The aspiring freelance journalist faces many challenges, not the least of which is survival: The aspiring journalist’s stateside career prospects are not good: “It’s an employer’s market and both editors and reporters know it.” If a reporter quits, there’s always another hopeful, waiting in the wings.” World on A String makes this abundantly clear.
“According to annual surveys by Ohio State University’s School of Journalism, less than 20 percent of 1990’s journalism graduates get jobs in newspapers, magazines, wire services, radio, TV, or cable TV. The rest find work outside of journalism, continue their schooling, or remain unemployed.” “Generally newspapers add staff positions only occasionally, and then most commonly in suburban bureaus far from the bustling big-city newsrooms of popular imagination. As a result, many reporters who get these jobs have little face-to-face contact with key downtown editors, making it much harder to build the relationships necessary for a promotion.”
What work an aspiring journalist does get is the most boring beat in town, a situation described in the chapter entitled “Escape From Plainville”. Whether or not this new, second-string reporter feels restless covering stories that are just put in the paper to pacify advertisers or fill space, it is unlikely that the new reporter will meet the important people in the news organization or have much opportunity to distinguish himself/herself in the eyes of immediate superiors. Such a job is dead-end before the first paycheck, and World on A String makes clear that to those who imagined a career covering stories of international importance or following in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein, it is unsatisfying: nearly two-thirds of those in journalism aged 18 to 34 wanted to leave their jobs, according to a 1994 “Journalist Satisfaction” survey by Editor and Publisher.
The solution to this, according to World On A String, is to become your own wire service, a feat allegedly made possible by “affordable laptop computers, speedy modems, and convenient cell phone technology [which] now enable stringers to transmit valuable foreign coverage at an economical price”(economical because the big news bureaus are not paying for your equipment, health benefits or plane tickets).
If one wishes to advance as a foreign correspondent; one is advised by World On A String to go abroad and start out on a freelance basis; rather than trying to advance through the ranks at a stateside newspaper. Start working on a freelance basis for news agencies, magazines, and trade publications; with the implicit promise that if an organization likes your work they could eventually hire you as a regular foreign bureau correspondent. However, the situation that is likely to provide you with freelance employment is also likely to leave you free to barely scrape by: overseas news bureaus are today less likely to hire full-time employees when they can cost “….upward of $150,000 annually for a full-time correspondent, when salary, housing, health care, and education allowances are included. Many newspapers and magazines are no longer willing to bear the expense.” (World On A String, Introduction, p. xix. ) This provides an opportunity to self-employed stringers who can use e-mail and cell phones to file stories, be paid on a story-by-story basis, and as their reputation for good work spreads, pick up more strings for other publications, pass on occasional work to new freelancers, and do something closer to what they wanted to do if they are willing to plan ahead to take the responsibility to find a geographical region that promises to have fairly newsworthy events happening in the near future, avoid taking work directly from established freelancers already in the area, and have the start-up capital to invest in their own kit (laptop computer, cell phone service, etc.). Be advised that if you think you want to follow the career direction proposed by The World On A String, it is impossible to do so on a shoestring. World On A String lists as essentials for the aspiring freelancer of today a much more expensive assortment of equipment than the standard black typewriter and case needed by the foreign correspondent of old, who also faced fewer opportunities to send his story via Telex and was less assured that it would get to its destination or still be news when it got there… this, it is implied, is a reason there were fewer of him.)
When computing your living expenses (see p. 41.) plan to survive without income for “at least two or three months. During this period, you will be living off of savings.” In a foreign city where exchange rates and infrastructural problems may make living expenses much higher than in the United States. “Don’t forget to allow for a security deposit on housing. Then add the cost of your initial outlay for equipment…include the price of an airline ticket to get there, and you have your startup costs.” I can’t help but wonder about the obvious question: if you can get that much money together, why bother to work for a living? The most useful thing World On A String has to offer those who do manage to get freelance careers started overseas is advice on how to keep an accurate, clear record of such things as telephone expenses which can reasonably be billed to a news organization buying stories. The sample invoices, phone logs, etc., are as helpful to the business side of freelancing as the stories of other journalists’ successes or failures are to others’ planning and writing. “Many media won’t pay freelancers until they recieve an invoice so send one promptly if you seek timely payment” is probably a reminder appropriate for those who thought of the excitement of foreign travel and the dictates of good writing, but did not know how to begin to take on the subject of billing.
A very useful part at the beginning of the book tells how to go about assessing the market for freelancers and getting editors to respond. The sections on networking with colleagues and editors, assessing the job market, arranging to pay bills, building a relationship with a host government, and getting press credentials are useful to those who have no idea of how to get started. The book also advises those planning residency abroad to maintain a US bank account, “get a credit card if you do not already have one”, and a reletive or friend to pay whatever bills come your way in the US and accept US currency and responsibility for phone charges. The aspiring freelance journalist not only must feed the new Leviathan, he/she must throw a banquet.
“Turf-jumping” is another subject covered, and you are advised not to do it. Find out before you accept any assignments which Anglophone journalists are established stringers for which publications, and if they would be willing to share the work for a particular organization. “As Moffet discovered, one call to a newsroom isn’t always enough; if you’re dealing with a big organization, you also have to make sure you’re talking to the right person.” If such an arrangement is not possible find an unoccupied niche or a new territory. “The point is that every new correspondent needs the help and goodwill of journalists already working in that country. If you ignore this reality you shoot yourself in the foot.”
Another point of practicality that makes this book recommended reading for people besides journalists who plan on overseas residence or travel is the practical advice about foreign differences in voltages and plugs. Because “worldwide, there are fifty varieties of plug-socket combinations, twenty in Europe alone,” the authors devote a section in the back to a worldwide table of voltages, frequencies, plug and outlet types common in most major countries—Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, Fiji, and Ghana are among the listed, but Vatican City, Monacco, and Andorra are not— if you are going overseas under any circumstances, my advice is for you to Xerox that two-page spread with the line drawings of the major plug and outlet types and country listings—once you have a copy, laminate it—so that you have a convenient guideline available when shopping for adapters and voltage converters.