Getting started in international development journalism

The term ‘development journalism’ only came to exist in the sixties, as media organisations in Asia and Africa responded to the growing number of aid agencies working in developing countries. As such, there’s no real set route to pursue to become a development journalist. Those working in the field now openly admit to having ‘fallen into’ the profession, through subbing, volunteering, and working for NGOs.

So if your goal is to report on development issues – be it food security in the Sahel, women’s land rights in Rwanda, or access to life-saving medications in South Africa – what can you do to steer your career towards becoming an international development journalist? I spoke to three experts – Sue George (freelance writer and editor of the Guardian’s annual International Development Journalism competition), Tom Murphy (blogger and journalist on humanitarian issues for Humanosphere), and Mark Tran, (correspondent for Guardian Global Development) – for their advice on becoming an international development reporter.

Gain a ‘level of legitimacy’

Tom Murphy: “There’s a whole language to the field of development and you definitely want to familiarise yourself with the names of all of these NGOs and some of these key buzzwords and phrases that are often repeated. That really helps you actually talk about it with the people that are involved and it helps you see between the lines. It’s really valuable when you can know what’s going on and be able to ask the right questions.”

Know your stuff … and pick a specialism

Sue George: “I think having a specialism within development is really important, actually, certainly if you’re trying to get started. I think that lots of people end up having that anyway. Maybe they have a country specialism because they know a lot about that country, or maybe they have a theme specialism.”

Mark Tran: “I think the best way to do this is to have a general knowledge of development issues and then have an area that you try and develop and deepen your knowledge of. It always stands you in good stead to know one particular subject, or a couple of subjects, that you know in detail more than others, but you need a broad general knowledge of the field as well. If you can combine the two, I think that’s the ideal way to do it.”

Identify neglected issues

Tom Murphy: “The over-arching thing that I think needs to be thought about more, and will be changing, is how aid is going to be different in the next few years. There’s this possibility that the age of the NGO might be coming to a close sometime soon, so what does it look like when Oxfam is becoming less relevant? And when do we reach that point?”

Sue George: “One thing I know that is not covered sufficiently is the area of non-communicable diseases [a non-infectious and non-transmissible disease]. The developing world is having increasing problems with things like heart attacks, diabetes and road traffic accidents. All these things are big, big problems in the developing world and I don’t think that they’re being looked at sufficiently… so someone could have a go at that!”

Prepare for the future 

Tom Murphy: “The most important (and also most boring) thing to know about is what happens after 2015. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are going to run out and that is a major discussion that’s going to be happening at the UN in September. Whatever comes of that is really what sets the bar [for the future]. It’s going to have a long-lasting affect. The conversations are really weird and non-specific at this point, but when these goals start being hammered out, that’s going to matter a lot and that will change how people report.”

Keep your eyes peeled

Tom Murphy: “There are fellowships and there are opportunities. The Pulitzer Center is looking for people to report on global health. The International Reporting Project (based out of John Hopkins University) does trips. I went with them to Tanzania in October and I’m going with them to Brazil in March. They do a few trips per year; you go for two weeks and it’s a pretty neat opportunity to get your hands dirty. You get to work alongside some really stellar journalists from different subject areas and parts of the world.”

Get out there

Sue George: “One thing that might be a good idea if you’re really keen on doing this is to live in a developing world country for a bit. So let’s say you can speak French; maybe you could go to Senegal and see if there are any stories there that you could write about. You find out more and more about living in that country. You get really good contacts. You could pitch some stories to all sorts of publications and you would get to know the individuals there to find out what the stories might be.”

Tom Murphy: “Try to get out there and familiarise yourself with the region. When things that garner a larger attention happen, then you’re really well placed to do a lot of reporting for a lot of different places. A good example would be Westgate (the al-Shabaab attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013). The major news networks from the US and Europe were pleading for anything and everything in terms of stories, so the people who were there who already knew the city and who knew Kenya, were able to churn out a tonne of stories. That’s a rare exception but these things do come up every so often, and when you’re there, you’re in a much better position than anyone else.”

Mark Tran: “It’s almost like trying to be a foreign correspondent and the best way is to be somewhere, where there is a demand for foreign news. For example, if you’re in somewhere like Afghanistan, development is also such a huge element of the story so you can end up writing about resource exploitation, education… so in a way, it’s like an extra dimension to foreign reporting. And with foreign reporting, the best place to do that is from a particular country or region. If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere interesting like Mali or Nigeria, development is going to be a very important part of the coverage.”

