Research to find out what has already been published

Last week we talked about researching to find facts to use in your queries and in your writing. Research plays another important role for the nonfiction writer: finding out what has been published before. If the market you want to pitch has already covered the subject, there’s no point in asking the editors to do it again. And if lots of publications have been hitting the same subject, you might as well put away your notes and do something else. But if only a few—and not your target market—have written about it, you can use the information in those previous articles to help you write your own and to make sure you take a different slant.

In my Freelancing for Newspapers book, I talk about going to the library and digging into the “morgues” at your local newspaper. You could still do that, but these days, you can do most of your research, including your library research, on the Internet. We talked about some of the sites last week. Google is always good. Do you know about Google Alerts? If you go to and set it up, Google will send you notices of everything that gets published about your subject.

Some other sites to consider in your research:

YouTube–You might think this is just music videos, but it’s not. You can find all kinds of information there. When I wrote about salt-water taffy, I watched demos on YouTube of how it’s made. The site is loaded with interviews, how-tos, training videos, and all sorts of audio-visual information sources. Plug in your subject and try it. You’ll be amazed.–This site will lead you to magazine articles that have been published on our subject. offers extensive listings of articles published in newspapers. if you want to read the whole article, they will ask you to pay a nominal fee, but you might find enough info in the summary.

New York Times archives—You do not have to pay to read articles from the New York Times going back to 1851.—We can’t ignore the wide world of blogs. This site will lead you to blogs on just about any subject.

Journalists Toolbox—I saved the best for last. This fabulous site offered by the Society of Professional Journalists provides an extensive list of places to do research and advice on how to research effectively.

One caution: These sites (and many others) offer so many fascinating things to see and read that you could spend all day clicking from one listing to another instead of writing. Save them for your reward after you get your day’s writing done.

Now go write.

Contrary to Reports, the Newspaper Business is Not Dead

It has been seven years since my book Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market was published. The world of publishing has changed dramatically since I wrote that book. Last week, I wrote about some of the changes that have occurred in the newspaper business since 2007. Today we’ll look at some more.

The newspaper business took a huge hit from the recession and the increasing move to digital media. Some papers folded, others went to all-online versions, and others just printed fewer pages. Most decreased staff dramatically. The Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project reports that we have gone from approximately 1,500 daily newspapers in the U.S. to 1,382. Full-time editorial staff is down 29 percent, from 56,900 in 1989 to under 40,000 by 2012. A lot of unemployed staff writers have now become freelancers, increasing the competition for assignments, but in many cases, more newspapers are using freelance work.

In my book, I quoted the Newspaper Association of America as saying 8 in 10
American adults read a daily newspaper. That number has gone down and where they read it has changed. According to the NAA, 7 in 10 adults access content from newspaper media each week. They read newspaper content, but it isn’t always on paper. They read it on their computers, iPads and smart phones. The good news is that the 7 in 10 figure applies to all age groups. Despite dire predictions, young people are reading the news. For us writers, who cares if it’s on paper or on a screen? Somebody still has to write it, and that’s where we come in.

So, are newspapers still a great source of freelance opportunities? Yes. And as I note in the book, they still offer more chances, especially for beginning writers, than magazines do, simply because they come out more often and publish more articles. You might earn more money with magazines, but you’re more likely to get published in newspapers. True story: last week, after almost a year and several emails, I finally got a response from a magazine to which I sent an article. The response: Can’t use it. All of their articles through 2015 have already been scheduled. 2015?

Grab a newspaper and think about what you might write for it. Are other freelancers getting published there? Why not you?

Now go write.

P.S. Freelancing for Newspapers is a helpful resource for all kinds of article writing. Its chapters tell how to write, submit and get paid for the most popular types of articles. I will happily mail you a copy for $10, including postage. Email me at if you’re interested. Or you can order the book in print or e-book form from your favorite bookseller.

P.P.S. If you’re already tired of hearing about newspaper freelance, please let me know.


Are newspapers still a viable freelance market?

 As the author of Freelancing for Newspapers (Quill Driver, 2007), I am frequently asked if newspapers are still a viable market. About the time my book came out, the economy began to crash and the newspaper business crashed even harder. Thousands of reporters and editors have lost their jobs. Those who are left are saddled with doing more work for the same pay.

 Newspapers were double-slammed by the economy—loss of advertising—and the hyper-growth of the Internet. Why subscribe to the newspaper when you can get your news immediately online, as well as on TV, radio or smartphone?

 In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I spent 25 years working for community newspapers, employment has decreased by 43 percent, more than the national average of 36 percent. This SF Weekly article lays out the sad truth. The figures are similar at papers across the country. More than one major newspaper has ceased publication or stopped publishing a print newspaper, going completely online. Most papers now sport fewer pages and an increased online presence with blogs, articles, videos, and reader input. There’s no question the industry is changing, but what does this mean for freelancers?

 It seems to be a mixed bag. Some papers have stopped using freelance while others are hiring freelancers to do what staff writers and editors used to do. In fact, our local weekly, which never used freelancers in the past, now publishes freelance articles on a regular basis. It’s certainly a more economical option for them, with no guaranteed hours, equipment or benefits to pay for.

 Many of the freelance opportunities in newspapers that I wrote about in my book still exist to a certain extent. You can still sell travel articles, opinion pieces, reviews, features and columns, but papers are buying fewer of them and we are now competing with staff writers who have lost their jobs.

