services?” When you reach that person, ask for an email address or, better still, a paper mailing address and send your packet to that person. I promise you that nobody will hang up on you. CNN needs eyes everywhere. Then send your clips-and-resume packet.

*** Yes, I did do some reporting in Africa, too. I wasn’t in Angola with her because I am a physical coward. War reporting? Me? No thank you. Send Margaret. 

Let the Plan Rule 7

You’re going to need good gear. I’m sure you’ve been practicing typing as fast as someone can talk — in Spanish — in the manner I recommended here. You’re spending time sitting in front of Spanish language television with your computer in your lap, writing down every word of dialogue. Good for you. That is exactly what you should be doing in preparation for your lead-pipe-certain September 30 departure for Bogotá.  

When Margaret and I arrived in Africa in 1987, the Radio Shack Tandy TRS-80 was already the laughingstock of the computer world. It held 36 kilobytes — that means only 36,000 characters. It had no hard disk. It ran off of — get this — AA batteries. The cool foreign correspondents were packing Toshiba laptops with 20 megabyte hard disks and rechargeable batteries.

Turns out, though, that for reporting in Africa, the “trash eighty,” as it was known, was the better axe. Traveling through Africa often meant having one’s backpack thrown onto the roof of a bus, or down off a pier into a dhow. A laptop with a hard disk — moving parts — wouldn’t last a month. You don’t have to take the Wayback Machine to 1987, though, to get a computer without a hard disk, and you don’t to put up with such limited storage and capacity. Every major maker of laptops, Apple included, offers laptops with solid-state drives. Buy one of those. At the same time, buy a solid-state backup drive that you can attach to your computer via USB. You’ll want to be backing up constantly because laptops disappear or suffer breakage on the road, usually at the worst possible time. Back up obsessively and keep your backup drive in your little trove inside the waistband of your pants with your passport, etc., or, if that’s too uncomfortable, someplace else safe. 

Planning on doing radio reporting? Television? We’ll pick this up tomorrow. 

Let the Plan Rule 6

To recap: You’ve put your flight to Bogotá on the calendar for September 30 and by now you may have heard from the Colombian Embassy that yes, you have permission to establish a freelance news bureau in the capital. You’ve gotten a passport and enough shots to spring a puppy from the Humane Society. Now it’s time to start lining up clients. 

What Margaret and I did was open the Editor & Publisher yearbook* at the public library and write down the name and address of every newspaper editor we wanted to approach. The Washington Post was as far up the food chain as we dared venture. It had two of its own staff reporters in Africa, but one was in apartheid Johannesburg, and therefore couldn’t travel to what was called then, “black Africa.” The other was in Nairobi, three air hours or 42 difficult road hours, from the “frontline states” that Margaret and I would be covering. Most of the ones to which we intended to sell ourselves were the ones who couldn’t afford their own Africa bureaus — papers like The Dallas Times Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, the Kansas City Star, and so on. We carefully wrote down their full mailing addresses and then prepared a neat little package to send each one. We used pocket folders; when you opened it, our resumés faced you on the left, and a few of our best clips faced you on the right. The cover letter that went into the envelopes with these packets said something like this:


A new source of Africa news will be available to you starting in May.  Margaret Knox and Dan Baum, veteran reporters of The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers, will be establishing The Africa Bureau — an independent news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, to cover the region for you. This will be your chance to have exclusive, non-wire copy from a turbulent but under-covered part of the world. Please look at our enclosed resumés and samples of our work. We ask for nothing in advance but your Telex number and permission to call collect if we have a story we think you might like. 

We’d like to hear from you ahead of time to discuss topics that might be of particular interest to your readers, such as communities of Africans who help constitute your city’s population, and the companies and industries in your city that do business in Africa and to which we should pay special attention. We want to make this as easy for you as possible, so if there are any technical issues related to filing copy and photos to your paper, let’s nail those down. We also will be traveling around the U.S. in March to visit future clients; might we stop by and see you, too?

Of course, today you’d be asking for email addresses instead of Telex numbers, but feel free to go ahead and crib that letter if you want to and adapt it to your purposes. We lined up about seven papers, plus National Public Radio and Mutual Radio News, this way. And damned if we didn’t get The Washington Post, too. Asking about industries and companies turned out to be useful; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, was interested in bauxite mining because Alcoa, based in Pittsburgh, uses a lot of bauxite to make aluminum. Permission to call collect from Africa is a big deal. Some even asked us to buy acoustic couplers — big hard-rubber cups that fit over the two ends of a phone receiver and that, when plugged into a computer, allowed us to send copy straight into a paper’s computer queue by putting atop the story a line of code that looked something like {kwky-slug{tttws, with “slug” being a one-word title for the story. This was very high-tech stuff in 1987. We wrote editors’ names, phone numbers, telex numbers, companies and industries to watch in a little hardcover Moleskine-like notebook, devoting one page to each paper, so that we’d have it all handy when it was time to file. My suggestion is that you do likewise. But do it quickly; you’re leaving on September 30.

