Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Thanks to the economy — or maybe no thanks to it — the market for freelance writers has grown exponentially this past year. America spent much of 2010 pulling itself out of recession, and though that offered hope for a broad rebound entering 2011 publications and corporations that once had large writing staffs still opted to downsize and turn to contract work to save money.

What many freelancers may not realize is that newspapers are among the top enterprises making this turn. Newspapers, of course, suffered through substantial layoffs in 2010 and may yet in the new year. Still, they have print and electronic pages to fill and the pressure is great on the few people remaining in the industry to continue doing that job. What’s more, veteran print journalists are under other pressure from non-profit and “hyper local” journalism models to remain relevant, vibrant and competitive despite diminishing resources.

So, while looking around for new markets, consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, do a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors determine a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Believe me, not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, but being amenable is key to getting more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small, if at all
— Typical pay ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Keep in mind that assignments may not be frequent or fulsome enough to constitute steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are a fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that do not suffer people who miss deadlines. If an editor says a story has to be completed and on his desk or in his e-mail inbox by a certain time, get it in well before that time if possible. And if that’s not possible, stay in touch with the editor to explain the situation and ask for guidance; they can be understanding when the situation calls for it. But missing a deadline — just one, even — can undermine a writer’s credibility and make it that much harder to receive additional assignments.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local story peg, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Take time to carefully read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; know what these are to have intelligent conversations with assignment editors.

David Sheets is a sports 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 dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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