Just like many other industries, the newspaper business is cutting back on full time staff and that means lots of opportunities for freelance writers. Newspapers will generally hire stringers, freelance reporters, to cover stories that fall outside of the realm, or beats, of their full time staff. Often, they will hire people on assignment for special sections or to cover stories that are outside the normal region covered by the paper. For the news junkie or someone who loves to write, the lure of freelancing can be great. Generally, it means you can take assignments according to your schedule and turn down the ones that hold no interest. it’s a great way to earn a little extra cash during a rough economy.
Getting Started in Newspaper Freelancing
1. Contact local newspaper editors to determine what their freelancing needs are and what requirements they have for freelancers. Most will not require a journalism degree, but may ask for samples of your writing. Send a professional resume and cover letter, be sure it is error free, asking about freelancing opportunities at the paper. You will probably have better luck approaching smaller daily papers or weeklies than major metropolitan dailies. Don’t start by approaching the New York Times!
2. Learn Associated Press style. Newspapers have different grammar rules than your high school English teacher, mostly having to do with comma placement and other hold-overs from a bygone era when newspaper space was at a premium. The AP produces a book that includes these guidelines and some hints regard journalism law and practices. Most newspapers use the AP stylebook and have some specific style guidelines of their own. Ask for the paper’s stylebook when you first meet the editor and you will gain credibility. Also, buy and read the AP style book. It costs about $15 at any bookstore.
3. Read the newspaper before you approach them. If you can approach the editor with specific story ideas or point to holes in the newspaper’s coverage, you will have a better chance than if you go in empty-handed. Reading the paper daily will also give you an idea of what the editor likes to publish and help you tailor your writing samples to that particular editor.
4. Negotiate with the editor for fair contract terms. Most newspapers have a standard contract term they offer to freelance writers. Review the contract and be sure that it includes a kill fee or some other compensation for your time if the newspaper choses not to run the story. Since most contracts do not pay you for the time you spend researching a story, including covering school board meetings or city council meetings, be sure the contract includes a guarantee that they will run the story or pay you for attending the meetings. Some less reputable newspapers will “hire” a freelancer to attend a meeting and then only run the story if something big happens, leading to a reporter who is out the time to do the story and does not get paid.
5. Carry a good digital camera with you at all times. One of the best ways to get published is to happen to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, the best thing you can have going for you as a reporter is that you are there.