More on equipment tomorrow.

*Editor and Publisher being the trade magazine of the newspaper-publishing industry



Let the Plan Rule 5

Let’s continue with the list of tasks you need to complete before you leave for Bogotá: 

If you don’t have a passport, get one now at the nearest post office. You’ll need to bring in a couple of passport-sized photos that you can get at Kinko’s or a camera shop, whichever is closest to you, and when you do, get four or five extras. They’re good to have with you when you go abroad. A Colombian press card might require one, as might press credentials for other countries you’ll be covering. And you might lose your passport or have it stolen and having a passport photo on hand will speed up the process of replacing it. 

As someone who had his passport stolen his first day as a freelancer in Africa — making my way by bus from Jomo Kenyatta Airport into downtown Nairobi — let me recommend a way to carry the passport, vaccination card, visas, press credentials, a credit card, and some cash: sew a little drawstring bag out of an old bandana and use a nice thick sneaker lace as the drawstring. Put your documents and cash — not too much; enough for a day, in small bills — in it and tuck it inside the waistband of your pants over your hip. Tie the ends of the drawstring firmly to a belt loop, and you’re done. Nobody can snatch it from there, and you can ascertain that you still have your trove simply by looking down and seeing the drawstring, relieving you of having to do every five minutes  the touristic self-frisk — feeling for your trove, which communicates to everybody around you exactly in which pocket it is. That’s how I lost my trove on that Nairobi airport bus — ceaselessly patting the cargo pocket of my trousers to assure myself that I still had my trove. I might as well have been saying, “Here it is, guys!”

Tying the trove to your belt will keep you, too, from falling victim to a robbery technique that befell me in Zamboanga City, the Philippines, in 1982. Someone, seeing from the outside that my wallet was in my back pocket, sliced my pocket open — presumably with a straight razor — without my noticing. Had my trove been tied to my pants and hanging inside them, I’d have felt the tug. It occurs to me now that both of these pickpocket stories — Nairobi and Zamboanga took place as I was boarding or leaving buses, and distracted by my luggage. A third pickpocketing incident, in Mexico city in 2017, happened on a Metro. Point is: be extra vigilant on public conveyances, especially if you’re distracted by gear.

Some countries require proof of vaccination against yellow fever or other maladies upon entry. This website will tell you the requirements, country by country, and also make recommendations beyond the requirements. You should check other sources, too, and if you can, find a travel-medicine clinic in your city, which will also have information. The aforementioned website offers good advice, too, on its Colombia page, about taking along mosquito netting and chemical mosquito repellent, and making sure all your standard vaccinations — tetanus, diphtheria, etc., are up to date. Have whoever gives you your shots note the shot and date on your yellow vaccination card, sign it, and stamp it to make it look as official as possible. You don’t want to get hung up at a border or airport over this, and if you’re like me you don’t want to get your shots at some flyblown clinic who knows where. 

Find out if you need malaria prophylaxis, and what kind. If a doctor recommends chloroquine, do some research to see if the strain of malaria in the places you’re going is chloroquine-resistant. Resistance to chloroquine is a byproduct of the American war in Vietnam. The U.S. Army issued its soldiers chloroquine pills to take daily, the parasite adapted to it, and resistance spread outward. This is how Margaret found herself delirious in a hospital bed in Harare.

As you start ticking things off your list — permissions, passport, vaccinations — your departure will feel more and more real. You’re on your way to Colombia to launch a career as a freelance foreign correspondent! Everybody knows it, you’re getting vaccinated for it, and nothing can stop you!

We’ll continue tomorrow with lining up clients.




Let the Plan Rule 4

Before we continue with the list of things you need to do before September 30 — the date you have set as departure for Bogotá to begin your career as a freelance foreign correspondent — let’s talk briefly about money. You don’t have enough of it, and you’re going to need plenty. So, as you write “Depart for Bogotá” on your calendar for September 30, say goodbye to restaurant meals, three-dollar  cups of coffee, movies, and other luxuries. It is time to start living on the bone. Cook* and make your coffee at home. You’ll save a bundle. Move in with your parents if you have to. It won’t be defeat; it will be in service to that tyrant on the calendar. Get rid of your Netflix subscription and use the time you’d otherwise spend zoning out over movies to read books and academic journal articles about Colombia and Latin America. (A good start might be Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, which is an only-occasionally-stridently Marxist analysis of Latin America since the conquest. It will give you a good feel for the essential complaint that Latin America has with Europe and the United States, a complaint that is reflected to this day in much of the region’s politics and economics.) Every time you deny yourself something — that latte, dinner at the hip new place on the corner, etc. — will be a fresh reminder that you’re leaving for Bogotá on September 30, further cementing the plan into reality.**

Stop driving your car to save money on insurance and gasoline, and get yourself a bicycle and a transit pass (if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with transit) instead. In fact, unless it’s a beloved and irreplaceable heirloom, this would be an excellent time to sell the car altogether. You can’t take it to Bogotá, storing it while you’re gone will be difficult and hard on the car itself, and by the time you come back who knows where you’ll be living? You might be a reporter for The New York Times by then, living in a city where you certainly won’t want or need a car. So ditch it, now, and put the money in a new bank account you call “Bogotá.” 

