Most people think of magazines when they think of freelance writing, but another, more accessible market may be sitting on your kitchen table right now.
Pick up the Sunday paper and consider how many stories it takes to fill all those pages. Typically you will find not only world, national and local news, but feature sections on travel, entertainment, home decorating, books, opinion and other topics. And it's not just Sunday. Many papers offer mid-week sections on food, gardening, the arts, physical fitness, religion, business and more. How can any newspaper staff fill all those pages every day, every week, every month of the year and keep up with breaking news, too? They can't. The bigger papers subscribe to wire services for generic stories that could run anywhere, but they look to freelancers to provide colorful local copy.
Newspaper opportunities reach far beyond the daily that lands in your driveway every morning. Many communities are blessed with local weekly or monthly papers. Nearly every special interest group has a corresponding newspaper. I have seen papers on parenting, antiques, music, the legal profession, gambling, teaching, computers, and sports, and papers for senior citizens, single parents, gays, and members of every ethnic and racial group. Whatever professional organization, church or lodge you belong to probably has a newspaper, and it may very well be looking for freelance writers.
Although newspapers don't usually pay as much as magazines, they make up for that in other ways. They need more articles more often, they are more open to new writers, they tend to have a built-in audience that reads and responds to what you write, and your newspaper stories can be spun into articles for other newspapers, magazines and even books. Pay ranges from pennies a word to fees rivaling top magazine rates. The New York Times, for example, offers $1,000 for 900-word personal essays, and the Chicago Tribune pays from $150 to $500 for travel articles--which you could resell to the L.A. Times or the Miami Herald.
A few newspapers are listed in market guides for freelancers, but the best place to start looking is that stack of papers piling up at your house. You'll find other newspapers at libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, theaters, stores, everywhere you go, often for free. Those aren't just future occupants of the recycle bin; they're writing jobs waiting for you to discover them.
At the smaller papers, you may find only one editor and perhaps one writer listed in the staff box. That means they probably use freelance. Is there a list of contributing writers or regional editors? Is there a notice in that box about freelance submissions? Write down or photocopy all the information you need to contact the editor. If there's a web page listed, get that, too. Check online for back issues, writer's guidelines and other information.
Look through a week's worth of your daily newspaper, and you'll start to see trends: business on Monday, food on Wednesday, home and garden on Thursday, travel on Sunday. Study the bylines. Staff writers are usually identified as such. Freelancers often are tagged as "special writers". The more specialized the topic, the more likely the editors are to use freelancers.
Many papers invite writers to contribute essays or opinion pieces. Some are freebies, but others pay. San Jose Mercury News uses short nostalgia pieces in its feature section. The Oregonian pays for contributions to its "Commentary" section.
The larger metropolitan dailies also use freelance correspondents from the outlying neighborhoods to write for their regional sections. Is no one covering your school board or city council meetings? Volunteer to be a stringer. Do you have a special interest you'd like to write about? A Portland writer who knew a lot about dogs and cats started sending pet articles to the Oregonian and was rewarded with a weekly feature slot. I have published more freelance newspaper articles than I can count. One story leads to another. A successful query to Bay Area Parent led to regular assignments for that paper and its sister publications, Bay Area Baby and Bay Area Homestyle, which led to home and garden pieces for the Metro community newspapers and special sections pieces for the San Jose Mercury News. When the South Valley Times debuted in my neighborhood, I introduced myself to the editor and was soon writing several articles a week. People I met doing those stories led me to assignments at High Technology Careers, Portuguese Heritage Journal and Valley Catholic. You can do it, too.
Newspaper editors are always looking for good writers whom they can count on to deliver the stories they need. Give it a try. While you're querying the big magazines and hoping for that million-dollar book contract, freelancing for newspapers can keep you prolific, published and paid.
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