Working overseas is the ultimate dream for many aspiring journalists. Growing numbers are organising work placements on publications beyond these shores, gaining not just valuable practical experience, but also the opportunity to see the world. This is reflected in the number of gap year agencies offering journalism placements in locations as diverse as Ghana, India, China and New Zealand.
But it’s not just students seeking on-the-job experience who find these placements useful. In January, I took time out from my job as a reporter on a weekly magazine to work on a newspaper in southern India. This was my chance to work in an unfamiliar environment and to sample another culture.
My destination was Chennai, where I worked on The New Indian Express, an English language daily sold in the four southern states of India. Working in the features department, I was assigned a variety of tasks, from interviewing a Tamil film star about kidney disease, to editing a colleague’s story on robot sex. My assignments took me on to the city streets where I had to learn how to find my way around and negotiate the chaotic Indian traffic, while avoiding getting ripped off by auto-rickshaw drivers.
Working abroad may be an attractive prospect, but how do you go about setting up a placement in a city where you have no contacts and little knowledge of the media? You can always go down the traditional route of contacting a publication directly. The Times of India is among the publications that offer placements to journalists from the UK.
The downside of organising a placement independently is that you will also have to sort out accommodation yourself, which could mean long stays in hotels or hostels. This is not an ideal long-term arrangement if you’re alone and working in an unfamiliar city. The alternative is to go through an agency. This can be more expensive, with most agencies charging around £1,000 a month, but the fee covers your accommodation. For me, this was a room in a local family’s home. It should also include visas and excursions.
While working abroad offers many benefits, the increasing popularity of these types of internships is leading to a saturation of interns in some workplaces. Sometimes more than one placement agency works with a media partner. If each one sends two interns, the office can get very busy and the work spread too thinly.
During my placement I saw this first hand. For the first two to three weeks I was the only overseas intern in the office. This meant that it was easy for me to establish myself as part of the team. Halfway through my placement I was joined by seven others from Britain and a girl from Canada. We had to compete with one another, and also permanent members of staff, for the editor’s attention and for bylines.
All interns have the challenge of integrating with permanent staff. Where there are large groups of overseas interns there is a temptation to retreat into the company of your compatriots. This can cause resentment from permanent staffers, especially if you are already taking most of the juicy assignments.
When I arrived at The New Indian Express, I chose a desk next to the reporters and the production desk so I would be in the thick of things, not on the margins with the other interns. Another thing I did to integrate better with the team was to eat with staff members. This was a good way of picking up tips, feedback and, of course, the office gossip.
While working on an Indian daily may sound more exciting than a week on your local paper, the reality can be grittier than the glamorous dream. But with a bit of effort and careful planning, you can make an impact in your chosen workplace and still have a good time.