While major newspapers, broadcasters and news agencies have staff reporters throughout the world, they also rely on stringers and freelancers to get the breaking story out from abroad.

Some freelancers move from country to country, reporting from wherever they set up home, earning the title of roaming reporter or backpack journalist.

Here are three inspirational stories from roaming reporters living in Africa and Asia. One a print journalist, one a broadcaster, and the third a B2B writer.

There is also advice from the boss of GRN, an agency which finds international freelance reporters for major networks.

This guide contains advice from those in the field, suggestions of how to follow in their footsteps, and details on how much you can expect to earn.

Rob McKee, freelance journalist from Canada, currently living in South Sudan

Rob McKee

Rob McKee comes from a news family. "It's all I ever wanted to do", he said.

Rather than studying at university he opted to go straight into unpaid work experience and worked in radio and TV before taking a role with an NGO.

"I took a job with Journalists for Human Rights. They sent me to Sierra Leone and essentially gave me my own radio station and said 'make it work'."

McKee, who is now 32, spent the next three three years in Sierra Leone. About eight months into his extended stay, in January 2006, he heard reports of a news story unravelling in Guinea. A crippling economic strike had led to civilian protests.

"At the radio station in Sierra Leone we were getting reports of 16 dead today, 32 dead the next."

He decided to go. He bribed his way to getting a visa and sent an email to the foreign editor of a "major paper" in the UK.

"I emailed to say 'just letting you know that I'm going into Guinea, I'll contact you however I can'. The individual emailed me back to say 'forgive me Rob but where's Guinea and what's happening?'

The editor declined McKee's offer of copy and photos.

I just assumed, stupidly, that they would definitely want the story of people streaming across the border with bullet wounds, being tracked down by their own army.Rob McKee
"I had no thought in my mind that people wouldn't what this story. I just assumed, stupidly, that they would definitely want the story of people streaming across the border with bullet wounds, being tracked down by their own army.

"I was floored. But I still thought, I'm going in. I felt as a reporter I couldn't be that close to it and not try and go in."

McKee spoke to Journalism.co.uk from South Sudan. Clearly used to painting a picture with words he described what then happened.

"I took a small video camera, a little bit of money, half a bag of rice and loaded up a Suzuki Sidekick with a driver I knew who was Guinean and we bribed our way across the border. At this time no one was going in, the WFP [World Food Programme] wasn't running flights and the next day was one of the single bloodiest days in Guinea's history.

"It was civilians throwing stones against armies with heavy artillery and automatic weapons. And they cut the crowd in half."

McKee explained how they were driving through makeshift roadblocks when they were ambushed.

"A rock came through the window of my driver and broke his collar bone. I was in the front seat with the window down and a guy picked up a huge slab of concrete, ran at the side of the car and tried to hit me over the head. I put my head between my legs. The driver magically punched the gas and we flew down this little alley way. They opened fire. I looked up and saw them spraying the car infront with gunfire as it was trying to get out."

The car was set on fire and everyone in it was killed.

McKee and his driver were stuck in the capital Conakry for about a week during which time he was able to file reports to the radio station in Sierra Leone where he was training reporters.

When McKee did manage to get back to Sierra Leone he tried to sell the footage.

"I contacted a friend, who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew someone at Reuters. I filed the footage and they were ecstatic. It was some of the only footage to make it out of Guinea at that time."

He barely broke even but tried for more work. Reuters already has a stringer in Sierra Leone so McKee went to the competition. He got in touch with Associated Press who soon asked him to cover a story in the capital Freetown. He started filming footage from war crime cases and elections and was also sent to Liberia.

After three years in West Africa he returned to Canada.

"I hadn't been home for a long time and I was really sick with malaria and typhoid."

He worked in TV in Canada during which time he became "disillusioned with local news in North America".

"I started really missing Africa and really missing the work. I started missing doing stories that really had impact."

An American NGO called Internews hired him as resident journalism advisor for South Sudan where he is now living, freelancing for AP and advising and training around 40 reporters at six different radio stations all of which are straddling the disputed region between Sudan and South Sudan. He says he is equipping journalists "with the skills to hopefully cover stories that were not being covered before".

Although he has impressive language skills for West Africa: he can get by in French, is fluent in West African Creole, and has a fair grasp of three dialects spoken in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, he is now faced with learning languages appropriate to East Africa. He can greet people in the dialects spoken by the two tribes in South Sudan and is working on his Arabic.

He is also in one of the most challenging environments in the world, he explained.

