Ask TON: Finding International Stories

Courtesy of Maryn McKenna


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

I’d like to do more international travel as part of my work. I don’t really know how to begin finding stories in foreign countries, either in advance of travel or while I’m there. What are the best ways to do this?

Freelance science and environmental journalist Douglas Fox:

When I was getting ready to embark on a four-month reporting trip to Australia in 2001, I used a brute-force approach to idea hunting before I left. This consisted of repetitive PubMed searches. I searched for all papers in the last 10 years or so with an author affiliation of “Australia” in high-profile journals, plus a list of other journals that were of specific interest. This had the problem of sometimes yielding papers in which an Australian was one of the authors—but the main work was happening somewhere else. So I combined this with other, more region-specific search terms like: marsupial, monotreme, macropod, stromatolite, Ediacaran, Archean, reef, crocodile, opal—or really, anything I found interesting. I viewed probably 5,000 abstracts, marked 100 that were interesting, followed up with 20 researchers, and ended up with six features in New Scientist plus one in Discover. It was an incredibly uncreative approach—and probably would not have yielded much in many developing countries where a lot of the local scientists are publishing in journals that may not be listed in major databases (or where the stories aren’t centered on academic researchers in the first place). But for my purposes it worked surprisingly well, and I repeated it for a second trip a couple of years later.

Freelance journalist Emily Sohn:

One of the great appeals of being a freelancer is that you can go anywhere and write, but the reality is usually less glamorous. Editors are very quick to spot (and reject) a “let me write about my vacation!” kind of pitch, and magazine travel budgets, unfortunately, are not what they used to be.

Still, I think opportunities are there if you go about it the right way. I’ve had a lot of success getting stories out of trips and vacations that I’m planning to go on anyway, and starting with those trips can be a great way to get the experience you’re craving. The key is to do plenty of legwork before you go (and to give up on the idea that your vacations will ever be completely relaxing or work-free again)!

My usual strategy is to start with a mega-research blitz via Google. I am drawn to animals and conservation topics, so I’ll search exhaustively for environmental groups working in the area I’m heading, starting with major international organizations and working down towards highly local groups. Then, I send out tons of e-mails and I make lots of phone calls, with the goal of finding someone—anyone—who will be conducting research in the field while I’m there. Be prepared to turn up a ton of projects that are not very interesting and plenty of really cool-sounding work that is not going to be in progress during your trip.

Eventually, though, I almost always find at least one or two possibilities and then I set up very specific plans to meet with the scientists at a certain place and time so that I can follow them around and see what they do. For me, this strategy has led to some really interesting situations: an afternoon checking camera traps with jaguar researchers in Costa Rica, a visit to a camel research center in India, and a week with a lemur researcher in Madagascar (during my honeymoon!), just to name a few. Another way to go about it is to scan published literature or university websites, looking for scientists doing research in the area you’re going. Contact them, and they might offer to let you visit their labs or tell you about colleagues you might want to talk to. I took one trip—a week on a dive boat in Fiji—as the guest of a coral reef conservation organization.

Turning those visits into stories is a separate and often, much harder, step. It’s absolutely worth pitching what you turn up before you go, but editors are often wary to assign before they know what the “story” is going to be, and it’s really hard to know what the story is going to be until you’ve lived it. It can help to communicate before you leave with editors who you have longstanding relationships with. Even then, though, I most often get responses like, “Sure, if you find something good, I’ll consider it.” So, there’s some leap-of-faith behavior required, but I figure if I’m going to be there anyway, it can’t hurt to meet up with someone interesting whose work might fit somewhere into some story someday, hopefully sooner but maybe later. Almost always, a fun visit in the field produces plenty of fodder for a really colorful and convincing pitch. Sometimes, I send these pitches while I’m away. Other times, I wait until I get home and am ready to do the hard work. My personal motto has always been that writing makes my traveling better and traveling makes my writing better. So even if nothing comes out of a self-funded field trip (at least not directly), there are many indirect benefits to having fascinating life experiences and meeting new people. And if you do manage to sell something from the trip, boom!—You now have a great clip that proves you can report from abroad, and that can give you a big boost in your future pitches about international stories.

No matter how you look at it, the conclusion is the same: Go!

