4 tips on freelancing for newspapers

Freelance Writing TipsThanks to the economy, the market for freelance writers and editors has ballooned.

That’s because America’s slow crawl back toward fiscal stability gives daily and weekly print publications hope for revitalization via digital alter egos that prefer original content to aggregation — the hand-me-down stories culled from outside sources. These publications are limited, however, because when media corporations’ stock prices fell, staffs were cut.

The result: too many news operations with too few people to gather news. One estimate puts newspaper journalism’s total staff losses in the United States since 2007 above 40,000.

Enter the freelancer, perhaps now more valuable than ever to news organizations.

Freelancers operate on a per-story or per-project basis; they possess distinct talents and knowledge a news operation may lack; and, best of all — in the news operation’s mind but not necessarily the freelancer’s — their contracts need not include health benefits and retirement plans, the two biggest costs attached to full-time staff apart from salary.

So, while looking around for new clients, freelancers might consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, freelancers should be aware of a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors gauge a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, so being amenable helps land more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small — Typical compensation ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces only after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Of course, the assignments may not be frequent enough to yield a steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that abhor lateness. If an editor says a story has to be completed and in hand by a certain time, freelancers should submit it well before that time, if possible. Otherwise, freelancers should be upfront with editors, ready to explain difficulties and ask for guidance; editors understand that plans can change and circumstances can be nettlesome. But missing a deadline — just one, even — without advance warning or rational cause undermines a freelancer’s credibility.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local angle, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Freelancers first must read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; knowing these allows for intelligent conversations with assigning editors.

(Writer’s note: The post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2010 for The Independent Journalist, the freelancing blog of the Society of Professional Journalists, and for my former blog on Posterous.)

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