When I first set out on my maiden assignment as an independent foreign stringer, I was young, inexperienced, and taking a giant step into the unknown. From one angle, it was scary. But from another vantage point, the move represented the most exciting opportunity of my fledgling career.
I had prepared as best I could setting up introductions and trying to learn a new language, but I was about to embark on a difficult journey minus some of the more nuanced pointers that would have helped smooth my way. As someone who’s already taken the leap to work internationally, I felt compelled to share the five most important tips that will help you carve out a niche as a freelancer in a foreign country.
1. Target the top industries
One of the first things I did after arriving in Costa Rica, my first host country, was asses the key industries and ongoing issues. The coffee, pineapple, and eco-tourism sectors were crucial parts of the national economy, and after I identified where I should focus, it was easier to start generating story ideas.
From a stringer’s point of view, niche publications might be interested in trend pieces about these industries. For example, there are a number of trade publications interested in new developments taking place across the coffee-producing regions in Costa Rica. And as you’ll soon find out, trade titles tend to pay quite well.
From a more general outlook, the top sectors are often ripe with possibilities for human-interest stories. During my time in Costa Rica, a juicy environmental degradation story connected to the pineapple-producing areas of the country caught national attention, and since the nation is one of the world’s top pineapple producers, it had clear international appeal.
Topical issues, too, can lead to steady work. Ask yourself questions like: What are the recurring stories grabbing headlines? What topics are dominating the editorial pages of the national newspapers? Early during my stint abroad, a story broke about a busted multimillion-dollar ponzi scheme. Another similar scam soon toppled. With many foreigners caught up in the fallout, the scams opened up avenues to write about such schemes for newspapers and magazines in Europe and the U.S.
2. Establish embassy and press contacts
A few of the more off-beat tales I uncovered were the result of establishing close contacts with diplomats and embassy staff. One quirky piece about putting a plaque on the ocean floor even involved the British ambassador herself.
Diplomats can also serve as useful background and off-the-record sources. When stories break involving major industry or trade deals, they may be able to provide useful information, particularly if a company from their country is involved. And they may also be able to offer insight or help you connect with appropriate sources within the national government, which can be a crucial resource.
Fellow journalists at the vernacular newspapers—those working at local-language publications—can offer similar help. They tend to be more aware of the finer details behind developing stories. And making friends among local reporters can help you access otherwise hard-to-reach contacts who can be mined for future stories.
3. Cover a region, not a country
To maximize scope and reach, don’t limit yourself to only one country. This is particularly important in smaller nations—like Costa Rica—that usually aren’t covered by the global news.
While a country like Costa Rica can be the basis for a number of niche story possibilities, it lacks the daily appeal and depth of, say, South Korea, another country in which I was based. South Korea bears the perpetual appeal of a noisy political foe in North Korea, generating plenty of copy.
4. Find a part-time reporting or editing role
Because you may experience both spikes and lulls in your freelance work, nailing down a secure income stream is highly desirable. Therefore, if you are able to work part-time at a local publication, you will be well on your way to the all-important diversified income.
In my time stringing overseas, I held several part-time journalism positions. I worked as a stringer at The Tico Times with a fixed number of writing assignments every week. Consistently working in an office with a regular staff—I was also copy editor at The Korea Times for a time—can help you build contacts and generate stories for other markets you may not be aware of.
5. Learn the language
Perhaps the most valuable step you can take in your journey toward becoming a foreign correspondent is to learn the local language. The best advice I ever received was when an editor told me: “Learn the language, and learn it well.” How right he proved to be.
Investing in an immersion course in Spanish, for example, paid for itself many times over in the long run. When you take this step, you save a lot of money you’d otherwise spend paying for fixers and translators. Plus, you gain so much more culturally and professionally by having your ears tuned into local life.
Working abroad will always come with uncertainty and a unique type of anxiety. But if you take the proper steps to plan and educate yourself, working as a correspondent in a foreign country is one way to flourish as a journalist.