You can use that time you’re saving by not watching movies and TV shows to get your Spanish back, if you’ve ever had it, or to start studying it. I know a Dutchman who taught himself really excellent Spanish in a matter of months by using the program Rosetta Stone. But he’s a Dutchman, with that preternatural knack for languages shared by his countrymen, so don’t necessarily expect the same results. If your Spanish is already solid, as it might be since you’ve chosen Latin America as the place you want to freelance, start on Portuguese. Brazil is a newsworthy place, and reporters who speak Portuguese are rarer, and therefore more valuable, than those who speak only Spanish.


* If you would like some ideas about how to feed yourself cheaply — kitchen equipment you’ll need, how to shop, and some recipes, let me know at danbaum@me.com

** Remember that “leaving for Bogotá” is shorthand for whatever unlikely reality you’re trying to make happen. But, if you’re trying to get a freelance career started and have any Spanish at all, setting yourself up as a freelance correspondent in Bogotá isn’t a half-bad idea. 

Let the Plan Rule 3

You have created the tyrant who will rule your life for the next nine months* by setting your departure date for September 30. Now it’s time to make your first list of everything you need to do before that day. Again, this is only the list of everything you can think of now.  It will grow and change the more you learn.

My first list, were I planning to leave for Bogotá on September 30 to set myself up as a freelance foreign correspondent, would look something like this: 

Permissions: (call the Embassy of Colombia in Washington, DC, and ask to speak with an information officer. Ask for her email address and send her something like this:

Greetings. I am an independent U.S.-citizen reporter seeking permission from the government of Colombia to live in Bogotá as a base to report on South and Central America** for a number of U.S, newspapers, magazines, and radio-news outlets. Please find attached my resumé.***  I am affiliated with no government or media outlet; I am arranging now to work independently for several U.S. media. I will work alone and hire no locals. If possible, I would like to arrive in Bogotá on September 30, 2019 and begin work right away. To whom should I write to obtain this permission and what information will be required from me? She’ll have no idea. But she’ll be intrigued, maybe even excited, by this idea, and if you don’t hear from her in a week, email her again. If yet another week goes by, call her. 

As for the other countries in the region from which you intend to report, you have two choices: over the radar or under the radar. Over the radar means you declare your intentions to the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, etc. and ask for a multiple-entry journalism visa. This will let you operate in the open, interview government officials, and it will generally keep you out of trouble.

Under the radar means you remain invisible to those governments, travel through the region as a tourist, and do your reporting on the sly. The advantage is, you’re less likely to be monitored, you’ll encounter less bureaucracy and you’ll generally be freer. The disadvantage is, you cannot interview government officials, and if you’re caught working as a journalist without permission, it could fall hard upon you. Read this story for a cautionary tale: https://www.ndtv.com/tamil-nadu-news/us-journalist-investigating-tamil-nadu-sterlite-plant-questioned-by-cops-1970633

When Margaret and I set up our freelance news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1987, to cover southern Africa, we obtained permission from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information to live and work there, and only tried to get journalist visas from countries where our stories required that we interview government officials. Otherwise, we passed ourselves off simply as honeymooners. You might decide to fly under the radar in Brazil and over the radar in Venezuela. Do all you can to find out in which countries it’s worth asking for permission. How would you do that? Any hands? Yes, you in the back. Right; very good. Look at the bylines of stories from various countries in the region, call or email the paper or magazine, and ask either for the reporter’s contact information or, if the paper doesn’t want to yield it, ask the paper to pass along a message. Then ask the reporter about working in that country. Dangerous? Repressive? With whom is it worth and not worth speaking? Take careful notes and keep them on your computer. 

We’ll continue tomorrow with the pre-departure list that you have to complete quickly, because remember: prepared or not, you will be on a plane on September 30. Nothing can change that.  

*Remember: this technique of creating a tyrannical plan with a firm start date works equally well with any kind of project. Planning to move in with your sweetheart? Find a job in your field? Repaint the house? Put it on the calendar an appropriate number of months out, tell everybody about it, and bend your life to that plan. It will gradually become the reality, as fixed and immutable as the firmness of the earth, and on the appointed day it really will happen.

** It will be vaguely comforting to the government of Colombia that you intend to cover the whole region and not spend all your time examining Colombia with a microscope. In my experience, developing-world countries want attention, but not too much attention. They resent that we in the United States don’t know anything about the hemisphere we have dominated for so long, but any number of Latin American countries have jailed and/or expelled any number of foreign journalists for doing their jobs. (As Joseph Lelyveld put it in the opening of Move Your Shadowhis terrific 1985 book about apartheid South Africa, “In South Africa these days, a lot of words get spilled as the urge to be understood conflicts with urge not to be understood too well.” 

We continue with the pre-departure list tomorrow.

*** If you have no news experience, don’t include a resumé.