Print and radio journalist Cynthia Graber:

I feel like there are two ways to approach this question, and they depend on whether you already have a country in mind, or whether you’re just look over the options. So I’ll give you suggestions based on two different types of reporting trips.

Trip 1: You have a country in mind, but no stories at all.

I was visiting a friend in Hong Kong, and then we were going to spend a weekend together in Thailand. I knew I wanted to stay for a week in Thailand and work. I was looking for stories that fit the show where I was a part-time producer, which covered issues of international poverty and justice. And, following my personal interest, I was particularly interested in science, sustainability, and conservation issues.

Courtesy of Maryn McKenna

I started doing random searches on Thailand on Google and LexisNexis. I looked at what was being covered about the country. I read local Thai newspapers in English, which was a great way to find stories that might have international appeal but hadn’t been covered in the international press.

This is how I found out about a movement of monks working on behalf of AIDS patients. I looked into the topic and made some phone calls, and it turned out that the monks were crucial in facilitating acceptance of AIDS sufferers in the greater community. And they still worked in villages all over northern Thailand, bringing food and comfort, helping create jobs, and even teaching sex-ed. I knew it’d make for great radio. (How I ended up reporting this story is an adventure in itself, and contains many lessons about what to do when you finally arrive.)

Another story also spun out of an idea I’d found while still in the US, and then that story spun into not only a radio feature, but two print stories. There were additional challenges there, because I reported much of one of the magazine features from back in the U.S. after my trip. But that, again, is a story unto itself.

Trip 2: You have a story that you really want to do in country X, but you need to bulk up the trip with more stories.

This happened last year with a reporting trip to Peru. I was inspired by a particular topic, and I wanted to go to Peru to cover it. The same radio show (which has since folded) was willing to fund the trip, but they needed a package of stories.

Again, I started conducting random searches on Peru. But this time, I focused my research on the topic I was already covering, and looked into different angles, or related stories. I found an article from The Guardian from 1997, and I discovered that the current work of that nonprofit had morphed into something that would make a great story. I also exchanged emails and spoke on the phone with a press person at an agricultural research center that is somewhat related to my original interest, and I found the angle that I wanted to cover. Finally, I found a story from last year that had received extensive coverage in the U.K. but almost none in the U.S., and I knew that it could be both updated and expanded.

The aforementioned radio show folded after I had planned my stories but before I had gone to report them. I ended up selling all three to the radio show The World (before I went), sold one to (also in advance), and left myself open to other story ideas and other venues.

I managed to report all planned stories, and an additional one came about serendipitously. I met someone with whom I’d corresponded from the U.S.—I visited his family’s farm, and I was fascinated by some breeding research conducted by his father. I conducted a spur-of-the-moment official interview, which spun into a section of a magazine story.

Lastly, in looking for stories and doing research on Peru in advance—and certainly in reporting from Peru—it helped that I was able to speak Spanish.

Overall advice: Choose a country. Read all sorts of random articles. Find topics that interest you. Find centers conducting research that interests you. Examine angles of stories you hope to cover, and see if there’s anything else to report. Send emails. Pick up the phone and call people.

And once you go, just talk to everyone, and be open to surprises.

Writer and editor Hillary Rosner:

I tend to plan things out before I travel, because there’s usually a time constraint—and also because I like to get assignments ahead of time whenever possible. If time is no issue, then just get on a plane and go—stories will unfold before you! But to home in on potential stories beforehand, there are two main ways to begin: hunting around on your own, and asking people you know to hunt around for you. Doing both is your best bet.

Let’s say you like to write about conservation biology, and you’re headed to London. First, email a half dozen conservation biologists or people related to the field who you’ve interviewed in the past. Tell them you’re going to London, and is there anyone they could suggest who’s doing interesting work in the UK. Then, start searching on your own. Pick a handful of universities in or near London and look up their conservation biologists. See what they’re working on. Email them and tell them you’re coming and looking for interesting stories. Then move on to conservation groups—either ones based in London, or big international ones. Next, think about other research centers or groups—in this case, museums or societies (like the Zoological Society of London). Contact them. Crumbs of stories will present themselves, and you can follow the trail from there.

