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These are lines from the clips page of writer Jon Rosen. The first thing I told him when we spoke was that I think of him as Indiana Jones with a laptop.
“It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve been told I look like a young Harrison Ford,” he replied. “One friend still calls me Dr. Jones.”
I hadn’t actually known what he looked like before our Skype session, only that he was in Kigali, Rwanda, writing on topics from Kenyan marathoners to deadly volcanos, for the likes of Slate, Al Jazeera and, most recently, National Geographic covering the struggle against oil interests and game poachers in Africa’s oldest national park.
(I didn’t ask, but we can assume he went in with a bull whip.)
The Rwanda guy
In person, Jon seems more Tintin than Dr. Jones. To hear him tell it, he just lucked into the National Geographic gig, bumping into a senior editor at a genocide memorial who, “sort of suggested I pitch some stuff.”
The meeting may have been chance, but it was his regional expertise that got him an extended web feature. Jon has done the odd story in Cambodia and India, but he said focusing on Rwanda has made hiring him more practical than sending in a correspondent. “I’ve been able to build a knowledge and a network of contacts in Rwanda that very few foreign journalists have,” he explained.
Jon works in a niche; building it was a matter of, more or less, going out there and getting his hands in it. He went to Africa for the first time in 2004 for a volunteer stint in Kenya after college. He returned for a masters in international relations, but kept going back, doing a little travel writing until his first serious feature in 2008, from an IDP camp in Kenya. “I just walked in and started talking to people. Eventually the authorities came and found me and told me to leave, but by then I’d already gotten a couple of good interviews.”
He sent the finished story to editors shotgun style and eventually published it on a site called World Politics Review. From there, it was one story at a time: While studying at Johns Hopkins, he wrote about an Angolian exile in Washington for the BBC’s Focus on Africa. He wrote about African migrants during a trip to Sicily, and eventually landed an assignment with USA Today reviewing a book on China’s involvement in the continent. Six years later, settled in Kigali, it was his name that came up when Al Jazeera needed a guy.
How to build a beat
Jon didn’t have a formal journalism background nor Anderson Cooper caché before he started publishing really cool stories, which is good news for us rookies, but finding an exotic niche has exotic challenges.
For one, you’ll have to start a network almost if not entirely from scratch. Early on, Jon’s interpreters and fixers (local go-betweens) were mainly English students pulling side jobs or buddies working for a few drinks.
In some ways, this hasn’t changed. National Geographic provided Jon the resources to report the Congo story in a single week, but the fixer was his own contact – a man he had been working with since 2010 (when he guided Jon up a volcano). “A lot of the stuff I’ve learned about Rwanda has come gradually, and often through informal channels,” he said. “It’s a very complex place – after four years of following the country I’m always learning something new.”
As for turning local knowledge into real, published pieces: “You could do it a couple ways,” Jon explained. “You could just write a story and shop it around.” This is how he published his first piece in Kenya; it gives editors something to see if you don’t have many published samples. The downside of pre-writing is that there’s always a chance nothing will come of your work. If you already you’ve already spent a while in an area: “The better thing might be start crafting some pitches for specific stories you want to write, and start sending them out.”
If you’re new, you’ll probably spend a lot of time with publications that pay very little or (if you’re desperate for clips) nothing at all. But that’s just part of starting out, as is continual rejection and the agonizing trickle of work. The solution, whether at home or abroad, is the same: Keep going, and if there’s a giant boulder behind you, all the better.