Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson are freelance journalists and hosts of the Freelancing for Journalists podcast. They also teach the 'How to become a successful freelance journalist' online training course. See more details
One of the most important benefits of being freelance is not being tied to a location.
Where you live and who you work for can be completely unrelated. Some will even take this to the extreme, becoming a digital nomad and travelling the globe (current pandemic notwithstanding), pitching and writing as they go.
This is not about travel journalism but about expanding the potential number of places you can work. Having a diverse range of publications or outlets on your list mitigates the risks of relying too heavily on one source of freelance income and expanding beyond the UK can be a great way to do this.
But there are some things you need to bear in mind when developing an international client base. Tapping into global opportunities, juggling time differences, learning to understand a clients’ working practices from afar and, perhaps most importantly, getting paid without being stung with expensive fees are all things to consider.
One of my regular clients is the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the biggest English language newspaper in China, which is based in Hong Kong. I started writing for them after a contact brought me an exclusive health story, based on research conducted in China. I knew it would not sell in the UK, so I had to find a relevant audience.
Through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend I found the health editor’s contact details at the SCMP and pitched the story. It was commissioned and straightaway the editor asked if I had any other ideas. She did not mind that I lived in the UK and had no connection to China or Hong Kong, she was simply looking for good stories and trusted that I could provide them.
My first step was to join a large Hong Kong Facebook community with more than 50,000 very active members. I trawled through the posts to find out what people were talking about and the issues that struck a chord with local residents. I also signed up to a number of global health press release services which Emma had passed onto me.
Through these two sources, I was able to regularly pitch news and feature ideas and have my ear to the ground in both the medical world but also the local, largely ex-pat, community. I found that people in the Hong Kong group were more than happy to be case studies, offer expert opinion or point me towards more resources.
There were, however, some challenges to doing this work, primarily time zones, communication methods and language barriers.
Hong Kong is seven hours ahead of the UK which means I have to email the editor early in the morning to catch her at the end of the day. It also means I have to time my Facebook posts accordingly, usually to hit Hong Kong in the early evening when more people appear to be checking their social media.
Some interviews have to be conducted very early in the morning or late at night and sometimes I have to resort to emailing questions if we cannot make the times work. I have also found that the Hong Kong community is a very mobile one, so often case studies will be in another part of the world just as I want to interview them. This means getting my head around completely different time zones.
The biggest - and most expensive - learning curve has been how to make calls.Lily Canter
Frequently I have to contact scientists around the globe who may have conducted some research in China before returning to Scandinavia or central Europe. Sometimes there is a language barrier or a strong accent which is difficult for me to understand, so if I am unsure of any details, I email quotes or facts to the expert to check before filing my copy.
The biggest - and most expensive - learning curve has been how to make calls. I once rang an expert in Spain, wrongly thinking the call would be free, and racked up a £50 phone bill. I then realised that calls were only free if I was in Spain calling back to the UK.
Another time I thought I was making a call to Malaysia via WhatsApp but because the icon looks similar to the phone call icon, I actually ended up making a £60 phone call.
From then onwards I put a blocker on my phone so I could only make calls that came under my monthly tariff and never be charged any extra. I also made sure I was pressing the WhatsApp or Skype button. Lesson learnt.
Another big issue is getting paid and not being ripped off by bank charges, rubbish exchange rates or payment fees. Again, I have learnt how to navigate this through trial and error. The first time the SCMP paid me it was straight into my bank account, which meant I lost 10 per cent in hidden charges - even though I was being paid in pounds. I was so furious I wrote an article about it for Moneywise.
I then asked the SCMP if there was an alternative payment method like Transferwise. They did not use this particular service but did allow me to be paid via PayPal and fortunately they cover the fees so I do not get stung by charges.
More recently I have been working news shifts for the American company Yahoo! Finance News. I get paid in dollars using a rather confusing payment system called Work Market. The first time I used it I opted for PayPal but I was not too pleased with the conversion rate. So I opened a Revolut account on my phone, which is linked to my bank account. I now get paid this way and find it has better exchange rates and no fees.
My first foray into working for an overseas publication was to write for a journal that was part of the European Society of Cardiology. It was a truly international experience with my editor in London but the Society based in France and Brussels and interviewing scientists all over the world. Bank account payments came from head office and required a lot of information and complicated account numbers. The amounts (which took ages to arrive) kept on changing and I did not fully understanding why.
That work ended in 2007 when the editor retired but more recently I have been working for a new international client and I can see how things have changed for the better. There is a range of options for getting paid quickly and fairly, and communication is far easier.
The Limbic is an online publication for specialist doctors. Having launched in Australia around four years ago they more recently expanded into the UK. They were looking for experienced freelancers who could cover technical medical issues and came to me asking if I would be interested in doing some regular work for them.
A good knowledge of the publication you are writing for, including the topics they cover and their readership, is always important but quite early on I noted that there is an extra level of editorial complexity when your editor is working on the opposite side of the world. I write news stories to a fairly short deadline but if I have any questions, the time difference (at the moment Sydney is nine hours ahead, in winter it is 11 hours) means you can not get a quick answer from the editor.
I realised that I needed to get a quick handle on the editorial decisions they would make so that if a story turned out to be something different than expected or an interview threw up a stronger topline, I could make that judgment call knowing they would likely be on board.
Organising a face-to-face meeting when the editor was in the UK for a conference made things easier. I travelled from Sheffield to London and arranged lots of other meetings with editors I regularly work for to make it an efficient trip. Being able to chat in person about what the publication is about and share frustrations that only health journalists would understand was incredibly useful. Post-coronavirus you could probably do the same with a Zoom chat.
I have learnt to ask questions about any commissions early to avoid annoying delays.Emma Wilkinson
Through taking the time to overcome the time difference issues, our working relationship is now a very smooth one, despite being almost as geographically far apart as it is possible to be. We have migrated to Twitter DMs for a lot of our chat about this week’s stories and I feel more confident in finding and suggesting stories that my editor may not have come across.
I have learnt to ask questions about any commissions early to avoid annoying delays. We try and coordinate emails to the time when I am waking up and she is finishing her working day. I even picked up extra work covering a conference in London on their behalf – a bit easier than someone making the trip from Sydney.
During coronavirus, the experience of the Australian and UK health systems has been very different and I have been able to help provide an extra layer of understanding which has informed the type of articles we cover.
I still work for lots of UK publications but The Limbic has unexpectedly turned into one of the smoothest working relationships I have and we are now talking about developing a podcast. The best thing is they pay me by TransferWise and I always receive the money with no fee in my bank account within two weeks which always makes me wonder why my UK clients cannot do the same.
Editors around the world are looking for content, fresh perspectives and people who can dig out a good story, wherever they are based.
It is increasingly common for freelance journalists to write for global clients and seek work in unexpected places. This is something we cover in our podcast episode Finances and Getting Paid.
Do not be afraid to pitch to editors abroad, just make sure you know what their audience wants and be fully aware of any cultural differences. A great place to start is this list of 27 sites that pay writers $100 or more.
As more freelance journalists flood the marketplace in the post-pandemic world, there really is no better time to start working locally and pitching globally.
Working as a freelance journalist is not just about generating great story ideas and writing the perfect pitch. Successful freelances also have to be able to negotiate rates, build up contacts and know how to brand themselves. Join an online training course with Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson - click here for details and bookings