This article originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.

What I’ve learnt about ‘networking’

Networking is one of those things we all know we ought to do, but the thought of it fills us with dread. And if you’re new to the industry, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here’s a list of a few things I’ve learnt while trying to make new contacts.

Go to an event

This sounds easy enough but you’re not going to stumble into that great opportunity by slobbing on the couch and watching endless episodes of Breaking Bad, are you? It doesn’t have to be specifically labelled as a ‘networking event’ either. Open lectures and debates, film screenings and casual meet-ups all present great opportunities to meet new people. And if you find that you simply don’t hear about such events, sign up to a few newsletters and make sure you follow all the right people on Twitter. Following @journalismnews is a great place to start.

Take a friend

‘Safety in numbers’ definitely applies here. I’ve been to a couple of networking events on my own and the temptation to stand in the corner, endlessly refresh my Twitter feed and hope other people will come and talk to me is overwhelming. Take a friend and you’ll already have someone else to talk to when a contact you’ve made goes to get another drink, or wanders off because they’ve decided you’re not interesting enough to carry on talking to. And it’s so much easier to approach that producer from the BBC with a trusty sidekick…

Ask questions

Although you’re probably at a networking event to sell yourself a little bit and see what opportunities there are for you, don’t spend the whole time talking about yourself. So many people are doing amazing things within the world of journalism and a networking event is a great place to learn all about them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more intuitive and engaged you are, the more you’ll be remembered.

Be contactable

Even if you’re still looking for a job, it’s worth investing in some personal business cards. Scrap pieces of paper with random names and numbers on can easily be lost in coat jackets or mistaken for rubbish and thrown away. People take care of business cards. You can usually find some good deals on Moo or Vistaprint and you’ll only need between 50 and 100 cards for starters.

Know your limits

This one applies to alcohol. Many of these events will take place in a bar or involve some sort of alcoholic refreshment. Sometimes, the alcohol is even free. Hurray! But here’s the golden rule: Don’t drink too much. The last thing you want is to be known as that one young’un who had one drink too many and ended up spouting a load of nonsense as everyone around you stared at the floor willing you to shut up. Know your limits and stick to them. Or just have lemonade.

This post originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.

Wannabe Hack (officially)

After spending most of the summer working in the restaurant, pulling 7-shift (50+ hour) weeks to cover other people’s holidays, I haven’t had much time to write, in any capacity. I feel like I’ve totally neglected my food blog, through not having any time to try out new places to eat, and then through not having any time to write about it.

I’ve totally neglected this blog too. I’ve written down so many ideas of things to write about but when I finally got round to it, whatever it was didn’t seem topical anymore, like the subject had already run its course and everything worth saying had been said.

Needless to say, my lack of writing and the fact that I was getting no further with job applications left me feeling pretty disheartened, which is why I made the decision back in September to change direction a little bit and embark on a TEFL qualification. I completed the first 20-hour intensive weekend course at the beginning of October, and now I have 100 more hours of online work to complete before I receive my qualification.

Around the same time, I was successful in my application to join the team behind Wannabe Hacks, a fantastic website offering advice, in-depth analysis and comment on important issues, and the opportunity to discuss and debate with like-minded young journalists. Wannabe Hacks was a fantastic resource for me when I was studying and I’m thrilled to be joining the team. Today, I spent several hours brainstorming and researching for post ideas, and spent even longer filming an (embarrassing) introductory video which will appear on the website in the next few weeks. I’m going to see how it turns out before I decide whether or not to link to it here…

All this considered, I’ve cut back on my hours at the restaurant – frugality resumes – so that not only do I have time for all these new things, but that I have the time to do them well.

And luckily, it seems to be a rather exciting time in the journalism world for job opportunities – especially now that summer is well and truly over – so with any luck I’ll have some more good news in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, I will be studying the best ways to teach different English grammar points while also thinking of some exciting multimedia/data projects and articles for Wannabe Hacks. And if you’re a young and/or aspiring journalist reading this and there are things you want to see on the Wannabe Hacks website, let me know and I’ll do my best to make sure we cover it.