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Why Write for Newspapers?

by Sue Fagalde Lick

Newspapers are often overlooked as a market for freelance writing, but any writer who is serious about writing, selling and communicating with readers needs to consider newspapers as a possible market. Here's why:

1) Most people read at least one newspaper regularly. Even people who don't read many magazines or books will look at a newspaper. Just try writing something controversial for your daily paper and include your e-mail address. That happened to me recently when I wrote an editorial about airport security for The Oregonian. My e-mail box was flooded with comments, both positive and negative, and people are still mentioning that editorial to me. On the other hand, no one except the people involved has said anything about the articles I have written almost every month for Oregon Business Magazine, although those took a lot more work.

There are currently around 2,000 daily newspapers and 7,500 weeklies in the United States and it is estimated that eight of 10 American adults read a newspaper every day. That doesn't begin to address all the non-U.S. newspapers and the special interest newspapers published all over the world. Because more people read them, more people are exposed to your writing. You have more of a chance of becoming a household name via the newspaper than you do from a hundred magazine articles.

2) Newspapers come out more often, and there are more of them, so they require more editorial copy, the newspaper term for articles. On daily and weekly general-interest papers, staff writers cover most of the news and many of the main features. The Associated Press and other wire services provide national and world news. But there are many stories the staff and wire services don't cover. That's where freelancers come in. Smaller newspapers generally have smaller staffs. I have worked for community papers where the editorial staff consisted of one editor and a part-time college intern. How did they survive? Freelance writers. Nancy Edmonds Hanson, author of How You Can Make $20,000 a Year Writing, says, "To sell to newspaper markets you must find a gap in their staffed coverage and devise a way to fill it." Her income figures are out of date now, but the advice still holds. Freelancers offer advantages to newspaper editors: they bring a fresh point of view, they are free to take on temporary or special assignments, and they only need to be paid for the work they do. No benefits, no down time.

3) There are far more newspapers being published than most people think. It's not just the big metropolitan dailies and some local weeklies. Special interest papers are everywhere. Go out for coffee, and you'll probably see a table or rack with entertainment newspapers and papers put out by special interest groups: gays, Hispanics, coffee aficionados, and others. Go to the library, and you'll find even more papers. Visit an antiques store, and you'll find several newspapers on antiques. You may receive a church newspaper. Most religions have local, regional or national publications. And don't overlook newspapers aimed at particular industries, such as High Technology Careers and Computer Systems News. For every career, there seems to be a newspaper.

How Do Magazine and Newspaper Writing Differ?

Newspapers and magazines look different. Newspapers are not bound like magazines, and they are usually printed on grayish newsprint rather than slick paper. Rather than a color cover featuring some attractive person or place, the front page will be a conglomeration of articles deemed most important or perhaps a single-subject photo with lots of headlines directing the readers inside. Your stories are more likely to share space on the page with advertisements. Newspapers are put together in more of a rush, so you may see more typographical errors. Overall, a newspaper just isn't as pretty, but there are other benefits, as listed above.

Many of the tasks involved in writing for newspapers and magazines are the same. For those of you who have published in magazines before, some of what we will do will seem familiar. But there are differences.

1) Mission. To succeed in writing for newspapers, we need to understand their mission. Every newspaper has one. For many general-interest daily and weekly newspapers, the mission is to be the place readers look for news and features about the area in which they live and work. Remember the real estate slogan "location, location, location?" For newspapers, change that to "local, local, local." If there is no local angle, they don't want it, can't use it, no matter how fascinating or well-written it might be.

Thus your feature on a nuclear power plant in Minnesota will not get published in Tallahassee--unless you can find a local angle. Can you tie in the problems or successes of the Minnesota plant with something that's happening in Tallahassee? Is a similar plant about to be built in Tallahassee? Now you have a local angle. Is a guy from Tallahassee running the plant in Minnesota? Another local angle. The Newport News-Times, where I worked for a while, calls itself "The news source for the Central Oregon Coast." They have it printed on a big banner in the conference room, they put it at the top of the front page of every issue, and it's printed on their stationery. If it doesnÍt happen on the Central Oregon Coast, they don't want to know about it. Other papers center on a particular group or interest rather than a location. The newspaper put out by the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago may run some wire stories about Catholics outside of Chicago, but it won't be running anything about Methodists. I used to work for an Hispanic newspaper called El Observador. The editors made it very clear that if the subject did not have a connection to the Hispanic community, it would not get in. I also used to write for High Technology Careers. I'm not a techie, but I sold them personality profiles of people working in Silicon Valley, and one of my favorite pieces was on how not to let a foreign accent keep you from getting ahead. The latter story could have been slanted differently for other publications, and I did resell it to Toastmaster with only minor changes, but for this audience I interviewed people in the computer industry and focused on their problems.

