World On A String: How to Become a Successful Freelance Foreign Correspondent

World On A String: How to Become a Successful Freelance Foreign Correspondent

by Al Goodman, Alan Goodman

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An excellent, practical guide to launching yourself in the journalism business. I wish I'd had a copy when I was starting out."-Carroll Bogert, Newsweek's International Correspondent

"A whole generation of us learned it on the run; now Goodman and Pollack spell it out in wise and practical detail."-Peter Grose, former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press and The New York Times and former Executive Editor of Foreign Affairs

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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The World on a String

How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent

By Al Goodman, John Pollack

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1997 Al Goodman and John Pollack
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-4842-1



Have you ever felt trapped? Stuck in a job so boring it begins to drive you crazy? Reporter John Pollack did once, covering a town called Plainville. Yes, it really was called Plainville, and aptly so.

Big news in Plainville, Connecticut, meant that the Town Council had ordered tree trimming on Main Street, the Public Works Board was raising water rates, or restless retirees were holding an afternoon dance at the senior center. But that didn't faze the Hartford Courant, whose strategy to capture suburban advertising revenue was largely dependent on daily zoned, customized coverage of towns such as Plainville, whatever the news. Simply put, there was money to be made from all the ad revenue that had flowed unchallenged for years into the coffers of small local papers.

Internally, the Courant classified suburban towns A, B, or C. While C towns received minimal attention and B towns a little more, A towns got local coverage six days a week. Plainville, with a population of 16,401, was an A town.

Woe to the reporter who failed to turn up a daily story. No matter what, there had to be a story, something — anything — datelined Plainville. Through sheer determination, the beat reporter scraped by from day to day, leaving even slimmer pickings for Pollack, who filled in on the Plainville beat one day a week.

Late one Friday between Christmas and New Year's, with darkness setting in and the empty streets of Plainville slick with ice, Pollack exhausted his short list of potential story ideas. An impatient editor downtown was holding space for Plainville, and the deadline was fast closing.

Anticipating such a problem, the beat reporter had left the phone number of a special source. "Call it only if you get really desperate," she warned. Out of options, Pollack dialed. A kind, elderly woman answered the phone. She ran a shelter for injured animals at her home. Pollack identified himself as a Courant reporter and got right to the point: did she have any news tips late on a Friday afternoon?

Oh yes! she exclaimed. A rainy autumn had caused area seeds to rot, depriving local birds of vital winter food. To make matters worse, weeks of sub-zero weather had frozen all ponds and streams, so the birds were going thirsty. Would the Courant urge people to set out birdseed and dishes of warm water for the finches and chickadees? Don't buy cheap birdseed, she warned; the birds are picky. And only use plastic containers, because the birds' feet might freeze to metal.

Pollack thanked the woman and hung up. With a little more time and some creative photography, it might make for a decent feature. But with the sun down and ten minutes to deadline, the story looked like thin gruel for a paper like the Courant, America's oldest continuously published newspaper.

"Sorry, no news from Plainville today," Pollack told the deputy bureau chief, who was editing copy at a nearby computer. Reluctantly, she agreed, and sent a message downtown saying there was no news from Plainville, only a report of thirsty birds from an elderly animal-lover.

"Do the story," came the editor's reply. "Plainville is an A town."

Groaning, Pollack quickly cranked out seven inches of copy on thirsty birds. Professionally embarrassed, he wanted to remove his byline. But if he did, the Courant wouldn't pay him the $50 it disbursed to its freelance correspondents for each local story. With rent coming due, Pollack swallowed his pride. The two-column headline on page B4 of the next day's paper read Residents Urged to Feed, Put Out Water for Birds.

Pollack was frustrated beyond words. He could handle covering the Plainville Public Works Board. Its policy debates might be arcane, but they occasionally had environmental implications and were ultimately important. He covered the Girl Scouts without complaint. But a rush-job on thirsty birds, just to satisfy an arbitrary, ad-driven story quota?

Pollack wanted to be a reporter, but this was ridiculous. How was he ever going to move up the career ladder with McClips like this? What was his future in a town where nothing happened? A seven-inch story on thirsty birds was the last straw.

It was time to escape from Plainville.


While top reporters at the networks, major dailies, and leading magazines have fascinating beats that are citywide, national, or international in scope, many workaday journalists are stuck in Plainvilles of one sort or another. True, even the Plainvilles of the world have valuable lessons to teach, though the truly exciting stories may be rare. Young reporters do need to learn the basics in preparation for bigger assignments later, and the Public Works Board in Plainville can be a fine place to start.

But sooner or later the lessons of Plainville are learned, and it's time to move on. But where? And how? In today's world of domestic journalism, opportunities can be very limited.

