An award-winning journalist from India on what she learned from top foreign correspondents.
Here’s a funny thing that I noticed during my time in India: When journalists came to India from abroad to work as foreign correspondents, they had a far easier time making it as freelancers than local journalists born and brought up in the country. Why is that?
It’s certainly not that they were better—some of them hardly knew the country at all. But these expat journalists did certain things that made them more desirable to editors back home. They came with specific characteristics that endeared them to UK and US-based editors.
Developing these characteristics and skills can help you immediately land more assignments and become valuable to editors internationally. What are they? Here’s what foreign correspondents do naturally that you may not have considered as a local journalist.
1. They understand their audience
Editors assume that the American or British foreign correspondent, no matter how green, understands their own country’s media. They’ve grown up reading it, after all.
If you’re interested in writing for the Western media, the first step is to read the Western media. What are the biases? The areas of interest? What stories about your country feature most prominently? Once you understand what readers are expecting from their newspapers and magazines, you’re better able to offer it to editors.
2. They network
Foreign correspondents get invited to parties and dinners. They play tennis or join swimming clubs with other expat journalists and editors. Even though they don’t necessarily know a lot about the country they’re reporting from, they bag assignments because they’re drinking buddies with the people that count. Early in my career, a newbie American reporter stunned me with naïve comments like, “Delhi’s unsafe for women at night?” Yet there she was, hanging out with my editors and getting assignments. I’d never even met them.
Here’s what you do: Add your editors on Facebook. Get to know some expat journalists and find out where they’re hanging out (online and offline). Start visiting these places. Join the Foreign Correspondents’ Club or other journalists’ association in your city. Lurk. Email. Connect with people. Ask them out for coffee. Be a resource. Help people who’re new to the country get acquainted with it. Be bold. Be friendly.
The more you become a helpful part of the foreign correspondent community and a go-to resource, the easier it becomes for you to network with the right people. And that can be one way to get assignments. Offer to help foreign correspondents working in your country—and use it as your opportunity to hoover up contacts and get introduced to others in the usually tight circle of expat journalists.
3. They aim high
Almost every expat journalist I knew back in India arrived with dreams of reporting for The New York Times or The Guardian or TIME. They never once asked how they could report for the local daily. They weren’t familiar with most of the websites for writers or freelancing advice that tell writers to start at the bottom. They weren’t playing by the rules. They didn’t spend all that money, time, and energy to arrive in a foreign country so that they could make $100 here and there. They wanted to write for The New York Times, dammit! So that’s who they pitched. Often, they succeeded.
Remember, there’s a certain kind of person who leaves everything behind to try their luck in a new country as a foreign correspondent. This person is a risk-taker. They usually have the desire to do good in the world, and to be taken seriously.
That is the kind of person who aims high.
4. They learn how things work
Because expat journalists frequently hang out with the foreign correspondents of magazines and newspapers from their own countries, they’re often pitching the right people. They learn easily how each individual publication works. For instance, while TIME magazine has foreign bureaus, travel pieces in India were almost always assigned from Hong Kong. The New York Times would assign India-based stories from India, but all their stories for the Homes or Travel sections were always in the hands of editors in New York. For bigger publications with various sections, you’ll need to build the relationship with each section editor anew. You need to know that. Networking helps you know that quickly.
5. They’re not afraid to ask for contacts
During my time reporting in India, I had dozens of American and British journalists email me to say they were arriving in Delhi and would love to get together, buy me coffee, and ask me a few questions. Rarely did I get the same email from Indian writers.
Foreign correspondents often begin setting up stories, contacts and networks before they even arrive in a country. They do this knowing no one. More often than not, they don’t speak the local language and will never learn it. Most successful foreign correspondents don’t see obstacles in their way; they see hurdles to be jumped.
Try thinking like a newbie to the city. Who would you ask for help and advice? What could they possibly offer you and what can you give in return? Set up the meeting. Be a go-getter.
Writers and journalists who network with others, especially in person, find their horizons broadening exponentially.
6. They’re not worried about the money
I’m going to be controversial, but hear me out and then decide based on your own personal circumstances and goals.
When the New York Times offers a newbie expat journalist $250, they take it. Now, you’ve probably been writing for years and don’t want to accept that rate.
But—and this is a big one—having a New York Times byline is better than not having a New York Times byline. You don’t have to become a daily contributor, but one clip of that sort of prestige can help your career immensely. Just by being able to say that I’ve written for the New York Times, I get more traction and respect from editors. They don’t push me around because I’m a New York Times and TIME writer, even if my last clip with either was several years ago.
I have, in fact, made more money from being able to say that I’ve written for The New York Times than I ever did actually writing for the New York Times.
Most American and British foreign correspondents I met knew the value of certain clips and so they’d write for free if they had to in order to get them. While they were making far less money than someone who didn’t take those assignments, including my local journalist friends, they grew a lot faster and would frequently make twice as much money as a result of those clips as they moved forward in their careers.
7. They try different things
When someone moves to a new country, they’re already outside their comfort zone, and so they’re more open to trying new things in their work as well.
They may try recording audio, making videos, or playing around with blogs. I’m not in this business so that I can chase someone around with a video camera, you might say. I love words. But once in a while, it’s good to try new things, see what else you might learn, or partner with someone with additional skills to offer.
Mix it up a little. See, perhaps, if there are other skills you can offer to your editors. Don’t become too fixated on a job description.
8. They take risks
Foreign correspondents will happily travel to the middle of nowhere and come back with a story. They’re looking for adventure. You’d have come back with a better story, I’m sure. But you didn’t travel up to the middle of nowhere because you’ve got a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. Fair enough.
I’m not saying you have to do this in order to succeed, but I am saying it’s why that twenty-something college kid is sometimes getting published in the magazine that pays $1 a word. Stories are the currency of journalism. And local journalists have an advantage when it comes to stories. We know where to find them, and we know how to report them.
If you can, find stories that aren’t readily available and that not everyone can report on. They don’t have to be in the middle of nowhere; they could certainly be in your own backyard. But you’ll need to find these stories because that’s what’s going to get you into those high-paying publications.
9. They retell stories
Yup, while you and I are going about finding unique stories that no one’s ever heard of, foreign correspondents work differently. They read The Washington Post and go ahead and sell that same story to Marie Claire. Or they’ve combed through The Times of India and sold an intriguing idea to The New York Times. Cheeky little buggers.
Do the same. Find stories that have appeared in local media, give them an angle and a twist that makes them relevant to an international readership, and pitch them to publications with longer lead times.
10. They steal your clients
That American college student I mentioned earlier? I really didn’t like her. I took her out to lunch because she wanted an education in India, made the mistake of telling her about a few stories I was in the process of pitching, and she went ahead and sent them to the editors I was planning to pitch. (The whole drinking buddies thing, remember?)
Not cool. So well, obviously, you don’t want to do that. You’re trying to network here, make friends, and you know, not be an asshole.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get market ideas from your friends and co-workers. Look at their bios and see who they’re writing for. Ask them nicely if they’d share contact information. Most people will without a second’s hesitation. Offer to connect them with your own editors in return.
Be a friend.
11. They don’t take themselves too seriously
It’s work, yes, but it’s also life. It has to be about more than just querying, getting assignments, and cashing that paycheck.
It has to be about having fun.
It has to be about learning new things, taking on new challenges, and meeting new people.
It has to be about making it count.
Make it count.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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