How to Work in Journalism Abroad
Lessons Working for an English-Language Newspaper in Vietnam
Aricle and photos by Eric Thiel
Do you love writing? Do you want to travel the world? Here are my top tips for getting your foot in the door working for an English language paper overseas.
The English language news media in a developing country can provide unexpected and rewarding opportunities for anyone with a knack for writing and editing, as I found during a 6-year odyssey within Vietnam.
With English the lingua franca of international commerce, development aid, and diplomacy, almost every country has an English language publication of some sort. Businessmen, tourists, aid workers and other visitors rely on English publications for everything from new commercial regulations and business opportunities to events featuring local artists and musicians.
Indeed, there is no shortage of opportunity for skilled English language writers and editors. Hundreds of English language media outlets are listed at www.world-newspapers.com. Online papers are listed at inkdropl. Palestine and China each boast no less than 10 English language news sources. Even the most isolated and inward-looking nations have publications in English.
Needless to say, the journalistic integrity of English language newspapers runs the gamut from vibrantly independent to the dour government mouthpiece. But I found that even the latter can offer unexpected rewards.
I began working at the Vietnam News, the country’s main English language paper, in 1995. It was a bedraggled state-run daily, with eight-pages of dry political and economic information. But the country was embarking on a major economic transformation and rapidly moving toward a more open society eager for exposure to western concepts.
The paper grew rapidly in size and became increasingly independent and lively. My responsibilities also grew: in a short time I was editing translated stories and eventually ran my own arts and culture section. In addition to the Vietnam News, I freelanced at weekly and monthly economic, cultural, and literary journals, a radio broadcast and two documentary films.
Here are my tips to finding a position at an English language publication and getting the most out of it.
- Start with solid writing skills. I arrived in Vietnam with a journalism degree, years of work on a college paper, and experience as the founder and editor of a community paper. While you may not need a degree or experience as an editor, you will need strong writing and editing skills. If you are not yet experienced, contact a local paper in your community and see if they will let you volunteer, or pitch them a story that you could write. You can also take writing and editing classes at a local writing center or community college.
- Frequent the expat watering holes. My job at the Vietnam News was not advertised and there was no formal method to apply. I just happened to have a friend who worked there. On any given night after the newspaper was put to bed, the foreign staff of the Vietnam News head across the street to a sidewalk café to unwind and often proceed from there to other expat-oriented bars. Time on a barstool talking to expats, particularly late at night, will inevitably lead you to the journalists. Look for a group just having their first beer at midnight, full of nervous energy that comes from strong coffee and deadline pressure. If you don’t drink alcohol, you can still hang out - just drink a lot of soda or water.
- Show up. At the invitation of an expat friend who worked as a proofreader, I knocked on the door of the Vietnam News. Once my foot was in the door, I chatted up the local editors who soon offered me a chance to prove myself. Even without a friend on the side, don’t be shy about going to the office of the paper where you want to work. Since most jobs are not announced, physical proximity can put you at the front of the line when there are openings
- Plan to start as a volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to build up trust with your new employer and for you to find out if the work is a good fit for you. Work practices might be very different from what you are used to and the work itself might not be what you expected. Volunteering first is a great way to test the waters. In my case, after a few weeks of volunteering (while teaching English on the side), I was offered a job.
- Earn enough for noodles. My bi-weekly pay at the Vietnam News in the early days totaled millions in the local currency but was only equal to about $200, not enough to survive on in the U.S. Fortunately, a bowl of delicious noodles cost well under a dollar and accommodations were cheap as well. As long as you live simply, you may be able to live on a local salary, although many expat editors took on additional work teaching English or moonlighting at other publications.
- Be prepared for hard work in a strange environment. Journalism requires late nights, deadline pressure and low pay familiar to writers everywhere. In Vietnam, there were also foreign microbes, ill-timed power outages, and political taboos to contend with. It is easy to become so engaged with your work that you miss opportunities to travel or otherwise enjoy the country you came to experience. Work hard, but build in some time for play as well.
- Pay attention to visa restrictions. Working long-term in a foreign country will usually require some sort of work visa and you might have to leave the country and come back every six months to renew it. You might also be required to have a sponsoring organization in order to obtain a work visa. In some countries working in the news media might put you under increased scrutiny. I admit, I became lax about my visa… and got away with it for awhile. But after six years in Vietnam, and two years without a proper visa, the authorities caught up with me. I was forced to leave the country. Connecting with expats to learn the ins and outs of visas can help you avoid my fate.
Is working on an overseas paper a career builder? Yes and no. In Vietnam, I was rapidly given journalistic responsibilities that would have taken years of career climbing in my own country. But when I returned home and began sending out resumes, I found that my exotic experience in Vietnam failed to inspire editors and might have put me more at the fringes of the applicant pool. However, my international experience proved highly valuable in getting accepted to graduate school and in landing a job with an international development organization.
Indeed you never know where your experience working at the foreign media will lead you. Make the effort to understand the strange cultural, political and economic concepts and influences behind the news items. In the end you’ll have many new paths available to you within the writing profession and beyond.
Eric Thiel, MA, is a writer, consultant, and social entrepreneur based in Washington, DC.