- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

A class at Mizzou

The latest electronic gadgets in our newsroom are little cameras in the tops of our computer monitors that allow us to “video conference” with other editors and reporters around the newsroom.

My counterpart on the national desk, Ken Hanner, finds it useful for communicating with members of his reporting staff, which is considerably larger than mine and spread around a large part of the newsroom.

Our foreign desk staff, on the other hand, is tightly clustered within easy earshot, so I had never found any practical application for the device until last week. That was when I was asked to address a class at the University of Missouri Journalism School about how we handle international news at The Washington Times.

A technically adept young man from “Mizzou,” as the students like to call it, phoned me earlier in the day and talked me through a few steps to set up an account that would allow us to get connected.

When the time came, it took just seconds to set up a link that allowed me to sit at my desk here in Washington and look out at the bright and shiny faces of a class of eager journalism students in Missouri. More disturbingly, the class was subjected to a full hour of a close-up of my face.

I explained a lot of the things I discuss in this column — how we deploy our reporters and freelance “stringers,” how we aim our coverage at the foreign policy community in Washington, how we address the challenges posed by the Internet and its growing popularity as a source of news.

But the students’ questions kept coming back to a subject that always seems to be of great interest to aspiring young journalists: “How do I go about setting myself up as a stringer in a foreign country?”

Young and eager

My primary piece of advice was to think long and hard before doing it, but if you do, to go to a country that has lots of news and a low cost of living, because it’s a very hard way to earn your keep.

This newspaper typically pays between $150 and $200 for an article. Some papers pay more, especially the British ones, but not a lot more. And very few stringers manage to sell us more than one story a week, if that.

Stringers make it work in a variety of ways.

Some are retired and simply trying to supplement their pensions or savings with a little extra income. Examples are Al Webb in London, who had a long and distinguished career with United Press International, and Richard Halloran, a longtime Asia correspondent and Pentagon reporter for the New York Times, who retired in Hawaii and keeps in touch with Honolulu admirals.

Other journalists are in a country because their husband or wife has been posted there as an economist, foreign relief worker or whatever. The spouse’s income ensures they will not go hungry, but they don’t want to sit around the house so they go looking for work as a stringer.

The only problem, from our point of view, is that these postings tend to last for only two or three years. The stringer then moves away with his or her spouse, and we are back to looking for another correspondent.

Then there are the young reporters, often just out of journalism school, who want to be foreign correspondents and are not willing to spend 10 or 15 years trying to get hired by one of the few organizations that maintains foreign bureaus and then working their way up to qualify for a slot.

To make a go of it, they have to find at least three newspapers in different markets to take their stories. If they can do radio as well, they have a fair chance of success. And if they can catch on with one or two business publications, they are assured of work even when the political news is slow.

These are some particularly brave and enterprising young people, willing to go off to some of the world’s most trouble-prone countries with no assurance of a regular income. It is something I was never willing to do, but my hat is off to them.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.



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