Are newspapers still a great source of freelance opportunities?

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 here about my college journalism textbook, published in 1971, and the changes that have occurred since then. Well, the changes keep coming. As I lay awake last night trying to figure out what to write today, I realized it was time to open my own book and take a good look at what might be out of date.

So if you have a copy, open your book to the introduction and follow along. If you don’t have one, I have numerous copies of Freelancing for Newspapers. It is still a helpful resource, and I will happily mail you a copy for $10, including postage. Email me at sufalick@gmail.com if you’re interested. Or you can order the book in print or e-book form from your favorite bookseller.

People do still read newspapers, but they don’t always read them on paper. I’m thinking about my brother, an attorney who devours several major papers a day. Since he bought his iPad, he is more likely to read them online than in print. I’ve been known to read the news on my phone. My dad, who is anti-computer, still reads the San Jose Mercury News in print. So you might have a stack of newspapers, or you might just have your e-readers. You will probably find extra stories online that are not in the print versions—and you might find more opportunities for freelance articles online as well.

In the book, I mention two sources of market listings, Writer’s Market and American Directory of Writer’s Guidelines. I rarely use my Writer’s Market, and I never use the other directory. Print directories go out of date as soon as they’re published. Mostly I go directly to the publication’s website. For news about publishing opportunities, I subscribe to the Creative Writers Opportunities List (CRWROPPS, a Yahoo group), writingcareer.com, The Practicing Writer, and writing-world.com. I get tips from other writers in various forums, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. I also subscribe to the online version of Writer’s Market, but I’m finding its listings too limited; I always end up following the links to the publication anyway. If I’m looking for a particular type of market, I just look it up on Google. Writer’s Digest Publications puts out some great market directories, not just for articles, but for poetry, fiction, and other genres. You might start with these, but to get the latest information, you’ll need to go to the publications’ websites.

Every editor will tell you to study the market before you submit a story or a query. It’s still true, except that now you can do your studying online without seeking out a print copy. Look for areas where your interests might fit their needs, and look for freelance bylines, identified by tags like “Special to the Oregonian” or short bios at the end of stories that identify the writer as a freelancer.

Many newspapers have gone out of business or ceased publishing in print. Most are considerably thinner than they used to be. Fewer pages mean fewer stories. Lots of local papers have been purchased by giant media companies that use fewer local writers. Many reporters and editors lost their jobs in the double whammy of the recession and the increasing shift to Internet media. But there are still opportunities for freelancers, especially in specialty publications. Newspapers for particular hobbies, religions, occupations, interests or disabilities are still being published and using freelance work.

My own situation has changed since Freelancing for Newspapers came out. I’m not writing for newspapers these days. When Freelancing for Newspapers was published, I had just become the baby boomer correspondent for Northwest Senior News. I’m proud that the baby boomer section is still there, but I left that newspaper when my assignments kept shrinking so that I only had 500 words at most to tell my stories. I started writing for Oregon Coast Today, which paid well and gave me a chance to do some great stories. When a new owner took over, however, they decreased their freelance budget to almost nothing, and I was out. I was busy with other writing projects anyway. Since 2007, I have published two more books, Shoes Full of Sand and Childless by Marriage.

Is freelancing for newspapers still a viable thing to do? Or course. But if I were writing that book today, I’d give it a different title to reflect the need to include the many new ways one can publish in our multi-media world.

Next week, we’ll check out chapter 1.

But for now, don’t worry about publishing and all that. Write whatever needs to be written. For example, I’m working on an essay about ice cream. I invite you to write about ice cream, too. Take it in any direction you want. Let me know what you came up with.

Ready? Ice Cream. Now go write.

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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.