Are Newspapers Still a Viable Market for Freelance Writers?

Six years ago (!), I published a book titled Freelancing for Newspapers and started a blog by the same name. As the years passed, I changed the name to Freelancing for Newspapers+ to expand my posts into the world beyond newspapers. About three years ago, I changed it to Writer Aid. I didn’t want to limit myself to posting about only one kind of writing, especially in a changing world where newspapers seemed to be cutting back, going all-digital or going out of business.

Lately I have been asking people whether they think newspapers are still a viable market. After all, I wrote a whole book, as well as several articles, that proclaimed that newspapers are a great place for writers to publish their work. I wrote that newspapers paid less than magazines but used more stories and that they were a great place for new writers to break in and collect some clips. Is that still true?

Yes, with two big cautions:

1) It’s not as easy as it used to be. Newspapers everywhere are shutting down, cutting back, laying people off. Some dailies are now only publishing a few days a week. The paper in the driveway isn’t nearly as fat as it used to be. Less space means fewer stories. Laid-off reporters means more people trying to freelance. Some papers no longer have any freelance budget, but others—pay attention here—are making up for the lack of staff writers with more freelance.

In my own experience, I used to write for a local entertainment newspaper that paid very well for stories that were really fun to do. But the paper got sold last year, and the new owners don’t use any freelance. Another paper for which I freelanced kept cutting the length of my stories. Since I was getting paid by the word, that meant I was making less money. Plus I didn’t have room to say anything meaningful. On the other hand, the local general-interest newspaper that covers our community never used to use freelance, and now it does.

You’ll find the most opportunities in alternative weeklies and special-interest newspapers that focus on a particular religion, occupation, hobby, ethnic group, etc. Some community newspapers use freelance; others don’t. Most big dailies still accept travel articles and commentary but not much else. The New York Times still uses freelance and pays well—if you’re writing at their level.

As always, you’ll need to study the market, check the bylines, and see where you can fit in. You’ll need to wow editors with your queries and your clips. You won’t make much money, but you can make some, and you can use your clips and your research as springboards to other better-paying opportunities.

2. It’s a multi-media world. Newspapers today don’t just publish on paper. Most papers have a strong online presence. Their paper stories also appear on their websites, along with other content that doesn’t fit in the paper, including more articles, more columns, and more pictures. Sometimes audio and video go along with it. You will find more opportunities here, some paid, some not. Whatever you write, expect to provide Internet-ready content with links to related sites. This is more work, but that’s how it is these days.

The world is changing. Young people today are growing up in homes where nobody ever reads a newspaper. We can get general news more quickly on our TVs, radios, computers, tablets and smartphones. We look to newspapers for more in-depth coverage and the kinds of special-interest stories that don’t make it to digital media.

There ARE opportunities to freelance for newspapers. Can you make a living from it? Writing for the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, yes. For your local neighborhood weekly or senior monthly, probably not, but you can make some money, have some fun, get experience writing for publication and collect clips that can lead to bigger things.

For a fascinating look at what’s happening in the media these days, read the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report. Along with sobering statistics, it raises some interesting questions about how special interest groups are using the media to push their own agendas.

Today freelancing for newspapers is just one piece of the puzzle. But the skills you learn doing it can be transferred across this ever-growing multi-media world. My Freelancing for Newspapers book still works. Just add “and other media.” I’ve got 12 copies left. If you email me at sufalick@gmail.com and mention this post, I’ll send you an autographed copy for $10, including postage.

I welcome your comments.

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