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Monday, August 10, 2009
Freelance Toolbox

Find your way to foreign correspondence

By Michael J. Jordan

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — All foreign correspondents have a tale of their big break: the story that, in the eyes of editors back home, suddenly transformed them from a dreamer who only talked about the overseas reporting they wanted to do into someone who’s proven they can deliver the goods.

My break came in spring 1995, amid the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia. My story: the babies abandoned by the Bosnian Muslim women whom Serb paramilitaries had raped. Rape as a war crime.

My journalistic journey had begun years earlier. I was the son of Cold War refugees from Hungary and Egypt, and my professor father often took us along to international conferences. I, too, wanted foreign adventure. There are essentially two ways into foreign correspondence: Climb the ladder at a major newspaper, win awards and seniority, await the vacancy of a plum post overseas. Or strike out on your own, pushing through the back door.

I chose the latter. Who knew where my interests would lie 10, 20 years down the road? I’d enjoyed three years of small-town newspapering in California, ingesting my share of city council and school board meetings, police and fire emergencies, Rotary dinners and local parades. I wanted more. I was 24, but I wanted to write about an entire country.

My moment came in 1993. A fellow reporter described an acquaintance in Prague, in the former Czechoslovakia, reporting for an English-language paper.

Prague, though, didn’t make sense; my father’s birthplace, Budapest, was more logical. A young cousin there arranged for me to teach English at her high school for the school year. It seemed reasonable: settle in, acclimate, get my bearings. After the school year, I approached the English-language Budapest Sun, taking weekly assignments that enabled me to explore Hungary. My confidence grew.

Now networking among other Western journalists in Budapest, I snapped up their hand-me-down overseas clients. My first two: a Warsaw-based property magazine, and the Dublin-based East European Accountant magazine. Yes, some topics made my eyes glaze over. But it enabled me to publish in new venues, live off my freelancing and understand the region better.

Still, I hadn’t yet “parachuted” into another country to do reporting.

The most obvious target was the war in Bosnia and Croatia, raging not far away. Worried I might regret never tasting war reporting, I brainstormed five pitches. As it was the pre-Internet age, I snail-mailed them, then followed with a costly call to the editor — an investment I had to make.

Yet, some editors saw right through me: I was broaching a trip into a war zone, with no clips to indicate I’d ever done so. In one, I vowed to investigate Ukrainian U.N. peacekeepers accused of trafficking drugs and prostitutes. How to do this? Let me get the assignment first.

Call after call ended in failure. Then, an epiphany — involving a tiny fib. Headed to another dead end, with the Miami Herald, I offered: “I’m going down there anyway. Any story you’d like me to look into?” The editor had reported from Bosnia earlier in the conflict, when word of rape-as-war-strategy first surfaced. He wondered: “What happened then?”

I pounced. No guarantee of publication. No cash to cover expenses. No problem! I dropped all other ideas. I bought a train ticket for the seven-hour trip to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, found a cheap hotel and a college student to translate. I spent $600 out of pocket — for me, a bundle.

More important, after thorough research before my trip, I found a Zagreb orphanage that cared for Bosnian Muslim babies abandoned by their victimized mothers and interviewed care-givers, psychologists, the Bosnian embassy and an American scholar who’d documented thousands of reported rapes.

A month later, the Herald was running my article. Oh, and I’d get $200 for it. The money didn’t matter. You couldn’t put a price on what I’d acquired: credibility. Whenever I’d pitch a future trip, I’d casually volunteer a writing sample. No need to note it was my only sample.

Later that year, I became the Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Budapest. Fourteen years on, I’m still at it, having reported from 25 countries, for the Monitor and many others.

The lessons I learned from that first trip resonate today, too, as I juggle family, teaching and three to four reporting trips a year. Invest in yourself, even for no immediate reward, like any entrepreneur. Persist, even in the face of rejection (easier said than done). Do your homework, prepare sufficiently, deliver the goods. And lastly, have the self-confidence you can do this, and you will find a way somehow.

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