I liked to keep abreast of current events. I liked learning from the stories of others. He was competitive by nature and also very curious. On top of all that, I even liked to write.
Yet when I started my first job in journalism at age 22, as the editor of a short-lived English-language business magazine in Egypt, I never thought a career in media would hold. Furthermore, it was a chance to earn a few hundred dollars a month while learning Arabic and hanging out with friends in Cairo bars overlooking the mighty (and rather dirty) Nile.
“I like to write, but I definitely don’t want to be a REPORTER. You know, the type of person who does interviews and goes to press conferences,” I wrote in a journal at the time.
Fast forward five years, and now I have a book dating exactly about that, my life as a foreign correspondent in a country I never dreamed I would call home, Yemen.
How did I become a freelance foreign correspondent?
While there have been some hard bumps along the way, and there are parts of journalism that really, I mean In fact — I don’t like it, and I’ve definitely embarrassed myself in front of editors (“What’s graffiti?” I once asked the foreign editor of the San Francisco Chronicle during a phone conversation), I wouldn’t trade this life for anything else.
That’s what being a freelance foreign correspondent turned author has become: a life. He is far from a 9-5. He’s all encompassing, and in the end it was exactly what he wanted.
Besides, it wasn’t as difficult as one might think to get here. At least not conventionally difficult. Living somewhere with little electricity while trying to file stories for the New York Times was hard, but getting the job wasn’t.
Learning the tricks of the trade.
After I started copyediting work at the magazine in Cairo, I was talking to a friend of a friend at a party late one night over a bottle of duty-free Jameson.
Do you speak Arabic. You’re young. You should! Why not?” he encouraged. This twenty-something American, Steve, was a freelance correspondent writing for publications like the Christian Science Monitor. He would be moving back to the United States shortly and so, he said, he was happy to tell me about the Tricks of the trade I emailed him the next day, getting over my headache, and asked if we could meet for coffee.
That’s when Steve taught me how to pitch a story. All he needed was a good idea and the ability to write, he told me. That’s all. He didn’t need to go to journalism school, though he did, and he didn’t need any fancy credentials.
Notably, the fact that we were abroad made my beginnings in journalism even more possible. The playing field was smaller. That’s why When recent graduates ask me how to start a career in journalism, I often tell them to move abroad and find a job with the local English-language press.because I know if they’re smart enough they’ll figure it out from there.
[bctt tweet=”Want to be a journalist? Move abroad and work for English-language media, says @kasinof”]
Turn ideas into action
Back in Cairo at age 22, I didn’t think following Steve’s advice would be easy, but it was. He was full of ideas.
What was interesting about life in Egypt? That young Egyptians used Facebook to organize politically in a country where other avenues for free expression were cut off. Another: that Iraqi refugees who worked for the US military during the invasion are now being denied resettlement in the US.
Make my own lucky break
I can’t say I’m very proud of my clumsy writing from those years, but I was trying. I called the editors and annoyed them and forced them to listen to me. Most important of all, every time I came across a real foreign correspondent, someone established, I showed them that I really wanted to learn. From time to time, one of those people would help me.
That’s how they connected me with the New York Times. A friend in Cairo introduced me to the Cairo bureau chief of the Times. Two years later, he would let me do a job for him. I sat in the small apartment turned newspaper office on a tree-lined street in the Zamalek neighborhood, saw my article in the New York Times, and didn’t believe my eyes.
Then I moved to Yemen and then the Arab Spring started. Protests and hope for the Middle East filled the media, but so did violence. The learning curve skyrocketed. I learned to report because reporting for the Times was a very serious endeavor. I learned how humans behave in conflict, and learned how to navigate interviews with government officials.
My best advice for aspiring journalists.
When recent journalism graduates come to me for advice, they often ask, “How will I know if I have what it takes?”
“The most important thing for someone who is trying to start a career in journalism”, I will tell them (and this advice is valid for anyone who wants to be a writer) “is not to be fear to fail.“Listening to fear when I was in a conflict zone in Yemen was wise. But let him forbid me from putting all of myself into my writing? Never.
Have you ever dreamed of working as a foreign correspondent?
If you’re exploring other writing careers, check out this article to find more options for getting paid as a writer.
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