Getting started in newspaper freelancing can be a challenge. Every newspaper that you approach wants to see your published clips but you don't have any yet. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Start small. There are many small community newspapers that may not pay well (or at all) but that can help you to build your portfolio. Don't be picky but take whatever scraps get thrown your way. If the newspaper calls you at the last minute to cover a high school soccer game, just do it. By handing your assignments in on time, and proving yourself to be reliable (and amenable to edits!), it won't be long until you can start pitching the bigger stories you really want to write.
Get to know your preferred format and beat. Once you have a few clips with your byline on them, you're off to a good start. You're officially published! As you move into pitching stories, you'll want to begin with what you do well. Later you can stretch your horizons, but at first, you want to get a few good pieces with your byline on them to build your portfolio. So figure out your preferred length and style. If you're a natural at 2,000 words but don't how to organize longer pieces, try to do stories that fit your natural rhythm. Newspapers offer such variety in story length and style that it helps to know whether you're a natural at the pithy 120-word movie review or the several thousand word investigative journalism piece. Assess whether you have the chops to ask complete strangers probing questions as you'll need if you are aiming for the longer investigative journalism stories. In short, you need to assess your skills and abilities and begin with the stories that will make best use of your talents.
Pitch ideas. It really is impossible for an editor to keep up with all the current newsworthy events of a city. So make the editor's job easier on him. If you are tuned in to a particular element of a potential story, then you can write that story with the depth and breadth that no one else can provide. How many times have you heard someone say in casual conversation, "Someone should write a story about......" Research those ideas and then suggest them. Here are the two most important dos and don'ts when pitching ideas.
Query Letter. So how exactly does one ask an editor for an assignment? Wait, don't tense up. Editors get asked for assignments all the time. It's not a big deal for them so don't let it be such a big deal for you. Here's what to do:
- Do make your story ideas compelling.
- Don't suggest a story that has already been written! Show your knowledge of the newspaper by researching their coverage of the story you suggest.
- Submit a query letter that follows the newspaper's guidelines.
- Be sure to address your query letter to the appropriate person!
It's that easy.
Know the Lines of Turf. If you have your eye on getting to be a regular contributor at a particular newspaper, you'll definitely want to learn the beats of the reporters already at the paper. Who covers what and where are the gaps? This will serve you in two ways--you will be able to propose stories that are falling in between the cracks and you won't step on anyone's toes while you do it. Say the civic beat reporter is an expert in local planning and government issues but a little short in his knowledge of the school districts--that's a gap and gaps are your opportunities. Of course if the PTA bores you to tears, you'll have to leave that opportunity for someone else. But find the stories that fall between the gaps of the newspaper's established reporters and go after the ones that interest you.
Get to know the newspaper's schedule. If it's a weekly paper, get to know what day the paper does lay-out and don't call then! If you can learn the paper's deadlines, you can often get something accepted by being in the right place at the right time.
Be persistent. There's a fine line between being persistent and being a pest--cross that line at your peril. If you get any positive feedback, take it as a good sign and continue to submit ideas as well as ask for suggestions on how to fine-tune your queries. If you get only form letter responses, best try another venue.
Remember that editors are most interested in getting stories that are on time, accurate and don't require a lot of editing. So save your Faulkneresque stream-of-consciousness prose for another time.