 The types of freelance opportunities available have changed from what they were in the last century. Tonight, I’ve been looking at Online-writing I was surprised to find some newspapers seeking freelance reporters to cover regular beats such as health, auto accidents, and government meetings. If any of them were local, I would try it because it sounds like easy work for a regular market.

But some of the other opportunities make me nervous. Mancave Daily? There are listings for ghost writers and writers of press releases, blogs and other online content. It looks like we writers of nonfiction need to be willing to use our talents to write anything and everything to make a living. (Writers of fiction and poetry should already know they need a “day job” to pay the bills.)

 Many of the employers listed are corporations, not newspapers. Some may be  ripoffs. Tread carefully, especially if you have never heard of the company before. But you might strike gold here, too.

 In future postings, we will look at other sources of freelance writing opportunities.

>Education for freelance journalists

>There’s a great blog discussion at Lisa Romeo’s site, with experts giving their opinions about the value of an MFA, a master of fine art’s degree, in writing. Is it worth the effort and money? Does it give you a boost in your career?

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, earned in 2003, so I can address some of those questions myself, but first let’s start at the beginning. Do you need any kind of degree at all?

I also have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, with a newspaper reporting and edting concentration. I grew up wanting to write poetry and fiction, but I had a strong enough practical side to see that I might need to earn a living and it wouldn’t happen in creative writing. It was a good choice. It got me working on newspapers for years, and I can still always go back to that if I need a job. If you want to be staff writer for a newspaper, a journalism degree is the most direct route. If you majored in something else, all is not lost as long you can prove that you can write. But you do need a degree in something to get a newspaper job.

As a freelancer for newspapers, it’s extremely helpful to have had training and experience in journalism. You’ll learn newspaper style, learn to meet deadlines quickly, and be required to complete an internship in the business to get the degree. You’ll make contacts that will help you find work. My curriculum also included classes in freelancing that I could apply directly to my work. Earning my BA in journalism was one of the smartest things I ever did.

I never got a postgrad degree in journalism because the curriculum seemed to be all theory and minimal writing. Really the only use for it seemed to be if one wanted to teach. For a long time, I didn’t have any interest in that. Now there are MA programs in creative nonfiction or literary journalism that can be quite helpful, but you certainly don’t need them to be a freelance writer.

I did want an MFA however, mostly to get back to that creative writing I had been doing all my life. The degree was good for me in a lot of ways. It did get me back into poetry and fiction. It forced me to read great works of literature, and it forced me to take a new look at how I was writing. After decades of journalism, my prose had gone a little stale. I had also changed my mind about teaching, and the degree launched my teaching career.

But has the MFA helped me sell more articles or books? Nope. Has it paid for itself yet? Not even close. As you will see if you read Romeo’s article, editors really don’t care what degrees you have; they just want you to be able to write well and produce the kinds of work they need.

Now, a secondary degree in a specialized subject might be very useful in allowing you to write specialized articles in a particular subject such as business, science or law. But do you need an MA or MFA in writing or journalism to freelance? No. It’s nice to have, but not necessary.

Just write. That’s all it comes down to. Find out what they need and write it.

>Study the paper and the guidelines

>I taught my “Freelancing for Newspapers” class at the South Coast Writers Conference in Gold Beach, Oregon last weekend. We were blessed with sunny weather and a wonderful group of writers and presenters.

As one of my class exercises, I passed out newspapers and had teams analyze the freelance possibilities in those papers. It was an interesting experiment. If you remember back to my blog entry about the Christian Science Monitor, you’ll remember it seemed like a pretty good market. Well, the students who had that paper flipped through it and said, “There’s nothing here for us.” Not having seen the guidelines, they had no idea about the many sections open to freelancers. It really is important to look for a paper’s submission guidelines to understand the possibilities. Read the paper AND the guidelines, and you should have a clear picture of whether you can write for them.

There were a lot of questions about terms that I have known for so long that I guess I forget everyone doesn’t know them. So let me clarify for one and all:

* Staff writers are usually identified as such in the byline. Articles with no byline are either staff-written or press releases run without pay.
* If an article says “for” the Tribune or “special to”, it was probably written by a freelancer.
* If the byline doesn’t give you a clue, look for a tag at the end of the article. Also look in the masthead and see if the name is listed among the editors or staff writers. If it’s not, the writer is a freelancer.
* “Contributing editor” and “contributors” listed in a byline or in the masthead are freelancers. They are not paid staff members. The contributing editors may have an agreement to write for every issue. Contributors may write for every issue or just this one.
* Stringers are also regular freelance contributors. It’s an old-fashioned term that comes from the way editors used to measure stories by the inch, using a marked string.
* Associated Press is an organization to which newspapers belong. Most articles are written by staff writers for their own papers and picked up by the Associated Press to offer to other member papers. The articles arrive online each day, and the editors pick out which ones they want. People do freelance for AP, but it’s a hard job to get.
* News services, such as Cox News Service, are syndicates that work like AP, offering a menu of stories to member or subscriber newspapers. You can freelance for them. Check Writer’s Market for a list of some of these, but they do favor employee writers with strong track records.

If you can’t find guidelines in Writer’s Market or on the newspaper’s web site, e-mail or telephone the editor and ask: “Do you take freelance? Can I send you some ideas?”

Feel free to ask questions about this stuff, and remember, wherever you go, grab a newspaper.