How to Break Into Writing for Newspapers
Besides waking up with a morning coffee, millions of us wake every day to blaring newspaper headlines about police gunning down a suspect, or a fire that leaves a family of four homeless, or a city council that wants to make it illegal to dump computer monitors in the landfill.
The stories can be exciting, tragic, informative, even amusing. And being the reporter who gathers the information or covers the scene of emergency incidents must be a thrill.
As a freelance writer you may have considered trying your hand at newspaper reporting, but maybe you have little or no journalism classes in your background.
Don't let that stop you.
Break into the newspaper business by becoming a stringer - a freelance reporter who is paid by the story. Weekly and daily newspapers are always on the lookout for stringers. It's economical for them and it frees up their staff reporters to handle the bigger stories.
What kind of work can you expect as a stringer? I've been stringing for 18 years covering news in the suburbs such as town council, school board, planning board and zoning board meetings. Stringers are also used to cover the local entertainment fare, high school and college sports, and feature stories.
The pay for stringers varies with the size of the newspaper. The basic rate is about $35 per story, but can go as high as $200 or more, depending on the work involved and if the paper also wants you to take photographs.
So how do you get started?
Check the newspaper or newspapers in the area. Read through the publications and see what stories are missing. Has a new department store opened recently, but you didn't find a story about it in the paper? Did your property tax bill suddenly skyrocket, but you read nothing about this coming down the pike?
Don't think nothing happens in the suburbs. I've covered town council meetings where police were called in to escort troublemakers out of the meeting hall. I've covered meetings where the debate escalated to a point where a council member stood and called her colleagues a "bunch of sleezebags."
Next, get some ideas together for stories. Find out if there are some community events approaching. Attend a town council or Board of Selectmen's meeting and see what issues your community or a nearby community is facing. Will there be a new traffic light downtown? Is the discount store that's been in business for generations going to close permanently? Are there going to be new regulations for your weekly trash pick-up?
Once you have some ideas, call the newspaper you're interested in and ask for the editor. Hint: get the editor's name from the newspaper and ask for him or her by name. Introduce yourself and let the editor know you are interested in stringing for the paper and that you have some ideas for stories you'd like to present.
Editors know stringers start out with little or no experience, so don't be embarrassed to say you've never written for a newspaper if indeed you haven't. If you hear the editor start to hedge, offer to do one story for no pay - nothing big, maybe a 300-word piece on a local fund-raising event.
Some newspapers allow their stringers to write their stories in the newsroom. Some do not. If you happen to string for a paper that does not, you can submit your stories by modem or email.
Newspapers count on content to attract advertisers - their bread and butter. And while staffers may get to cover murders, fires, and accidents, it's the stringer who often covers the news that is the most informative to the community.
And stringers are often the next in line to be considered when a staff position becomes available.
About the Author
Editor of Footnotes, a free newsletter for freelance writers with articles, paying markets, freelance jobs, conference listings, online courses and more. Go to http://www.oscweb.com/footnotes