Consider broadcasting. Some would argue that television stations in small and medium markets offer the best possibilities for advancement, though a hiring surge through the mid-1990s has averaged only one new position per station, annually, according to industry figures. With fierce competition for these jobs, the number of qualified applicants nearly always outstrips the number of available positions. It's not uncommon for a station's news director to have a hundred demo tapes on hand from job-seeking reporters and anchors. Scott Libin, on the faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, says that although the job market is better than it has been in years, it's still not easy.

Jobs in radio newsrooms come up with even less frequency. According to a study reported in the media journal Communicator, more than 1,100 U.S. radio news operations have shut down since 1981, and existing stations are relying more and more on part-time news staff.

Opportunities at newspapers are grim, too. From 1990 to 1995, nearly a hundred daily papers closed in the United States and Canada, including such major metro dailies as New York Newsday, the Pittsburgh Press, and the Dallas Times Herald. Still others such as the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer announced large-scale layoffs and early-retirement buyouts. A 1995 headline in the journal Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists, sums up the situation all too well: Starting over: 300 Journalists Re-Apply For 200 Jobs As Milwaukee joins The List Of One-Paper Towns.

In such a tight labor market, even bright graduates of the nation's 430 journalism and mass communications programs can have a tough time getting jobs. According to annual surveys by Ohio State University's School of Journalism, less than 20 percent of 1990s journalism school graduates get jobs in newspapers, magazines, wire services, radio, TV, or cable TV. The rest find work outside of journalism, continue their schooling, or remain unemployed.

Ask Peter Weitzel, a former senior managing editor of the Miami Herald, who now teaches at the Poynter Institute. Today's job market for entry-level reporters is "someplace the other side of miserable," he said. Generally, newspapers add staff positions only occasionally, and then most commonly in suburban bureaus far from the bustling, big-city newsrooms of popular imagination. As a result, many reporters who get these jobs have little daily, face-to-face contact with key downtown editors, making it that much harder to build the relationships necessary for a promotion. Not that there are many promotions to offer: if and when reporters land a good beat, they usually work extremely hard to defend their turf.

It's an employer's market, and both editors and reporters know it. If a reporter quits, there's always another hopeful waiting in the wings. Consequently, many talented and ambitious journalists endure long years of toil in suburban or small-town beats that, like Plainville, just aren't very stimulating. The result? Little turnover, widespread frustration, and frequent burn-out.

"Dissatisfaction is on the increase in American newsrooms," reported Editor & Publisher in a 1994 article entitled "What Do You Dislike about Your Job?" E&P cited a "Journalist Satisfaction Study" by the Associated Press Managing Editors Association that found 44 percent surveyed "would like to be at a different paper in the next year." Nearly two-thirds of those aged 18 to 34 reported wanting to leave their jobs.

Even at the nation's best papers, it's all too easy to find discontent in the newsroom. "The suburbs suck the life out of you," said one reporter at the Los Angeles Times. "Sure, I'm at the L.A. Times, but not on a promotion track. They don't care. They just want foot soldiers."

Inevitably, some reporters with talent, luck, and perseverance do advance to interesting assignments in big cities, the nation's state capitals, and Washington. Some even get to write opinion columns, and a small number make it abroad as foreign correspondents. Hitting the beaches of strange lands, these reporters form an elite corps. They are relatively few, and justifiably proud.

The unfortunate truth of journalism in the 1990s, however, is that these exciting options, especially foreign correspondence, are out of reach for many reporters in print, radio, and TV. Real career advancement following the traditional path is a long and arduous journey. If you play the career game by conventional rules, odds are you could easily be stuck in one Plainville or another for years to come.

"There are two ways to become a foreign correspondent," advised Clayton Jones, who reported from Asia for eight years and is now international news editor at The Christian Science Monitor. "Either you hope to rise up in an organization and get sent abroad. Or you go and string."

Those journalists willing to head abroad on their own can and do find great opportunities. Steady work as a freelance foreign correspondent is challenging, rewarding, and available right now. With a little imagination and careful planning, an escape from Plainville could be just around the corner.


Stories of such escapes abound. Dan DeLuce spent three dull years toiling unappreciated at a suburban weekly in Sacramento, California, then worked for a year at the tabloid Sacramento Union. Desperate for more professional satisfaction, DeLuce (nephew of the retired Associated Press reporter of the same name) quit in 1990 to go freelance in Prague. Arriving two years before Prague became a trendy destination for young Americans hanging out in Eastern Europe, DeLuce became The Washington Post's stringer in what was then Czechoslovakia. When the Balkan crisis broke out in 1992 he started taking the train to Croatia to file stories for various American papers. Eventually, he was hired by Reuters full time to help cover the conflict from Belgrade, and in December 1996 was promoted to Reuters bureau chief in Sarajevo.

