Telum Talks To... Michael Smith, North Asia Correspondent at The Australian Financial Review

Telum Talks To... Michael Smith, North Asia Correspondent at The Australian Financial Review

By Claire Farquhar

Walk us through a day in the life of Michael Smith, North Asia Correspondent at the AFR.
Every day is different depending on where I am and what's happening. On an average day I get up at 6.30am (Australia is two hours ahead) and check local news sites, messages from contacts, and Twitter to check if there is any breaking news overnight. I usually speak to my Foreign Editor to brief him on the day's plan and to my Research Assistant before heading into the office in Tokyo. Some days I am at my desk calling contacts in China and other parts of the region to work on stories and do interviews before filing stories for and the print newspaper. On more interesting days, I am out meeting contacts face-to-face or travelling.

In China, before the pandemic, I would try to hit the road and visit different parts of the country once a month, which is where you find the most interesting stories as a Foreign Correspondent. In 2019, for example, I was in Hong Kong most weekends covering the protests, while in 2020 a lot of the pandemic reporting took place on my doorstep in Shanghai after travel restrictions were imposed. 

How does reporting from overseas differ from reporting in your home country? 
Just getting there is often the first challenge. Getting a visa can take months and you learn to tolerate a lot of paperwork. The little things taken for granted at home, such as a decent internet connection, can make or break your day. As a journalist, you have a lot more independence than you would have at home, but you also have to be a lot more self-sufficient. Your editors are looking for you to guide them in terms of what is news and what stories you are working on rather than the other way round. It is also a 24/7 role: stories can break at all hours of the day (and night), so you have to keep an eye on things and work for long periods if there is a big running story. There is no one else around to fill in for you if you want a day off. 

The first year in a posting is challenging, as it takes a while to build up local knowledge and contacts. The role local news assistants play is vital, and their contribution is often overlooked. The challenges in every country are different. In China, it was government interference and a reluctance of people to talk to foreign journalists in case they got into trouble. In recent years, the risks for foreign journalists in China have increased significantly. Japan feels completely safe, but the bureaucracy is a killer at times and the society is less open. The positives outweigh the negatives by far. Being on the road and talking to ordinary people with great stories to tell is the best part of the job.

What are the most important skills required to succeed as a foreign correspondent? Any top tips for young journos aspiring to report overseas?
An open mind, patience, and a willingness to be out of your comfort zone. Accept the cultural quirks and try not to get confrontational when things go wrong. Have a good working relationship with your local staff. Get out into the field as much as possible and interact with local people. Accept that you might be filing stories at all hours and from weird locations like the floor of a train station or the back of a taxi. For anyone aspiring to report overseas, it's the best job in journalism. Seize every opportunity. If you cannot land a posting with the media outlet you are working for, look at international outlets, such as Reuters and Bloomberg, for jobs.

In your experience moving overseas for work, what's the best way to get acquainted with a new country?
Before I moved to China and Japan, I studied the language for several months back in Australia before I left, which really helps as once you land your head is spinning (note: I was never great at either language and rely on translators for interviews, but every bit helps). Learn as much as you can from the journalist you are replacing.

Ideally, you will have a handover or visit the country you will be working in before your assignment starts (I stayed with the AFR's previous China correspondents for a week the year before I moved there which was invaluable). Make friends with other correspondents who are often willing to help. Tap into business and diplomatic networks for introductions and connections before you go. Once you arrive, don't hang out exclusively in expat networks, but try to get to know as many locals as you can. It's the only way you will learn about the country. Read a lot! 

You’ve been in Tokyo since late last year. What’s your favourite thing about the city?
The food, the people (always polite and will bend over backwards to help), the gardens, art galleries and the ability to get on a train and be out in the mountains within hours. Pandemic restrictions since I arrived mean I have not been out much at night yet or had the chance to meet as many people as I would normally, but hopefully that is now starting to change. 

Answers submitted by Michael Smith, North Asia Correspondent at The Australian Financial Review.

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