If you’re talking about traveling to a smaller or more remote place—say, Malaysian Borneo—you’ll want to start by identifying the individual scientists who do fieldwork there. Often the best option is so start with a very broad web search and pursue different leads until they reveal something good or dead-end—kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Start with a web search on really basic terms (Borneo, rainforest, biology, conservation, etc), and drill down.

Meantime, start reading the local press and set up some Google alerts.

Freelance journalist Brendan Borrell:

International reporting is a stressful, headache-causing, time-wasting, break-even and, sometimes, money-losing proposition. Think about all the things that can go wrong with a story in the U.S.—now add in travel arrangements, foreign bureaucracies, and language difficulties. If you’re not dissuaded, then let’s talk about the process of finding stories that can get you onto a plane. There are basically two ways this is going to happen for a beginning freelancer. The first is that you have a bombproof feature idea, and you already have a good relationship with a magazine that has a big travel budget. Barring that, Plan B is to just drop into the country of your choice and hope to make a splash with editors stateside, as Phillip Robertson did when he snuck into Iraq on an inflatable raft.

Even after six years of freelancing, my approach is often a combination of the two. I start with one good story idea that gets me psyched for going to a particular destination, and then I try to find other stories in the same region. Last year, for instance, I met a scientist at a conference and became interested in a story in the remote Indonesian province of Papua. It was a good feature, but I knew that the places where I could sell it would not expense my entire trip on top of my story fee. So I read Indonesian newspapers every morning, talked to lots of scientists and conservationists, and just had my story compass pointed towards Asia. It didn’t take long before I had commitments from several editors, and an itinerary for a five-week trip that would theoretically net a profit.

If that’s too scary for you, it’s also worthwhile to look into grants like those offered by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting or the International Reporting Project, but that adds another layer to the process.

Science magazine’s Asia News Editor Richard Stone:

When it comes to finding stories in foreign countries, there’s no substitute for living abroad. Many ideas germinate over coffee or a meal with sources, or from monitoring local press reports. Being close to the news, one hears about interesting things faster. But while you may be at a disadvantage reacting to developments or searching for stories from far away, don’t despair.

As with any other story that you undertake proactively, let your curiosity guide you. If you intend to pitch an editor on an overseas trip, to be persuasive you better be passionate about the topic. Of course, before you start digging, save yourself time and heartache and check whether the outlet you intend to pitch has recently covered that ground.

I’ve long had a fascination for Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex in Cambodia, and several years ago was determined to find a story that would take me there. I was surprised that Science hadn’t published more than a tiny blurb on Angkor. I figured there had to be interesting archaeology going on there, and via the Internet learned about a researcher at the University of Sydney who had a provocative new hypothesis about why the Angkor kingdom collapsed.

To get a green light for my dream trip to Cambodia, I’d need to thoroughly research the story in advance—much more so than for a story that doesn’t involve travel. I talked to as many experts about Angkor as I could before flying there. I had to verify that the researcher at Sydney had credibility, size up other hypotheses for the demise of Angkor, and see if there were other threads to the story that I hadn’t immediately grasped. A story may change—and if so, it’s much better to modify your reporting plans before the trip.

Casting a wide net may also tip you to something that never would have occurred to you otherwise. For example, I had sold my editor on a trip to Kazakhstan to report about lingering health effects of fallout from Soviet atomic bomb tests in the 1960s. One scientist urged me to ask the Kazakhs about plutonium in the soil at the defunct test site. That led to the revelation of a U.S. military program to prevent the plutonium in Kazakhstan from falling into the hands of terrorists. Although the health effects were my main objective at the outset, they became a sidebar to the sexier expose.

In many countries, access to scientists and facilities is much harder, generally speaking, than you might be accustomed to in the United States and Europe. Some years ago I intended to write about physicists who risked their lives working inside the damaged nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine. I arranged to visit the Chernobyl power plant, but because a meeting with the physicists wasn’t explicitly on my itinerary, I wasn’t given access to the scientists. Instead I was given a tour of the power plant, and ended up having to make a second trip to Ukraine for the story. Fortunately I was based in Russia at the time, so it wasn’t hugely expensive. But the lesson I learned from the initial failure was priceless.

There’s a lot of ground to cover overseas, and fewer intrepid journalists than you might think. Just follow the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

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