Colin Freeman: How to set up on your own as a foreign freelance

We’ve all been there. It’s another dreary Monday in the newsroom, you’ve just been bollocked again for something that wasn’t your fault, and just as you dream of telling the news editor to f*** off, you reluctantly remember that compared to those awful ‘normal’careers – banking, the law, drifting into PR – working on a newspaper is still the best job in the world.

Or almost, anyway. Think back to those distant days when you were applying to journalism college, and the answer you scribbled on the form that asked: ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?’If you’re anything like I was, you didn’t put something realistic like ‘deputy news editor’or ‘transport reporter”. Instead, you put ‘foreign correspondent”, one of those glamorous John Simpson types, only to realise within a few years how hard that dream is to achieve.

Yet it can be revived later on, mid-career – not by landing one of those increasingly rare foreign staff postings – but by setting up your own, one-man foreign bureau as a freelance, as I did myself five years ago.

New beat

Drifting nowhere in particular at the London Evening Standard, I handed in my notice and headed off for a new beat covering post-war Baghdad. ‘It’ll be like a backpacking gap year, only more exciting,’I told colleagues. ‘No it won’t,’they said, pointing out that I had no experience of foreign reporting, no contacts – no offers of work, and no hostile-environment training, other than the daily shifts in the newsroom.

Yet, five years on, here I am, back from Iraq, alive and having spent some of the best years of my professional life out there. But you don’t necessarily have to go to a warzone to get away from it all. Those who’d rather do the journalistic equivalent of A Year in Provence have options too – as long as you follow a few golden rules, it’s possible to make a living almost anywhere.

The very nature of modern newspapers stack the odds in your favour. For one, communicating is infinitely easier these days: email, Skype and mobile phones mean the days of spending huge bills trying to get through to some commissioning editor in London are long gone. For another, the fact that many media outlets have shut their full-time foreign bureaux over the years means there’s much more demand for freelances, especially ones who come house-trained in a British newsroom, and understand what an ‘editor’s must’is.

So where do you go? The obvious answer is wherever interests you, although bear in mind that some places are more newsworthy than others.

Argentina, for example, might be great for honing your Spanish and wine-tasting skills, but compared to the Middle East it’s a bit quiet.

As one editor I know once famously remarked: ‘Latin America could sink and nobody would notice.’

That doesn’t rule it out though, it’s just that you might have to expand your portfolio to travel, business and even specialist magazines – one of my proudest cuttings from Iraq is from Laundry Cleaning Today, all about the Territorial Army’s mobile bath and laundry unit.

As a good indicator of how fruitful a patch might be, take a look through a newspaper archive to see how many good running stories there are. But remember that you aren’t just confined to that particular country. A stringer in Bangkok will do the whole of south-east Asia, a stringer in Johannesburg might cover the whole of southern Africa.

True, whether you make much money or not will be down to you. But one thing you will be guaranteed is a sense of adventure that reminds you what journalism is all about. And, if my own experience is anything to go by, some good pub tales too, such as the day I got shot in the arse by a Mehdi army militiaman down in Basra. But that’s another story, for which you’ll have to buy my book (remember, good freelancing is also about salesmanship).

Colin Freeman is now chief foreign correspondent on The Sunday Telegraph. His book about freelancing in Iraq – The Curse of the Al-Dulaimi Hotel (And Other Half-Truths from Baghdad), will be published by Monday Books later this summer

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