Cristina Maza is a freelance reporter based in Cambodia. She first moved to Cambodia to take on a job as a reporter and subeditor for the Phnom Penh Post. I came across Cristina through her newsletter, which carries her perspectives on the region.
She often writes about foreign policy, international affairs and economics. You can find more about Cristina’s work on her site.
How did you end up in Cambodia?
I ended up in Cambodia in a round about way. I was working in Washington D.C. when I made the decision to move to Phnom Penh. My job was coming to an end, and I knew I wanted to work exclusively on international news stories.
I lived in a handful of countries between 2008 and 2015, mostly in Eastern Europe, so I was still dealing with some reverse culture shock in the United States and going back abroad seemed like an easy option. But I didn’t want to move to a country where I already knew the culture and history and politics. I was looking for something that would be completely new and challenging.
And then I noticed a reporter following me on Twitter who worked at the Cambodia Daily. I asked if he would be available to Skype, and when we talked he had nothing but good things to say about Cambodia. He said the stories were interesting, that there was a ton of work to do here, etc. So I started to do a bit of digging and spoke to a few other reporters working in Cambodia, and they all said the same thing. I took their word for it and a month later I was on a plane to Phnom Penh.
You decided this month to go into freelancing full-time. How did you make that decision?
There is nothing I like more than talking to people and learning something new, and I love storytelling. But when I was working at the Phnom Penh Post I spent a lot of time filing short, 300-word stories that only skimmed the surface of an issue. I think that has a lot to do with what daily newspapers have the space and capacity for, but I found it frustrating. Meanwhile, I loved the features I wrote on the job, but those were too few and far between for my taste. So I decided to freelance because I though I’d have more time and freedom to pursue stories I’m very passionate about.
How’s that going so far?
It’s only been a month so far, so it’s a little hard to tell. I pitched a bunch of stories and had some of them commissioned. The process is much slower than working in a newsroom. I’ve filed four stories this month and none have been edited yet. That’s also because most of the stories are for the Web, so there isn’t the time crunch to get them onto paper the next day.
I also made the decision to mix things up during my first month and travel to India, which has always been a dream of mine. I reported three stories from India, and I loved the country and the people as much as I thought I would. But I know I could have written twice as many stories if I’d stayed in Cambodia, or somewhere familiar, because I wouldn’t have spent time traveling, meeting people, arranging accommodation, and all of the logistical stuff you do in a new place.
I think I’ll be more productive when I’m in one spot for a little longer.
Looking one year into the future, how would you gauge success as a freelancer?
I guess success for me is being completely engaged by my work and feeling like I’m producing something that has integrity. I’ll be happy as long as I am excited by the work I’m doing and able to make ends meet, but I’m trying to take things one day at a time. I’m also beginning to question my own concept of what success is more generally. Sometimes I think we stress out too much about “making it” and forget why we started to doing journalism in the first place.
Journalists are generally terrible at asking for money. How do you figure out how much to charge for a story?
I’m definitely one of those people who has never focused enough on money or been very good at asking for it. I am slowly realizing that I need to change that.
One of the good things about journalism is that the community is pretty great about sharing information and resources. There are online lists and websites for journalists that give information about publications and their pay rates. That definitely helps when I’m pitching an editor, because I already know more or less how much to expect for an assignment.
I’m sure more seasoned freelancers have better tips for negotiating higher rates.
What tips do you have about pitching and working with commissioning editors?
I think building rapport and a good working relationship with an editor is key. It’s always nice to have a handful of editors who you love working with and who you know love working with you. It makes your life easier and you can always find a home for a story.
Once someone has the journalism bug there isn’t much you can do to stop that person from reporting. But I’d definitely tell people to go into it with open eyes and be conscious of the sacrifices you’ll have to make for the work.
If someone came up to you seeking advice on whether he or she should get into journalism, what would you say?
It would depend on the person and their reason for getting into the field. We all know that journalism is in flux. All of the newsrooms I’ve worked in have spent a fair amount of energy trying to figure out how to survive in the digital age, and the quality of the work drops when a publication lacks resources. It’s a tough field to break into right now because there is never a guarantee that you’ll have a job. Newsrooms are constantly downsizing. The pay isn’t great.
Nevertheless, there is nothing more rewarding than working on a story or a topic you’re passionate about. Once someone has the journalism bug there isn’t much you can do to stop that person from reporting. But I’d definitely tell people to go into it with open eyes and be conscious of the sacrifices you’ll have to make for the work.
I stumbled on you through your newsletter. What made you decide to start one?
I started my newsletter because I thought it would be a fun way to keep people updated about the work I’m doing and the countries I’m visiting. I don’t usually put a lot of myself in my reporting. I try to be objective and only report on the people and events I’m covering. But the newsletter gives me a space to include my impressions about a trip or a place or an event, and it gives people a look at what is happening behind the scenes of an article they’ve read.
Humans are a little voyeuristic by nature, and I think they enjoy reading an article about an indigenous community living in the jungle and also knowing about the mishaps I had when I traveled to the jungle to report the story.
Who are your readers?
I’m not sure. Some of them are friends and family members. Others are journalists who are as nerdy as I am or have a niche interest in a region I cover. I mostly use the newsletter to talk about politics in the regions I’m interested in, which are South Asia, Russia, Eurasia, and the Balkans. I think a lot of people signed up because they follow me on Twitter.
What has that newsletter done for you as a journalist?
It’s allowed me to build a more personal relationship with my audience. I get amazing notes from strangers in response to my newsletter, and sometimes they make my day, others they make me question and think. A lot of the people who write to me are people I would never have been in contact with otherwise, but I think many of them would become friends if we met in person. It’s really about building a sense of community through the things I love, like news and history and journalism, and sharing my thoughts and experiences with likeminded people.
It also gives me an excuse to summarize all of the news that’s happened in the last few weeks. Putting all of it in one place helps me develop my opinions about what is happening in the world, and it motivates me to make sure I haven’t missed anything important.
What advice do you have for other journalists out there about starting a newsletter themselves?
Got for it. It’s a blast.
We’re looking for people with an elasticity in their views of media and journalism. It’s rare.
The faces of people in the service of journalism are often found on stage. They are often the heads of their newsrooms. They are often men. There’s little space on stage for the younger people sitting further down the hierarchy of these newsrooms. I want to tell their stories because some of them could one day redefine this industry.
So if you want to be featured here (or know of someone who should), drop me an email. I’m email@example.com.