Sara, a 2005 English graduate from UCL, has spent the past year working as a freelance foreign correspondent in Cairo, Egypt. Below she tells us more about this and answers questions to help Bristol students and graduates considering a similar career.
After leaving university, I first completed a six month internship at the press office at UNICEF, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, where I helped to organise events and campaigns and worked to boost media coverage of the organisation’s work. After gaining work experience at The Sunday Times, I became a trainee at the paper and later gained a job on the world news desk where I worked as a reporter and researcher for four years.
In my current job, I am based in Cairo where I write news and feature articles for several UK newspapers and magazines. It has been an amazing experience to live abroad, learn more about Egyptian culture and follow the aftermath of the Arab Spring here, particularly witnessing the country’s first democratic elections and all the changes that has brought with it. Being a freelancer has given me the chance to work for many different organisations and develop new skills, such as getting into radio broadcasting. It also allows me more freedom to work on stories that I am interested in.
How did you get your job?
I realised that in order to progress within my chosen career I was going to have to take a risky move and quit a stable desk job in London to brave going it alone. I arrived in Cairo with very few Egyptian contacts or resources, it was a scary but invigorating experience and within a matter of weeks (to my relief!) I gained a fairly substantial amount of work.
How did your degree help?
Having a degree helped improve my writing style and my ability to analyse and use information I gained to form a coherent argument – both essential skills for my current job. I also feel I benefited from having read widely during the course of my literature degree both in terms of the greater overall cultural and historical awareness this has given me as well as learning about different styles of writing. I think that no one can really become a good writer without reading widely.
Did your time working for a newspaper help you to set yourself up as a freelance correspondent?
I think having worked at The Sunday Times before coming to Egypt helped me a great deal by ensuring I had a deep understanding of what news stories would be likely to interest the British press. I also built up relationships with journalists and foreign correspondents at the paper as well as freelancers that we used living abroad and I was lucky enough to be able to ask their advice about starting out and for tips on who to contact about freelance work opportunities at different publications.
Are language skills essential for foreign correspondents?
People often assume that language skills are a must if you want to be a foreign correspondent, but that’s far from true. Many people become successful overseas reporters without ever speaking much of the local language – the key is to find a proficient translator. I do speak Arabic as well as some intermediate Spanish and French and there’s no doubt this has helped immensely, particularly during my time in Cairo, if only in terms of cutting down on the cost of a translator but that means often working alone and often being accompanied by a local who is familiar with the area and regional customs can be a great advantage.
What advice would you give anyone else wanting to get into foreign journalism?
As getting into journalism is so competitive you need to make sure you get lots of work experience to prove your dedication to the profession. During a work placement pay close attention to the types of topics that interest that particular media outlet so that you can pitch ideas that will impress them. If you are thinking of going abroad, choose somewhere newsworthy, where there is likely to be a lot going on, investigate where most papers have staff correspondents and where they might be able to use a freelancer. It also helps to choose somewhere where the cost of living is low. Before choosing to go freelance, I set up meetings with editors at several newspapers and magazines to discuss what kind of stories they would be interested in taking from me. It also helps if they can put a face to a name when you call in from thousands of miles away!
Any work experience tips?
Many journalism work experience opportunities are advertised on websites such as journalism.co.uk and GorkanaJobs.com. It is also worth contacting newspapers and magazines directly by writing to the managing editor or editor of a particular section including details of why you’d be interested in working for that section. If you do not hear back, do follow up with a phone call, newspaper offices can often be somewhat erratic. While daily newspapers are often oversubscribed, Sunday newspapers and regional publications are sometimes less busy.
Final note from the Careers Service:
The Guardian Careers Blog has a number of useful posts with tips for aspiring journalists. See, for example, ‘Working in journalism: what I wish I’d learned at university’ and ‘Finding journalism work experience and opportunities on Twitter’.