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Tag: Journalism

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Foreign Correspondent

When you turn on the TV or open the international section of the newspaper, it always says that so-and-so is the foreign corespondent. It sounds very grand and prestigious. But i’s actually a lot easier than you think to become a foreign correspondent… depending of course where you live, and for whom. During the long miserable years I lived in London, I had a niche for myself writing weekly columns for several newspapers as their London correspondent. I would write 1200-word pieces every week on (a) culture (b) general life and (c) travel tips, and I’d sell the same piece to publications all over the world. This was all done on the back of making a few phone calls, and quick meetings with local editors when I was visiting new York, Rio de Janeiro or Ulan Batur. OK, I’m not saying I was in the top bracket, but I was making money doing something that was fun and only took a couple of hours every week. And I was giving lesser known publications (like the Ulan Batur Herald or the Nairobi Standard a chance at bragging to their readers that they had a man at the ready in one of the greatest capitals of the world.



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Niche

I wrote about this before, but it’s something that has huge application in the media, and in journalism as a whole. If you can develop a niche of expertise for yourself, then editors in specific departments will call on you again and again. I have a friend who writes for food magazines, and she’s very good at it. But she also gets work writing culinary pieces for inflight magazines, for newspapers, as well as blurbs for food companies. Over the years she’s got pretty well known in her field, and is now invited on press trips, which are free trips (usually to exotic destinations) in the hope that she’ll write about the place later. And, even better in my opinion, she gets asked to write culinary books, cause she’s got a track record in the field. When developing a niche, the thing that’s so important is to follow a subject on which you’re passionate. Ask yourself what you’d write about for free. There must be something, whether it’s travel, or food, or railways or even knitting. Then set about thinking where you could pitch stories, and what angles would be good to cover. With the internet it’s much easier than before, and great because you can start at once by writing a blog.



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Pipeline

With experience I learned that it wasn’t good enough writing one article and then starting work on the next when the first was done and dusted. Rather like a basket maker, I gradually refined the process of creation and started a kind of pipeline. There were several articles in production at the same time. The starting point was an ideas file, which I always tried to keep packed full with stuff, gleaned from as many difference sources as possible — newspapers, books, conversations overheard on a bus etc. Then I’d have the research stage. This would be broken down into the planning, and the actual research. Over time, I refined my methods and learned not to do more work than I needed to do. At the beginning, I used to buy and read entire books for an article on, say, Death Row, but gradually honed this process and so the research could be done very well, but much more efficiently. The writing part was always quite easy, and it should be if your research is in place. It’s actually a relief to write the thing. And then I’d either start with the selling, if I was doing it on spec, or send it to an editor if there was an commission. When I was doing a lot of feature writing, I’d have as many as a dozen articles in the pipeline at any one time… all in different stages of development. It worked very well, and taught me to create in a structured way, something that I later used when writing books.



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Pegs

I used to spend all my time dreaming up ideas for articles which I planned to sell. The ideas got better and better. Editors even told me they were great. But no one bought them. Why? Because there wasn’t a reason for publishing. Remember that most magazines and newspapers have limited space. For this reason, they need to be able to qualify why a certain story is going to run. The editor will often have to be ready to defend his choice to his own boss. So enter the idea of the ‘Peg’. It’s simple: If you write an article about London’s Tower Bridge, you may find it hard to sell. Editors will ask ‘Great, but, er, so what?’ But if you work out that it’s the 300th anniversary since the bridge was built and, better still, that there’s going to be an anniversary parade, you have a sure fire seller. Other pegs include political or military acts and anniversaries of any kind. You can get the Media Guide (in the UK) which gives details of up-coming anniversaries. But remember to pitch early. A magazine may work five months in advance, and a newspaper features’ section five or six weeks.



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Rights

 The difference between making $1000 for a story and making $25,000 for the same story is in the rights, and how you sell them. I’ve written already about how I started an agency to sell my books. Well, I used it for selling magazine features as well. The beauty was that, whereas editors will offer what they want to a writer, when they are dealing with an agency, they’re a lot more respectful. As the agent, it’s you who decides the price. And it’s you who chops the world into territories and sells a story again and again, as First British Rights, First Australian Rights and so on. You assign the rights in a contractual letter or a form that the magazine sends. And if you’re a journalist starting out be very careful they the magazine doesn’t assume they are buying all rights. You may have to fight them, but the truth is that they probably don’t even want world rights because they don’t have an active sales’ department. I’ve sold the same article dozens of times, and if you own the photos, you make twice the money again.



