“When I went to Egypt, I knew nothing. I had a philosophy degree, so it’s not like people were knocking down the door to hire me,” Carmen Gentile confessed as he spoke of his early challenges working as a foreign correspondent.
Gentile stressed that students determined to work overseas should be up to date with what is happening in their target countries on a daily basis in terms of culture, politics and economy. “You want to show that you know what’s going on, but you don’t want to simply regurgitate former stories. Look for gaps in articles to see what’s lacking. Even the best editors and reporters will miss things.”
Carmen Gentile’s insights and experiences were well received by many of the students in the class who were feeling uneasy about beginning work in an increasingly competitive field.
Gentile began his own career in foreign correspondence as a proofreader for an English language newspaper in Cairo while he was studying Arabic in the late 1990s. He was poor and had to prove himself. These challenges forced him to learn the skills necessary to make it in the business of foreign correspondence.
He told the class to embrace their first jobs as learning experiences. “You can always jump on as a proofreader. In my case, by accepting this position, all the news stories began to seep their way into my brain through reading and listening. Of course, you will learn a lot from your experienced colleagues, but it’s also very important to be open to and spend time with the people you’re reporting on.”
Gentile described to the students how after a two-year stint in Egypt that allowed him to refine his craft, his career began to take off when he relocated to Brazil. There he covered stories that included a coup in Bolivia, an economic meltdown in Argentina, and a presidential referendum in Venezuela. Later he turned his attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and began covering the conflicts beginning in 2005. He noted the pros and cons of being embedded with armed forces and being on his own after students inquired about the conflict reporting.
“In places like Kandahar and Kabul, there were many obstacles and dangers that prevented me from covering stories and getting the photographs I wanted, but when I was under the auspice of the US forces I could get access to many places that I could not have done otherwise,” he said.
Students inquired about how Gentile was so successful in getting his stories published in major publications such as USA Today, Newsweek Magazine, and Time Magazine. He responded by stressing the importance of following up with contacts in both New York and Washington. “When I lived in Brazil or Egypt, any time I came back to the States, I made a point of going to meet with editors on my own watch and on my own dime. Thank them for their time, buy them a beer.”
A few students shared their own difficulties associated with both finding and pitching interesting stories that are marketable. He advised, “Pitching to editors whom you don’t know personally will prove to be challenging, so you will have to get experience and get involved in any capacity.” Still, he emphasized that students should strive to build as many contacts both in the US and in their target countries, particularly if they’re entering a danger prone area. As an aside, he added a safety tip: a correspondent’s family and colleagues need to know where they are and who they’re with at all times to ensure their safety.
When it comes time to write a pitch, Gentile advised that the idea shouldn’t be more than two paragraphs of a few sentences each at most, and journalists should strive to convey the eye-catching angle that really gets people’s attention without sensationalizing the story.
When Gentile was new to the game, he worked diligently to diversify his potential clients, and reached out to other agencies to establish his name. In addition, he diversified his skills to get the most out of his time spent abroad. “Right now, I’m doing pieces for ABC news radio, writing for USA Today, working on a documentary, and drafting a book,” he told the class.
Gentile suggested that those who are starting out in the area should take advantage of the opportunities in Washington, DC, and make sure that editors know who you are. Being persistent to the point of being annoying is essential to success, Gentile claims. Editors will often take notice when you start producing and will at that point ask you what can bring to the table.
Your work should be fully packaged material to grab editors’ attention, especially if it is video. He suggested that Al-Jazeera is a good news outlet to target to sell video and documentaries.
For print pieces, he argued, it is best to try and juxtapose official lines with smaller players. For example, if a story is about drug trade, supplement interviews with the officials from the ministry of counter narcotics with actual drug dealers. He mentioned that journalists find story ideas in the most unlikely places, once they’re in the field. He shared his own personal idea for a story, inspired by an academic, about amputees in Afghanistan who lost their limbs dating back to the Soviet conflict with the Mujahedeen. This drove him to report on the lack of handicapped access in public spaces.
Upon his departure, students took away the idea that persistence and diversification are crucial to journalistic success, as it does not come easily. It can be dangerous, difficult, and troublesome, but as his personal story illustrates, it’s possible with a bit of a sacrifice and strong conviction.
Robert Watkins is a student in SOC Journalist in Residence Bill Gentile's Foreign Correspondence class, which recently hosted foreign correspondent Carmen Gentile (no relation) to talk with students about launching their careers. Gentile conducts the class as a bridge between students at American University and the careers they intend to pursue in the world of work.