This is a letter that I received from a reader named Giulia:
Dear Mr. Shepard,
I’m a young Italian student and recent graduate and I’m interested in starting a career in social journalism and reporting. I came to know you while looking for ghost cities in China and I’ve been fascinated by your activity as a traveller and as a reporter. I’d be glad if you could give me some advice about how to start a career like yours and how to do it at my best.
How to start a career like mine? This is a tough question to respond to because I can’t say that I ever thought of what I do as being a career. I began traveling in 1999 with the goal of continuously working my way around the world, and that’s always been my concept of my career. But I suppose you’re right, as far as the writing and publishing and journalism goes I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s starting to take on career-like proportions. What’s it been? Almost 10 years and nine months since I started this fiasco.
Before I start, I should give a brief outline of my journalism “career” up to this point. It started in 2005 when I began blogging seriously. My first blog took many different forms but eventually became VagabondJourney.com, which you’re reading now. While my focus was always on using writing as mechanism to obtain a deeper understanding of the places I travel to, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I began doing more in-depth research projects and writing feature articles. I also found a niche writing for some smaller magazines around this time as well.
By 2009 VagabondJourney.com was doing well, and I was able to make a full time living solely from blogging. In 2012 I returned to China after a few year absence and began a big project about the country’s so-called ghost cities. The articles that I wrote for this project got some attention, and I eventually received an offer from Paul French to write a book for his Asian Arguments series at Zed. While I was working on this book some of my other China coverage on this blog landed me a regular freelance position at the South China Morning Post, which provided me with an unanticipated amount of access to people, institutions, and places around the country.
In April of 2015 Ghost Cities of China came out, which opened up many opportunities to write for larger publications like Reuters, CityMetric (New Statesman), and The Diplomat.
I’m not sure if this is an easy path to replicate and probably shouldn’t be used as a model to go off of. I mean, I can’t say, “Go out and blog for ten years and hope that something happens.” The climate is different now. Even getting people to read a blog — especially a new one — is about 100X more difficult than it was when I started a decade ago. I began this in an era when Google was keen to give independent publishers a fairer footing in their search results, before everyone was zombied-in to Facebook, when the internet was known as a place of ill-repute where people went to explore new intellectual frontiers/ lifestyles/ people outside the bounds of the dominant media. It is all very different now and the barrier to entry has been risen exponentially higher.
Beyond that, I also wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve “made it” in any substantial way. I’ve successfully found a way to travel and make a living off of writing, I’ve written a book, and I have articles published in some top-end publications, but it’s not like I’m a tried and tested foreign correspondent at a major newspaper. I’m just a freelancer — I go where I want and write about what I want — and while I wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m not sure if this is what people generally envision a career in journalism looking like.
But I can give the following advice:
Choose what you want to be. Do you want to be a rock star or a desk jockey? Do you want to go to the source and experience stories first hand and write immersive narratives or do you want to have a real job and a regular role at a publication? I believe there needs to be a choice here, as the people who are in both positions are extremely rare. The jobs in journalism where you’re sent around the world as a foreign correspondent on the company dime are hard to get and are disappearing by the day. If you do want to work in a newsroom or have a desk in an office, admit it — there is nothing wrong with this — then once your studies are finished apply for an entry-level position at a big paper or magazine.
If you want to travel internationally and report on stories first hand, then learn how to live cheap. You are going to have to pay for this and, as you’re probably not going to be making much money at first (or ever), you’re going to have to live and travel like a vagabond. This means sacrificing comfort, not dumping money on recreation, and eating bitter. Be sure to plan for long term travel, so you can move slow and maximize the earning potential of each stop, rather than trying to do a succession of quick trips.
Be sure to develop multiple streams of income and have ways of making money beyond journalism. This will get you the financial power to get to the places where the stories are happening (which is often far more costly than just being a rec traveler) and will allow you to stay in places long enough to get the full take — a luxury that few big-top journalists have.
Maximize your work. If you are traveling full time you have the ability to cover many different stories on many different topics in the places that you move through. While there may be a prime journalistic reason to go to a certain place be sure you have supporting stories that you can also collect information for. In point, work on many stories at the same time, everywhere.
So if I am going to go to Lanzhou to write about the city’s new area where 700 mountains were removed, I am also going to write about the development projects that are going to be built there, cultural aspects of the people who live in the area, maybe an overview of the city itself, perhaps a little about the food that I eat, and any interesting experiences or anecdotes that I have while there.
As a general rule, be working on at least five stories in any given place at any given time. This will allow you to leverage the money and time that you invest in traveling to generate the necessary earnings to keep going.
Scale your interviews, re-purpose your research. When you do an interview with someone who is an authority on a topic for a story be sure to also ask a couple questions for other related stories that you are working on. I write articles in “blocks,” which means I write five or six at a time about a similar topic. Oftentimes, if someone is a good enough authority for one story they could be a good enough authority for others. So when I interview people I generally plan on using their statements for multiple articles, blog posts, and maybe even for a book or two. Similarly, also be aware that you can use your research for multiple articles. So always be on the lookout for spin-off stories, as this will allow you to take much of the time, effort, and money that you invest into one story and leverage it into a series of five or six related stories that you can earn enough money from to make it worth it.
Choose your topics wisely. I call it knowing the Three Rights of Journalism: right place, right time, right topic. If any one of these three “rights” are off then it may be difficult to place your articles — or at least get paid for them. Sure, you can go out and write the greatest article ever about New Zealand but it isn’t going to get you anywhere because nobody outside of New Zealand gives a shit. Forcing the audience to find importance in a topic just because you think they should is a good way to get nowhere. In order to get published you need to be writing about topics that editors want to publish and the audience wants to read. Understand what’s relevant, observe what people are talking about, learn about what people want to know, and give it to them.
Own your topics. Select two or three big topics that you want to be regarded as an authority on, then do an extensive amount of research and publish dozens of articles about them. The object is to get anyone who has any interest in your topics to view you as the well-spring of information about it. This will get your work used as a source for other articles, it will get you interviewed, it will get you placed in a position of authority that you can use in many different ways to continue getting published and making money.
Don’t be a small magazine person. V.S. Naipaul once gave a young Paul Theroux this advice. It served him well. Don’t put time into writing for small publications just because they will publish what you submit. Go mid-range (national level) or big (international). Work your way in with simple, fact-based stories or lists about in-focus topics that big media has difficulty getting good information on. Then after you gain a little trust move onto the immersive narratives that you really want to produce.
Diversify your publications. Rather than being a regular staffer at a single publication aim to write five to ten articles for dozens of different publications. With each publication that you write a few articles for comes the respect and authority for having written for them. People need to label and categorize other people, and one of the prime ways that we do this is by finding out the work that they do for work. “Oh, you’re a journalist. Who do you write for?” Be sure to be able to answer this question with a sting of top publications as it will open many doors.
Realize that there is nothing stopping you. Seriously, there is nothing stopping you from going out into the world and doing National Geographic type investigations. It just takes will, determination, and guts — all things that you can cultivate just by going out and doing it.