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to figure out what to write today, I realized it was time to open my own book and take a good look at what might be out of date.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 Print directories go out of date as soon as they’re published.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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Your query: Take another look

I’ve got a new gig, writing for a local weekly paper called Oregon Coast Today. The editor knew my work, and when a need arose, she called me. All I did was keep myself visible, most recently at a free writing workshop she taught for our local branch of Willamette Writers. I honestly hate networking, but contacts will get you farther than anything else in the writing business. I know, we’d like to believe talent is the key, but it’s contacts.

We have agreed that I will write a minimum of two features a month for a pleasing amount of money. So, I already have the gig. However, I still need to pitch my ideas. Here’s where we come to today’s lesson. What the editor wants is extremely specific. The stories must be local, happening right here in Lincoln County or south Tillamook County. They must promote something that is happening in the foreseeable future or something that people can do anytime. Readers must be able to take that story and do something.

There’s no coverage of things that have already happened. There are no free publicity stories about local businesses or local artists. Articles must come with photos, either mine or pictures that I am sure I can obtain from someone else. The writing must fit the breezy, let’s-have-fun tone. Overall, my queries must be very specific.

I pitched a story on an upcoming Art Walk happening over Labor Day weekend. Because I’m personally involved, I had contacts, access to pictures, and a lot of details. She bought it. I also pitched a story on an upcoming set of events around Sept. 11 on the theme of peace. I didn’t have much information, mentioned what I knew and said there would be “other cool stuff.” I would call the person in charge if she was interested. She said: Try again with more information. In addition, I pitched a “glass pumpkin patch” being displayed at a local gallery. It’s a business. I failed to mention the raising-money-for-Food-Share angle. She said: No.

I remind you that I already have the gig. We have enough stories already lined up to keep me busy. If you’re querying a publication that doesn’t already know you, you need to work even harder to make sure your query matches that publication’s mission and is as specific as possible. You need to know exactly what that story is going to contain before you ask an editor to let you write it. It works better that way for both of you because the editor  knows what she’s getting, and you know you can provide it.

So, before you send that query, take another look. If there’s anything vague about it, make it specific. If it doesn’t quite fit the publication’s mission, try again.

That’s what I’m doing today.


Is your idea “actionable?”

When I heard the word, everything just clicked into place in my mind. Nikki Price, editor of Oregon Coast Today, a local weekly newspaper and webzine, was speaking to our chaper of Willamette Writers. It was a Tuesday night, so she was in the middle of her deadline, and she roped us into working on headlines and cutlines for this week’s issue. But she also talked about her history of newspapering and what’s she’s looking for in stories for her paper.

They don’t take much freelance, Price says. One reason is money. They can’t afford to pay much. But the other–and this is the one that hit home–is that too many writers don’t understand their mission. Every story must be “actionable,” meaning it gives the reader information which enables them to take action, whether it’s to attend a show, visit an interesting site, check out a new business, take a class or whatever. News you can use, I often call it.

That doesn’t allow much room for creative writing, but that’s the reality of her newspaper and of many others. So, next time you get an article idea, think about whether it’s actionable. What can the reader do with it?

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Continuing our series of sites where you can find writing work, have you been to fundsforwriters.com? Publisher C. Hope Clark offers two versions, plain old Funds, which is free, and Total Funds for Writers, which has more information and costs $15 a year. In addition to jobs, she lists freelance markets, publishers and agents, contests and grant opportunities. Give it a look at http://fundsforwriters.com

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My new book, Shoes Full of Sand, is available on Kindle right now and can be ordered at Amazon.com or directly from me at sufalick@gmail.com.

While you’re buying books, have you gotten your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers? It’s  loaded with useful information for all kinds of writing.