In 1991 Lawrence Sheets was a waiter in Chicago whose only journalism experience was in high school, having gotten his start as a teenage Clark Kent on DeWitt Middle School's Wee Panther Paper. Today he is bureau chief for Reuters in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.

How did this happen? With a joint degree in Russian and International Relations from Michigan State University, Sheets was tired of waiting tables. Looking for a change and wait-listed at several top law schools, Sheets began to consider a career in journalism.

Put off by the thought of starting out at a suburban weekly, Sheets headed for Prague in late 1991. He thought he might teach English and try his hand at freelancing.

He never made it. On a stopover in Moscow to visit friends from college, he was caught up in the final, dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union. As political tensions mounted, Sheets sensed opportunity. When the nation appeared to reach a breaking point, he went knocking on the door of almost every American news outfit in Moscow, résumé in hand. Fluent in Russian, he had something to offer. A harried editor at NBC, which at that time was a partner with Reuters Television in a video news service called VisNews, was short-handed; several of his staff were out sick. With the world's greatest communist power crumbling to pieces, he needed help. Within 24 hours, Sheets had a job at $10 per hour — more than some Russians made in a week.

"The Soviet Union was falling apart. I started work in mid-December 1991. Gorbachev resigned on December 25. There was civil war in Georgia. I came in every single day for the next three weeks," Sheets recalled.

That first day he sat before a clunky, black, manual Cyrillic typewriter, banging out customs clearance forms for equipment coming in from London. Within a week he was out translating for a film crew, crowds screaming in frustration as the price of bread — deregulated overnight — soared out of reach. "It was complete chaos. The country was on the verge of collapse. People were screaming at me — they wouldn't let me out of the store. It was a good break-in experience."

Another success story is reporter Todd Bensman, who — after more than a hundred rejections from newspapers — scraped together enough money trimming palm trees in Phoenix to launch himself abroad in Eastern Europe. First from Prague and then from the Croatian city of Zagreb, he filed regularly on the war in Croatia and Bosnia for major U.S. and Canadian media. Today he is back in the United States, reporting for The Dallas Morning News.

Once spinning their wheels in their own respective Plainvilles, these journalists became successful foreign correspondents because they had the guts to take a chance. Nobody offered to send them abroad; indeed their journalism prospects in the United States were mediocre at best. Yet they had the imagination, skills, and sense of self to jump-start their careers abroad. They went for it, and they won.

"What do you have to lose?" asks Sheets, urging other ambitious journalists to give it a try abroad. "Twenty more years in Dullsville? You have to be creative in journalism. Nobody's going to throw it in your lap."


The success stories of DeLuce, Sheets, and Bensman are not isolated examples. In fact, many well-known journalists started out as stringers abroad. Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Stephen Hess, in his book, International News & Foreign Correspondents, cites some of the big names: Daniel Schorr, Elie Abel, Stanley Karnow, Robert Kaiser, Elizabeth Pond, Allen Pizzey, Caryle Murphy, and Sheryl WuDunn all started out abroad as freelancers. So did Alan Riding of The New York Times; Sylvia Poggioli, a familiar voice from abroad on National Public Radio (NPR); Cokie Roberts of ABC-TV; and Loren Jenkins, NPR's foreign editor. Jenkins freelanced from Spain for Newsweek and The Washington Post and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, as a Post staff correspondent, for his coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Even Winston Churchill moonlighted as a freelance foreign correspondent when he was a young man, filing stories for a London newspaper while soldiering in the Sudan in 1898. Coincidentally, this was only a few years after the word "string" first appeared in a dictionary as a journalistic term, describing proofs of text pasted on long strips of paper. At the end of each day, the typographers were paid based on the length of their "strings" — i.e., how much copy they had pasted up that day. The term "stringer," referring to journalists, didn't appear in print until January 1952, in Time magazine.

Moving abroad to string can be a great opportunity for personal and professional growth, but it's not for the faint of heart. Even for people with significant overseas experience, setting off to become a foreign correspondent can be a daunting prospect. But if tackled in the proper manner, starting a freelance career abroad is eminently feasible.

Aspiring foreign correspondents should answer several questions before deciding to move abroad to freelance (a worksheet of these questions appears in appendix 1: Is Freelancing Abroad Right for You?). One of the most important questions is: what are your professional goals? Dan DeLuce and Lawrence Sheets sought to escape suburbia for the excitement and challenge of reporting on dramatic, wrenching changes taking place after the Cold War. By contrast, Todd Bensman simply felt that his career — which had included earlier stints on small papers in Arizona and Alaska, and a previous abortive foray abroad — needed rescuing. "I went overseas to save my career and to advance it," he said. "I had to do something dramatic." Still other journalists head abroad for purely personal reasons, as they shadow a spouse or partner whose work takes them overseas.


Excerpted from The World on a String by Al Goodman, John Pollack. Copyright © 1997 Al Goodman and John Pollack. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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