Overseas Press Club

Overseas Press Club Foundation
Encouraging the next generation of foreign correspondents

40 West 45 Street, New York NY 10036 USA| 201.493.9087 | foundation@opcofamerica.org



So you want to be a foreign correspondent?
Here’s what you should know

By William J. Holstein
resident of the OPC Foundation

Also, Nicholas Kristof

The world has changed. When I joined United Press International in the 1970s, news organizations would invest several years in grooming the young talent. I had three years in Lansing, Mich., and then three years in New York before transferring to Hong Kong in

It rarely works that way these days. These days, editors and producers have cut way back on their networks of on-staff correspondents abroad. It’s all about economics. So if you’re serious about being a foreign correspondent, here are some tips on what we’ve learned from the winners of the OPC Foundation scholarships.

Study a language. It didn’t used to be essential. I transferred to Hong Kong without speaking a word of Chinese. But it is increasingly vital in today’s climate to have some facility with a language.

Manage your finances. Depending on where your interests lie (i.e. Paris vs. New Delhi, you should save enough money to live in your target destination for a few months. You can’t expect to start earning money immediately.

Local English-language newspapers. These exist in many capitals, ranging from Phnom Penh to St. Petersburg. They don’t pay much, but they are a great way to get started. You can get some income, learn more about the local scene and develop some

Strings. You almost certainly can combine that type of job with a string for a U.S.-based publication. It might be that the bureau chief of the Associated Press or Reuters will test your work, which is one established path. Or you might be able to develop strings with states-side newspapers, magazines, newsletters, online sites, etc.

Developing strings. Your goal is to ultimately get on staff with a major news
organization. If you start stringing, the next step is to push for a monthly retainer. If the news organization is willing to do that, it means they value your work. Then the next step, after say 12 to 18 months, would be to ask to be put on staff. Ultimately, if things work out well, you could come back to the U.S. and take a staff job with the full package. It’s also possible, if you’re really good, to get a full-time staff position while in the field.

Multiple strings. This is smart. You’ve got to make sure that your strings are not competitive with each other. So maybe you string on hard news for one outlet, but nurture your interest in science, the environment, culture or business for other outlets. It’s hard to survive economically on just covering hard news, at least at first.

Be multiple media. This is also a good idea. You may have a print relationship with one
outlet but an online, audio or television connection with someone else.

Managing relationships with editors and producers back home. It’s smart to meet the decision-makers while you’re still in the States. None of them will make a commitment to pay you for anything. You’re just establishing name-face recognition. It’s only when you’re on the ground and have learned a few things that they will want to test you. It would also be smart to meet with your editors/producers on any trip you make back to the U.S. Try to develop the relationship.

Living costs. Obviously, be prudent. Don’t adopt a lifestyle that chews up money. Be pragmatic. Sometimes it makes tremendous sense to get an “anchor tenant” that is business or economic in nature. Patty Kranz of BusinessWeek jokes that she got started
in her early days in Moscow by writing about fertilizer. But that paid enough of the bills that she could develop a relationship with BW over time. In general, there is stronger demand for business and economic information than there is for coverage of wars and pestilence.

Take care of your health. If you’re intrigued by the developing world, make sure you get the necessary shots. Be careful about what you eat and drink. Don’t pick up a strange parasite that will haunt you for months or years. Access to medical care could be spotty if you’re in a strange place.

Pay attention to the risks. I felt immortal on my trips into dangerous places like Afghanistan and the southern Philippines. But that was a different era. Today American journalists are targets in some places, not all. Travel with a buddy or two. That’s one mistake that Danny Pearl made in Pakistan. He went to meet the wrong person all by himself. Obtain a non-U.S. passport if you can. Get networked locally so that you develop sensitivity to who the good guys and the bad guys are. Hang out with older, more experienced correspondents to soak up knowledge. They’re willing to share if you make for good company.

Copyright ©2007 Overseas Press Club Foundation