Footloose on vacation in Crete, the author doesn’t necessarily approach trips as moneymakers, but instead seeks primarily to neutralize travel expenses through her reporting on the road. © Photo by Peter Fairley.
Editor’s Note: Freelance Files is a regular column for and by SEJ freelancers. A rotating cast of journalists share hard-earned wisdom here about myriad aspects of weaving a life and business out of their independent status. SEJournal welcomes submissions for this column. Contact Freelance Files editor Sharon Oosthoek at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ERICA GIES
In the president’s mansion, I sat interviewing the man himself for an article on his groundbreaking low-carbon development strategy for Guyana. His aim: to save the virgin rainforest that covered 75 percent of the country while lifting its economic prospects.
An hour later, I left, giddy. The night air was warm, I’d just interviewed the president of a country, and in the days before I’d explored the nearby jungle, meeting a jaguar, a giant river otter, countless other amazing critters, and a host of insects probably unknown to science.
I was nearly as giddy when the resulting piece ran in the International Herald Tribune and online at nytimes.com. In the last decade I’ve also published work from Qatar, Turkey, Wales, India, Tibet, Syria, the Andaman Islands, Cuba, China, South Africa, Montana, British Columbia and France.
I can travel so much because, as a freelancer, I make my own schedule. Of course, globe-trotting comes with carbon guilt. But I believe that travel is the best way to gain perspective on myself, my country and the common problems we all face.
For example, sitting in my comfortable San Francisco flat, it’s easy to say that the Guyanese should conserve their rainforest. But staying with Amerindians, seeing their subsistence way of life firsthand, underscores the issue’s complexity. Their natural knowledge is immense, and they are comfortable in the forest. But a poisonous snakebite can be mortal. And educational opportunities are limited.
I want to experience things, places and people for myself. The only real question for me is how to pay for it? The answers include creativity, chutzpah, attitude adjustment and plenty of flexibility.
While it’s possible to come out financially ahead, I don’t approach trips as moneymakers. Instead, my goal while reporting on the road is to neutralize travel expenses and, of course, enrich both the travel experience and my work.
Usually, I plan the trip before the story.
I choose my destinations through an amalgam of desire and opportunity. Friends who live abroad, conferences and friends who want to travel with me present opportunities. I will go just about anywhere, at the slightest suggestion, but I also have a long list of dream destinations for which I keep an eye out.
After buying the ticket, I begin to look for stories. Ideally, I pitch and land an assignment before I go. That way I can make sure to get the interviews, images, or sound I need while I’m there.
Landing an assignment pre-travel also opens the possibility of getting some expenses covered. Yes, even in the apocalyptic death throes of journalism as we know it, some editors still have travel budgets. This is where the chutzpah comes in: Ask. Usually this works better with an editor with whom you already have an established relationship.
But not always. I broke into The New York Times travel section by pitching a story on the obscure Andaman Islands — where I planned to go anyway. I had a free airline ticket to India from a friend, and the Times gave me $800 toward my expenses, which covered my plane fare from the mainland to the islands and my hotel there.
I also pitch stories after returning home. I’m unlikely to find a scoop via advance online research. So I keep my ear to the ground while in country and then call people for follow-up interviews. (From Skype to VOIP phones, there are plenty of ways to call internationally now for very little money.) While in Istanbul last fall, I got a tip on a novel water engineering project about which there had been almost no coverage outside of Turkey. That story ran in the International Herald Tribune in April.
An important way to make travel affordable is to write off your expenses. I save receipts for airfare, ground transportation, hotels and meals. After my days on the Andamans, I traveled around India for a few weeks and found several stories for my Forbes blog that justified writing off my expenses.
Experienced travelers also know how to keep costs down en route: frequent flyer rewards, traveling midweek or Saturdays to minimize airfare, staying with friends or traveling with a friend to split hotel expenses.
However, some destinations are just so expensive that they remain out of reach. Guyana has very little infrastructure, so traveling into the jungle means costly flights on tiny planes and eye-popping prices for boat and land transfers and lodging — even when staying with Amerindians. To make that trip happen, I applied for grants.
I applied for three and got one: a professional development grant for $2,500 from the National Association of Science Writers. However, grant applications significantly add to your workload for a story, so I consider them to be a last resort. Some entities that offer reporting or travel grants include the SEJ Fund for Environmental Journalism, the European Journalism Centre, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Of course, professional opportunities can also lead to travel.
Fellowships are great because all expenses are covered. They also require a lot of time spent on applications but are worth it for the payoff and professional prestige. Fellowships abound for people at various stages of their careers and for different focuses.
When I was a Vermont Law School fellow, I visited friends, saw my grandmother’s hometown, and did a lot of hiking. That trip yielded good stories — not about Vermont, but derived from sources I met there. Likewise, I won one of the SEJ 20-20-20 fellowships to attend the 2010 Missoula conference, where I got an assignment on the spot for High Country News and a tip that led to a Montana story the following year for the International Herald Tribune. SEJ has a long list of fellowships on its website.
Trips organized and financed by story sources are another way that people get paid travel, but I avoid them. Many publications won’t run stories obtained from such junkets. In fact, some publications (including The New York Times) blacklist reporters who take junkets — even when the story is for another publication.
Some reporters benefit by focusing locally; I now have more of a “citizen of the world” portfolio. In some cases, I’ve published stories years after a visit — dialing up sources but doing so with firsthand perspective on how things actually work — or don’t — in these places. Also, sources are often more open when talking with a foreign journalist by phone once they learn that I’ve visited their country.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest hurdles is to get editors interested in these fascinating stories. Many seem to believe their readers aren’t curious about the world. Guyana, being a small country that many people (including the executive editor of a top publication) incorrectly presume is in Africa, was a particularly hard sell. I pitched that story for a year and a half because I thought it was unique and important — and I wanted to go to Guyana. Finally, the UN’s REDD+ was building momentum leading up to COP 15 in Copenhagen, and my International Herald Tribune editor agreed to use that as the news hook.
Working the angles to facilitate adventures can be a lot of work. But that work leads to fun — and to deeper stories. Travel isn’t always an easy high, but it’s epic, strengthening one’s abilities to adapt and observe. Perhaps most important, it fosters empathy and understanding, key ingredients for powerful stories. You too can get these stories — and get to them.
Erica Gies is a freelance journalist from San Francisco who writes for The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Economist, Forbes, New Scientist, and other publications. This year she is living in Paris and taking advantage of cheap travel to Turkey, North Africa and around Europe.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.