"The conditions are quite harsh. Aside from no running water and rice and beans everyday, it's not even as though there is an outdated media law here, there really are no media laws, so there's nothing for reporters to even fall back on in court. Press freedom is just kind of a thought here, it doesn't actually exist."

But despite being a tough challenge he said he loves the job. "All of those things that I didn't like about working in a newsroom in Canada: the quality of the journalism and what, editorially, some people thought was a news story, those things I don't see here.

"These are real stories. They don't want to do stories on squirrels or if it rains tonight is it going to rain tomorrow and are people buying extra umbrellas."

You can read one of McKee's recent articles, South Sudan: killing for culture, which illustrates the types of stories he is writing.

McKee's advice for aspiring foreign correspondents


McKee advised to gather the skills to work across platforms. "You have to be able to do everything. If you want to be the future you have to be a versatile writer, reporter, editor, videographer and your own financial manager."

"Even if you can sell the work that you do as a roaming reporter, you have to be able to survive until those stories happen and it requires float money."

A good way for journalists to do this is take a media trainer role or position with an NGO while looking for the big stories.

There's no press release with a phone number at the bottom. People here don't what to talk. It requires months of networking and sitting in the crappiest bars and drinking warm beer with people you would never associate with in your home country.Rob McKee
"There's no press release with a phone number at the bottom. People here don't what to talk. It requires months of networking and sitting in the crappiest bars and drinking warm beer with people you would never associate with in your home country. It requires getting to know these people and earning their trust just so you can get the odd tip."

There is also another price to pay. "You better be willing to sacrifice pretty much everything that you have in a western life for an extended period of time. You can't get the story simply by parachuting in for a couple of weeks. And you're isolated and probably not going to be in a capital city.

"If you want to be able to have kids, be around for your kids and live comfortably, it's not here."

How much can TV journalists earn?

McKee explained that he is able to earn around $200 - $500 for a couple of minutes of video footage.

Travis Lupick, Canadian freelance journalist, currently living in Malawi


Travis Lupick, a freelance foreign correspondent living in Malawi

Travis Lupick, 26, is a print journalist and after a period spent in Nepal and Bhutan like McKee Lupick is also currently living in Africa, but he has taken a different path.

In Bhutan he started writing for a local magazine and then caught the attention of an international magazine based out of Nepal.

"I can admit that I visited Bhutan for a girl," he said, explaining he was on a two-week guest visa.

"I quickly fell in with a group of journalists, cosied up to the right publisher in a bar and found myself on a five-month work permit. Once in the country I approached every publication I could. There was a lot of rejection but I was eventually turned on to an international magazine based out of Nepal called Himal as well as Bhutan-based Drukpa and the Journalist."


In Malawi, where he spoke to Journalism.co.uk from, he started in a daily local newspaper and caught the attention of The Africa Report, an international magazine, and News Africa, which then helped him connect with Al Jazeera, "so it was sort of local to regional to international".

"Now with Al Jazeera's name behind me the American and Canadian outlets are paying more attention. But they wouldn't until I got here.

"Just like I used the magazine's office in Bhutan I've been working out of the offices of the Malawi daily newspaper, the Daily Times, to base myself out of and try and sell myself to the international outlets".

This is one model he thinks could work for freelance roaming reporters.

"I think you could make the economics work, working for free in a developing country."

The newspaper provides the base between stories, the contacts to provide context and ideas for other articles which can be pitched afterwards.

One of the more major news events Lupick covered was was when 19 people were killed in riots. "It sounds terrible to say, but it worked in my favour," he said.

Not only did he cover the story but was able to pitch and sell follow up articles for the Star and Al Jazeera, and as there was suddenly increased in Malawi, he was able to report on mining practices in the country.

Lupick's advice for aspiring foreign correspondents


Asked what advice he would give aspiring foreign correspondents he quipped: "It's to turn around and not do it", explaining how tough it is to try and and get by on sporadic freelance work.

With fewer and fewer media outlets willing to pay for foreign bureaus or even for correspondents' long-term placements in specific locations, reporting abroad is, increasingly, a very unstable and quite lonely occupation.Travis Lupick
"With fewer and fewer media outlets willing to pay for foreign bureaus or even for correspondents' long-term placements in specific locations, reporting abroad is, increasingly, a very unstable and quite lonely occupation."

How much can online and print journalists earn?

Asked how you start pitching and discussing money, he said: "You start off willing to take what you can get and work up from there.

