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Home > Publications > Quill > Reporting abroad: Tips for working overseas


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Reporting abroad: Tips for working overseas

By Sheila B. Lalwani

The day started with skepticism . . .

“Reporting fellowship opportunity for young U.S. and Austrian journalists,” the e-mail subject line said. Spam, I figured. People like to fool journalists.

For some reason, my index finger reached over to the left side of the mouse and double-clicked.

“Report from Austria for six weeks next spring as part of the U.S.-Austria Journalism Exchange Fellowship Program,” the e-mail said. The International Center for Journalists, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that trains journalists, set up the program.

I applied, was accepted and began to prepare. Writing stories for Austria’s Die Presse presented a formidable challenge. (Read: I would have to write stories in German!) Not everyone gets international reporting fellowships, and those who do naturally want to make the most of them.

That leaves the core question: How do you make the most of your experience in a foreign country?

Be flexible

This is the best advice I can pass along. A few months ago, I talked with Gary Swanson, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, who has traveled extensively in his career. During one trip to China, he remembered an American woman who cried out for her personal space in a crowded subway. She caused a scene, attracted unpleasant attention to herself and didn’t get her “personal” space anyway.

“Here was a woman who was inflexible,” Swanson told me. “Understand that things are not going to be the way they are in this country.”

Load up on gizmos and start a blog

Consider yourself a low-tech person? Change that. Buy a digital camera, recorder and laptop, if you don’t have them. Know how to use the machinery, too. Editors love visuals.

When you arrive at your host country, buy a cell phone. My first weekend in Vienna I found a cell phone from a small Turkish cell phone vendor, paid 30 euros, activated the phone and never looked back. Having a cell phone made me more accessible to sources and colleagues. Plus, I felt safer at night.

Having a blog provides a fun venue for recording your experiences. I launched www.worldonalink.blogspot.com before I departed for Vienna. The other fellows did the same.

Take time to learn the language

The old saying, “The more you know, the further you go,” holds true. I studied German in high school and college, but I’m less than perfect when it comes to speaking the language. Still, I know enough to conduct interviews.

During one interview with immigrants, we spoke German to one another. We understood one another, and I think it helped build rapport with the other students.

Moral of the story: Shell out of a few hundred dollars to achieve even a basic language level. It’s worth it.

Try to develop a support system

There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you are new.

A buddy can show you where to find the bank, ATM, grocery store, etc. Several colleagues helped me find places in and around Vienna. One evening, a colleague dropped his work to help me find the right train out of town.

Realize that not everybody is dying to help you. If someone does help you, make sure they know you appreciate it. During my last week at Die Presse, I brought everybody chocolates.

Research U.S. media outlets

Your home news organization may allow you to freelance for other publications while you are abroad. This is a great way to get a little extra out of your experience.

Determine who else from the U.S. is practicing journalism where you are located. If organizations send reporters to that country, chances are they are interested in that region. Pitch stories to them.

Be prepared for rejection

Even with the best of reporting on your side, you may not be able to publish your freelance story.

I came up with what I thought was a good story pitch to an American newspaper regarding Austrian efforts to launch a language program for immigrants. The newspaper seemed interested, but the editor backed down a few days later.

Another news service ended up buying the story. I got lucky.

Think globally, act locally

Many overseas fellowships skew toward print journalists, but broadcast journalists also have opportunities to go overseas. If you are a broadcast reporter, seek out opportunities for these fellowships and try to freelance stories for local radio and television stations on the side. Swanson says a clip or segment published or broadcast in a foreign news outlet is valuable.

“If you are publishing in a foreign publication or show, that just shows you’re able to operate on an international scope,” he says.

Determine whether you want to get paid for every story

This is a tough one. You’re a professional. The reporting is solid; the writing good. The problem: The place doesn’t want to pay you.

See if you can negotiate something — can they pay for your freelance expenses? Would they settle for a smaller fee? Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

Going overseas to report can fundamentally transform the outlook of a young journalist. American journalism, especially American newspapers, are undergoing a serious soul-searching period. Economic realities have forced American newspapers to trim or cut international news coverage.

Bottom line: This is a great opportunity. Make the most of it.


Sheila B. Lalwani was one of two American journalists selected to participate in the first-ever U.S.-Austria Journalism Exchange Program through the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. While in Austria, she wrote for Die Presse, a prominent newspaper based in Vienna.

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