January 15th, 2012
How to get a newspaper editor’s attention
By David Sheets
The calls, emails and tweets started flowing in around during the holidays, coming across my desk at a rate of about half a dozen daily. Many more landed among my colleagues. They usually say something like this:
“I wrote this piece and thought you might like it,” says the introduction to one email.
“Sure, it’s a blog post, but it’s a subject that interests everyone,” says another.
“I’d love to write about sports. I’m a big fan,” says one caller.
This time of year, aspiring writers drop hints, notes and whole unsolicited stories on newspapers like new snow with the intention of publishing those stories and getting paid for them. I think of it as a different kind of holiday tradition: as Christmas-related bills mount, these optimistic writers try to salve their financial wounds by banging out what they consider “news” and expecting a newspaper editor to read it as such, thus publishing it in the next day’s paper and paying generously for the writers’ work by week’s end, or at least before the next credit card statement arrives.
But most of these gratuitous pitches and contributions wind up deleted, erased, ignored, because their writers failed at good reporting.
Sure, newspapers long have relied on contributing writers or freelancers to report news particularly when their full-time staffs were swamped with other work. The need for freelancers is acute now since newspapers nationwide have cut about one-third of their staffs over the past decade.
But today as decades before, newspapers do not accept anything and everything submitted to them for publication as “news.” The stories appearing in today’s print pages or online are products of careful planning, research and attention to detail. Even breaking news coverage requires rapid incisive analysis by teams of reporters and editors — freelancers sometimes among them — to determine how and why something happened and why it’s what journalists like to call “newsworthy.”
So, before you ship that free-form story to the nearest newspaper, stop for moment to understand first what it takes to attract a newspaper editor’s attention:
First, you have to read the newspaper — This sounds pitifully obvious. In reality, it’s pitiful how many solicitations that come to newspapers are ignorant on their face, as the writers are blind to the newspaper’s greater purpose. Each paper serves as a kind of window onto the community, and the communities themselves are distinct. Thus, what interests readers or is newsworthy in St. Louis may not warrant similar attention in Sheboygan, Wis., or Syracuse, N.Y. Reading the newspaper carefully every day reveals the distinction. Consider how a newspaper is organized and edited, and where certain topics routinely appear. In other words, study the newspaper before trying to write for it.
Sell the story, not yourself — Prospective freelancers often try to tell their life stories when all an editor wants to know is whether the writer’s idea is worth attention. Concentrate on explaining the story’s importance in one or two short sentences, focusing on the key questions all news stories try to answer: who what, when, where, why and how.
Remember, there is no “I” in news — What you think, feel or believe about the news is not important; don’t try passing off a recent blog post or journal entry as a news story. Cite only the facts in a story pitch; leave out your opinion. Because everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has the facts.
Provide verifiable sources — Newspapers aim to steer clear of bias in its news, leaving that instead to the commentary pages, thus some editors may want to check the validity of a freelancer’s idea before committing to it. Providing at least three independent sources that editors can contact if they wish will sell a story pitch better than if there are none.
Send your pitch to the proper place — Story ideas relating to sports should not go to the news or features editors. Find out who the editors are that work with freelancers and accept story ideas, and craft pitches and queries to them specifically.
Pay attention to quality, quantity — Besides determining the proper editor for submissions, make sure to spell the editor’s name correctly. For that matter, pay careful attention to fixing spelling and grammar errors before sending any correspondence. Most newspapers also adhere to “style” guidelines outlined by The Associated Press. Furthermore, if a story calls for a specific length, say 500 words, avoid writing even one word more than that. Not following such a simple direction may prompt time-challenged editors to hit the “delete” key.
Keep an open mind about being edited — Even the world’s best journalists need editors, so don’t think your work is much better. But don’t take editing personally. Accept that stories may be trimmed or adjusted for length before publication. Tight, precise writing and rigid adherence to a prearranged story length go a long way toward preventing this.
Small potatoes are better than no potatoes — It used to be that newspapers paid well for freelance work. These days, big paychecks are rare, $25 to $50 per published story being typical and non-negotiable.
Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be a pest, either — Upon making a pitch, if a newspaper editor has not yet responded, wait three or four days before following up politely, professionally. It may be that the editor has been busy, or is keeping an eye open for other ideas.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.