"Major international online publications usually start in between $300 and $350 for maybe a 1,000 word article, but give you negotiating room as your relationship continues and you can work up. Then there are separate arrangements for photographs and for photo essays and that sort of thing.

"This year I've sort of taken everything that has been offered the first time around and then once my foot is in the door and I know the editor's name, come back with a negotiating position."

Like McKee he also explained the toll it can take on your personal life. "It's backpack journalism, you're working on your own and I think you have to have a fairly unattached, uncomfortable lifestyle. I don't think it works for the man or woman with the husband or wife and kids back home any more."

Anita Duffin, freelance journalist and copywriter, based in Bali, Indonesia

Anita Duffin, freelance journalist based in Bali

Anita Duffin's story is quite different. After a degree in communications, she worked in marketing, plus did some corporate writing and publicity.

"I had always wanted to be a journalist," she said, and only found the opportunity to write news when, in 2004, she moved from Australia with her then-husband to Macau.

She met the editor of an English-language newspaper on the island during her first fortnight living in the special administrative area of China, close to Hong Kong.

It was at the time when gaming/gambling laws were changing and Duffin was able to use this to her advantage.

And once she had started writing, the work kept coming. "It absolutely exploded," she said, and began writing for papers in Macau and Hong Kong, doing some travel writing, trade stories, articles on gaming for business magazines, people profiles, and features for lifestyle magazines.

Expat life took its toll and her 17-year marriage came to an end. After seven years in Macau Duffin and her two sons had to leave.

"None of us wanted to go back to Australia and I had established myself as a journalist in Asia and had to support two boys."

The three moved to Bali "which made sense as the cost of living is cheaper".

"I've been here two years now and I've never been so busy."

Duffin is writing for various Indonesian magazines, two in-flight magazines, plus still gets work from her contacts in Hong Kong and Macau and continues to edit the island's English-language newspaper six nights a week. She also writes for a travel search engine and has a coffee-table book on Macau coming out.

Asked about earnings she did not reveal details but said she is able to support herself and two teenage boys, including paying for schooling.

It's hard work but it's an adventure. You're constantly challenged and that keeps you creative.Anita Duffin
"It's hard work but it's an adventure. You're constantly challenged and that keeps you creative."

How to get established as a freelance foreign correspondent

One way of getting paid while out in the field is to work through an agency, such as GRN, which connects international journalists with broadcasters around the world. Based in London GRN takes care of the sales and payments side, guaranteeing payment to the reporter within a month.

GRN has been in business for 10 years and has 1,000 freelance correspondents with reporters in 130 countries around the world working for a long list of broadcasters, including CBC, CBS, Fox News and France 24.

Some are locals and others are expatriates, the agency's CEO Henry Peirse explained.

Reporters provide voice or in-vision reports, plus some provide stills and video - not necessarily using high end cameras but to provide an illustration when broadcasters are apprehensive about using both from social media alone.

Some of the freelancers are foreign correspondents working for international titles. Peirse gave the example of how an international staff journalist at the LA Times could then give a phone interview with a broadcaster. The newspaper would get a branded name check and the reporter could earn additional money as there is "no conflict" with the newspaper.

"It's the reporter's intellectual property and they should be paid for it," Peirse said.

How much does GRN pay?


GRN publishes a rate card detailing what they might charge a broadcaster and they then pay the reporter an amount per interview.

"It's a simple principle so that the reporter gets the same amount whether it is the world's largest broadcaster or the world's smallest broadcaster. It is the same level of professionalism required."

GRN's margins vary but reporters can make "several thousands of pounds a day if they hit the right notes," Peirse said.

This requires being in the right place at the right time, of course, and a large number of interviews.

GRN pays £30 for a radio phone interview but may arrange three or four back-to-back, each taking just a few minutes. TV commands double the fee and a Skype interview £125 for a short in-vision call.

Peirse said journalists in a "good location" – such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon or Japan, all of which have been in the headlines this year – may earn "an extra £2,000 to £4,000 a month".

Summary

The lessons from the three roaming reporters seem to be that
becoming a freelance foreign correspondent is not for the faint-hearted and making a living can be hard.

McKee and Lupick in particular suggested it would be extremely tough without some support from an NGO in order to get by between news stories.

But while you are unlikely to become rich in financial terms the wealth of experience and opportunities to work on stories that need telling are limitless.


You can hear more inspiring stories from freelance foreign correpondents in this podcast.
  • Are you a freelance foreign correspondent? Share you thoughts, tips and experiences below.

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