Another story that got refocused and resold was on bees. I'm petrified of bees, always have been. My original query went to Bay Area Parent, which bought a story on how to keep kids from getting stung without making them unreasonably fearful of bees. I resold most of the same information to the garden section of the San Jose Mercury News with an emphasis on how to work in the garden without getting stung. I reslanted that story again for a camping magazine with a focus on how not to let bees spoil your camping trip. The technique is similar to magazines in that you need to figure out the newspaper's mission and send stories that fit.

One way to put it is that magazines use local examples to paint a broader picture while newspapers go in the opposite direction, working from the broader picture to the local angle.

2) News Peg. Another difference between magazines and newspapers is the news angle. Timeliness is often a factor in getting an article published. Editors may ask, "Why write this story now?" A feature on an artist is more likely to sell if it can be tied to an upcoming gallery show. A school program may be deemed worthy of a feature if it's new, being considered for budget cuts, or just won an award. A local athlete heading for the Olympics is a good bet. Stories that can be tied in to holidays or anniversaries of major events have more chance of getting published. Stories on chocolate sell for Valentine's Day, religious stories abound as Easter approaches, skiing sells in January. Every September, the newspapers are full of stories about the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

4) Timing. Newspapers don't work as far ahead as magazines. Most magazines are put together at least two months in advance. Some work as much as a year ahead. News and sports sections of the newspaper are written, edited and laid out less than 24 hours before publication. Feature sections are generally planned a little farther ahead. This may be a week or, in the case of holidays or other special events, a month or two. For weekly newspapers, get your queries in at least two weeks ahead, preferably longer, and for monthlies, allow at least two months.

5) Pay. You may have heard that newspapers don't pay as well as magazines. In some cases, that's true. They usually pay better than literary magazines do for poetry or fiction, but that's not saying much. I have seen local papers -- recently -- that paid less than a penny a word. If you do the math, a 1,000-word article would net you less than $10. Surely it would take you at least two hours to research and write it, probably longer. Five to ten cents a word is more common for community weeklies, which still doesn't make you rich. But these are okay markets if you need experience and clips more than you need money. There are other papers that pay real money. The big dailies generally pay at least $100 for columns and opinion pieces, more for feature articles. The Chicago Tribune pays up to $500 for travel pieces. The Christian Science Monitor starts at $200 an article. Whatever you make from one publication may not be all you can earn from that piece. Often they can be resold to a non-competing publication or reslanted for a paper going to a different audience, as I did with the bee story. In these days of CNN, online news, blogs, and cell phones that can access the Internet, you may wonder if newspapers are going out of style. They aren't. They are adapting, just as they always have. Knowing that the electronic media is always going to scoop them with the headlines, they are offering more depth and variety, the stories that can't be told in the two-minute news bite. They are also explanding into the Internet and other media. In fact, most major newspapers already publish much of their content on the Internet as well as on paper. Many offer additional "bonus" stories on their websites. So writing for newspapers doesn't necessarily mean just "writing for newspapers." It can mean getting a start in a varied, fast-paced, multi-media market that is perpetually hungry for your material.

Related Articles:

The Newspaper-Blog Connection by Sue Fagalde Lick
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/blogs.shtml

Newspapers: A Great Source of Freelance Opportunities, by Sue Fagalde Lick
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/news.shtml

Copyright © 2007 Sue Fagalde Lick
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Sue Fagalde Lick is the author of Freelancing for Newspapers, published by Quill Driver Books. In addition to many years as a staff reporter and editor, she has published countless freelance articles and three books on Portuguese Americans, including Stories Grandma Never Told. Her articles, short stories and poetry have appeared in many magazines and newspapers, as well as two Cup of Comfort anthologies. She lives with her dog Annie on the Oregon Coast. Visit her website at http://www.suelick.com.

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