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Foreign Correspondent

Being the Ongoing Tales, Triumphs, Struggles (mostly struggles) and Occasional Adventures of Freelance Foreign Correspondent Shawn Gerald Blore, based in Rio de Janeiro

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Freelancing and Travel, Part I : The Flyer, or Doing it on Your Own Dime

Just flew back from the Amazon, and boy are my arms tired. Ba-dum-bah. Actually, it’s my bank account that’s feeling weary. Everything in the Amazon is such a long way from everywhere, doing any kind of story there involves ridiculous amounts of time and money, most of it for travel.

For freelancers, travel presents a perilous allure. No fancy expense accounts for us, at least not most of the time. So if you’re going to go tramp about out there in the field, you have to make it pay. Sensible enough. But there’s a catch. How do you know what’s out there, and more importantly, how do you sell what’s out there, before you’ve been out there?

There are two routes out of this dilemma: the pre-sell and the flyer. We’ll take the flyer first, in Part I, and get to the pre-sale in the next post.

Essentially, with the flyer, you just go and hope. You’ve done your homework. You know there’s something good out there – an issue that you think needs tackling, a situation you’re sure will yield good material – but you haven’t got enough information to turn it into a compelling narrative, with characters and tension and violence – something you can sell to an editor. But you will.

For me, southern Para is such an area. For those not up on their Amazon geography, the Amazon rainforest is divvied up among a number of Brazilian states (plus about 6 other countries, but for the moment they don’t count). Each of the states has a slightly different history, and different settlement patterns, and all this affects what happens to the forest in each state.

Para state, which encompasses the mouth of the Amazon river, is a vast and lightly governed no man’s land, where ranchers claim millions of acres for their own on the flimsiest of pretexts, where slave labour is used to clear the forest and sawmills operate in flagrant defiance of the law. A place of epic stories, in short.

So I had a general destination, and I had a news peg – Brazil’s new forest management law. I did not have a specific destination and a specific situation, but 2 out of 3 was good enough, at least this time.

I teamed up with a colleague to cut expenses and we flew from Rio to Belém (Cost of the flight, about US$300). I checked in with my contacts there – a crazy wire service photog, the PR guy at Ibama, the federal environmental agency, one of the state prosecutors trying to bring some order to the chaos. Two days worth of chatting in all, but out of this came a specific target – one that illustrated all the things I wanted to cover in the Amazon – violence, death, environmental rape, and endless government corruption.

We rented a truck (US$60 per day) and set out for our story. A week later, we had it – a lovely, dramatic scam-filled story illustrating everything wrong with all the new Brazilian government approaches to conserving the rainforest. Bad news for the forest actually, but a great story. Call it the Great Amazonian Lumber Scam. I’m going to leave out the details until I get this published, but suffice it say, though we had to flee town at sunset because my colleague had flipped out and begun screaming accusations at a local rancher/politician who also happened to control the local police department (I’ll do post on this later, I think, called Choosing your Travel Companions), I had everything I needed for a great story.

I just have to sell it. To that point, I had ponied up the plane fare (say $300), ½ the truck rental (say $400), hotels ($300), plus booze, food and incidentals ($500). Say a total of around $1500, plus I still had to pay for the flight home. So I have to sell it in a way that makes up for the capital outlay.

A good glossy magazine would be the best option; newspapers pay so little that even selling the piece to three or four of them would only just cover my expenses. The best scenario would be sale to a high paying glossy, followed by re-sales to various papers.

Of course, if I’ve gambled wrong and no one cares about this story, I’m out the expenses and the 2 weeks in the field it took to dig this info up. That’s the danger of the Flyer. Get it right, you get material no one has. Get it wrong too often, and you go broke.

I’ll keep you posted on the fate of the Great Amazonian Lumber Scam as it progresses. When the story appears, I’ll link to it here, and keep track of sales as I go on. We’ll have a record here of whether this flyer paid off.

Next up, Part II: The Pre-sell.

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