The foreign correspondent industry has changed. So should advice to early career journalists.

by Clothilde Goujard
Nov 16, 2018 in Specialized Topics
Woman journalist

If the media industry has been seeing massive changes in the last decade, one of the jobs that has been the most affected is that of a foreign correspondent. News organizations have closed many of their foreign bureaus, leaving most journalists with international reporting dreams few options but freelancing.

However, making a living as an international freelancer is increasingly unsustainable. With news organizations paying limited salaries and reducing their international coverage, several journalists have pointed out how dire the situation has become for foreign correspondents.

Faced with a changing industry, some journalists have had to leave their overseas career behind while others have taken different roads to continue their reporting.

Megha Rajagopalan, an international correspondent for Buzzfeed News in the Middle East, reached her career goals by choosing a non-traditional path.

“Career paths used to be a lot different for people who were coming up in the 90s even until the early 2000s. But for my generation of Western journalists working abroad, people who entered that field after the 2008 financial crisis, the path has been a lot different,” she said.

While in college, Rajagopalan kept hearing advice that she should start in a newsroom in the U.S., work hard and then eventually, one day, she’ll be sent abroad, which is advice she continues to hear experienced journalists give to younger ones.

“The reality is it generally doesn’t work like that anymore,” she said. “The way we’re giving advice to people who are trying to enter the field should also change.”

Upon graduating from university in 2008, Rajagopalan went to China on a Fulbright fellowship, where she decided she wanted to become a foreign correspondent. After an internship at ProPublica in the U.S., she entered Reuter’s entry-level training program, where her Chinese skills gave her an advantage. From there, she was hired and worked for Reuters in China for four years and changed to Buzzfeed in China in 2016. She recently relocated to  the Middle East with Buzzfeed.

“A number of my friends have taken [the same] path: Start out at a wire service and do a few years there, learn the beat very well and maybe move on to something that's a little bit slower paced,” she said.

Although getting into Reuters’ program was extremely competitive, Rajagopalan said her path had been more stable than freelancing.

Anna-Catherine Brigida left the U.S. right after graduating college and headed to Latin America where she has been freelancing for international publications including  the Washington Post and The Guardian.

“I've been freelancing for almost three years and it's a constant financial struggle,” she said. “I feel like I'm always working, but no matter how much I work, there's always that financial stress hanging over me because the rates are not enough to survive.”

Brigida said she felt the financial burden even when she was young, had few expenses or responsibilities and lived in countries with a low costs of living while being paid in U.S. dollars and U.K. pounds, both which have advantageous exchange rates.

Upon graduating, she realized her only option to become a foreign correspondent was to freelance. As a fluent Spanish-speaker and with experience covering immigration stories in Central America, she moved to Guatemala.

“Speaking Spanish is useful because it's not economically viable now to pay for translators,” she said.

While she had a lot of work, editors sometimes took weeks or months to publish her stories, which delayed her opportunity to invoice, Brigida said. Then accounting departments took more time to pay her.

Next year, Brigida will no longer be on her parents’ healthcare plan, and the extra expense will weigh on her tight budget, which is making her think about her future.

“I feel like full time freelancing for news outlets is never going to lead to economic stability. I don't like that it's that way, and I think the industry needs to change,” she said. “I am now looking into some other options and ways to get part time jobs that would provide more stability.”

In November, Brigada started working as a writer for a newsletter, Migratory Notes, which is one opportunity that will provide a more reliable income. In a recent newsletter, she shared her experience as an international freelancer.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

Thomson Reuters is currently accepting applications for their entry-level training program.