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One Man Band

With journalism there’s always a budget for the story… and if you’re smart you’ll try and get as much of that budget for yourself. The best thing you can do is to take the photographs as well, and limit the amount of work others have to do. I have always taken my own pictures, although I sometimes like working with a photographer, to have a travel companion. These days cameras are so amazingly good that you can pretty much point and shoot. I’ll make sure to give some photo notes soon though, as there’s a specific way to take pictures, especially for magazines. It also pays to cut out assistants, fixers, researchers, and all the hangers-on who will take a piece of the pie. The more you can do, the more self-contained you are, and the more money you’ll make.



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Human Interest

Whether you’re writing books or journalism, the best way to engage the reader is to write about people. In journalism it’s usually called ‘Human Interest’. It works in a way I can’t really explain, except to say that people are interested in other people. It’s what makes us who we are. If I’m given a wadge of research about a bomb attack in, say, Gambia, I search through and put aside most of the numbers and statistics. I can slot a few of them in, but they don’t tell the story. What I do is to look for a person, someone with whom my readers can identify, someone who’ll tug at the heartstrings. If you don’t believe me, read any article in the tabloid newspapers and they always lead on a person, rather than on figures. Start with the human, and spiral out, telling the story, weaving in a few facts, conflict and so on. It works every time.



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Start Small

There’s nothing wrong with starting small. Actually, it’s a fine place to begin. Before I wrote books, I wrote for airlines’ magazines and was paid in airline tickets. Most of these were on Ethiopian Airlines, working for a larger than life publisher called Mohamed Amin. I used to knock out 2000-word articles on just about anything that was politically neutral, usually from the back of my bedroom. The editors lapped the articles up and I had a way to travel, albeit to destinations on the Ethiopian destinations’ chart… most of which were off the scale amazing to someone who wanted real adventure. The other thing to do – if you’re really serious – is to get a job on a local newspaper. It’s without doubt the best way to learn your craft as a writer. You handle all sorts of stories and learn the human interest angle in ways that no other training will teach. What’s so important with any craft is to have a strong foundation, and there’s no stronger one than learning at the grass roots.



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Spec

Perhaps I ought to have written this posting before. It’s something that’s really shaped the way I work. As I think I have said previously, I work when something interests me, and never because of the money I may or not make from it. When I was breaking in and had no clips, I would send stuff to editors ‘on spec’, which means that you have already written it. And then, as I got better breaks, I used to go to the ends of the earth to do stories, and I’d pay for the travel myself, only selling the story when I got back. The reason was that there was always a danger that a hot story pitched to a national newspaper would be pinched and farmed out to one of their staffers. If you believe in it, be prepared to do the work and write on spec. In my opinion, it’s what sorts the pros out from the amateurs. I don’t even have a problem about writing books on spec, and know plenty of authors who only work this way. My advice to anyone who’s listening is to have faith in yourself. Never question it. And then others will believe in you as well.



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A Secret

The thing I like about writing a blog is that I feel as if I’m whispering stuff to friends, stuff that I have been able to keep under my hat for years. And as there’s trust, I’ll let you into a little secret. A while ago, when I was doing A LOT of features’ journalism for national magazines (more on that I guess soon), I used to pitch huge stories. They were usually of an international nature. Indeed, I can’t really think of anything I’ve written about the UK, where I was living at the time. The secret is that used to sometimes pretend that I was already in central Africa, or the deepest, darkest Amazon. I’d call the editorial desk (you can usually call editors collect, and I always did… by the time you are put through to the department, they have no idea where the call came from). To make it all seem a little bit more real, I’d go into the garden with one of those slightly crackly pre-digital cordless phones. I kept one specially for the purpose for years after they went out of style. And I’d crouch in the garden, in the shed, where the reception was real nice and crackly, and I’d pitch from ‘the middle of nowhere’. The reason was because if I was known to have been in London, NW2, no one would have taken me seriously at all.



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