By Bill Swan
In the day where the big dailies are closing, and the medium cities are lucky to have one daily, there is a way to find work with newspapers. Small town weeklies are still looking for writers. In newspaper terminology these writers are known by the old phrase “stringers.”
The reason stringers and small weeklies survive is because of how localized their content is. The school board meetings, town meetings and school plays are what keep people buying the paper and it’s those stories that get freelance writers assignments. I found this out firsthand in 2010 when I landed work for both an independent weekly and a group of weeklies within weeks of each other.
How did I find the work? By accident actually. To find work with local weeklies you need awareness, diligence and a willingness to chase down editors. You also need to be willing to take chances on ideas.
I was sitting at a table in the library and noticed a stack of newspapers. Now being a writer, I am always looking for new ideas or fresh perspective on something. I picked up one paper after another, read it front to back – including the classifieds. You would be amazed at the classifieds of weekly papers. One thing you will find, are ads for writers to write for the newspapers if they need them. I found two such ads. I copied the email addresses down and any information I’d need from each one. Then I went home to find suitable samples.
That is the awareness I was talking about. You need to be aware of opportunities that can literally show up when you least expect them. Of course, you have to be willing to try them too.
I don’t have a degree in journalism. Now, not having a degree in journalism means I had two things stacked against me. I had no prior knowledge of newspaper reporting and I didn’t know that weeklies could either pay cash or pay in experience like online gigs do. I mention this because, even with those issues, I still managed to find work with newspapers. This is where the diligence I spoke of comes in.
I wrote to both papers. The samples I sent came from rejects turned down by Demand Media. I choose those because they were supposed to conform to AP Style and most papers use it. The editor that returned my inquiry first informed me that she was a one-woman show and couldn’t pay. Now I had a choice – either I could write for her and learn something or pass it up because there was no money in it. I took the former because it would broaden my credentials as a writer. She offered me a sales position to go with it since that paid 20 percent commission. I took that too; but then realized later I can’t sell ads to save myself from drowning. That’s another story. The second email I sent got bounced back as undeliverable; which I thought was odd for a newspaper. Two weeks later I found that same editor email on Craigslist – only this time with the correctly spelled email. I sent an email again. This time the editor replied back wanting clips. Now I was worried. The freebie paper didn’t give me enough work yet for a good sample and all I had otherwise was what Demand rejected. I took a shot and sent that. No, I don’t know how, but I got a phone call the next day from Ithaca NY. The second editor wanted to meet. I went. This is when I found out my work was good enough for a gig paying $40 per story. I sang all the way home from the meeting.
Since then I’ve gathered paid clips and started a bi-weekly column for the freebie because she liked my work and ideas. I’m now close to having enough column samples to send out to other papers in search of paid column gigs (think blog only in print). I’ve also gathered a nice folder of print stories to use in my search for more work. All that from reading newspapers tossed on the library table.