STRINGER SURVIVAL By Callie Lyons

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I have the best job in the world. I don’t keep office hours and I’m a writer. My work is published several times a week for a readership of over 13,000 people.

While it might be assumed that some strange twist of fate intervened on my behalf to land me such a great job, it was nothing more than desire and determination that led me to this point. More importantly, any writer who wants to write for a living can do the same.

When I finally got the call to be a stringer for a local newspaper, I was at an all-time low with my writing. I did not own a computer. At times, I didn’t even have my own phone. After searching for a job for quite some time, I was working part-time as a bookkeeper and barely surviving.

I lost my computer when my marriage broke up – and all of the files that contained my life’s work with it. Although my efforts were made infinitely more difficult by this complication, between frantic trips to the library and the patient assistance of a dear friend with a phone, a computer and Internet access, I was able to make my deadlines. I drove the only transportation I could afford, a 1968 Chevy Nova, nervously to my assignments, sometimes with my children, Kaitlynne – age 2 and Elizabeth – age 1, in tow. My point is that although at times it was extremely difficult, I managed to meet my deadlines with a number of outrageous obstacles. If you are determined to write for money, you can find a way to do it.

I had serious reservations about my ability to perform the job. First, news writing is not my forte and my journalistic experience was limited to a phase in college more than ten years ago. As a newly single parent, looking to re-enter the workforce and determined to make my living by writing, I knew that the flexibility of freelance work on a regular basis was exactly what I needed.

It took nearly a year to land this gig. Over the course of the seemingly endless job search, I had decided that I needed to be a writer by any means necessary. I scoured the Internet and local resources for writing jobs of any kind. At a local job fair, I introduced myself to the editor of the newspaper and secured a copy of her business card – and her e-mail address.

A couple of weeks later, I contacted her with samples of my work. There was no response. Two other times over the next nine months, I sent bulk e-mailings to various local newspaper editors citing my website and samples of my work and expressing my interest in working for them – still with no results. Finally, ten months after meeting my current editor at that job fair, I received a reply. There was an opening with the newspaper and I was invited to interview.

I believe that with my haphazard methods, I inadvertently accomplished two vital steps in securing this type of position. First of all, nothing works like a face-to-face meeting. If you cannot get an interview because there are no positions currently open, make yourself available to meet your local editors at social or community functions. Secondly, persistence and patience are essential. By making a series of attempts, my name was fresh in my editor’s mind when a spot became available. Most newspapers have websites. And, most of those websites have a directory that will list the editor’s email address. Build an email list of potential editors and be constant in the pursuit of your goal.

I was concerned that news reporting would ruin my naturally narrative style of writing, a style that I enjoy tremendously. I have to admit that quite the opposite has been true. I work very hard at my reporting skills, because the process does not come easily to me. In fact, I find the style restrictive and narrow for my personal tastes. (I would rather write 2500-word magazine features than 500-word news reports any day.) Nevertheless, the constant writing that takes place under forced deadlines is likely the best influence for my skills. Because I have to write on a timeline, I am becoming more efficient at writing in general. As a consequence, I am developing an additional style of freelance writing that has the added advantage of being able to pay the bills.

As a newbie stringer, the biggest favor that you can do yourself is to develop a relationship with a writing buddy. Proofreading your own work when you are exhausted and struggling to meet a deadline is sheer foolishness. You will need someone who can listen to your story ideas, comfort you when your work has been edited beyond recognition, and still be able to correct your horrid overuse of commas with tact when you are beyond reason.

Learn your news editor’s formula. Although journalism textbooks do exist, your editor will likely have a style of his/her own. From graduations to city council meetings, there tends to be a preferred method for handling different types of stories. Ask plenty of questions. Your editor would rather discuss details now than make broad changes later.

Have a copy of the AP Stylebook on hand and diligently study The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

Before covering a story “live and in person” look up the subject on the Internet. Read other news reports for background information, and surf sites that will give you a better understanding of the topic. Browse the archives of your newspaper to get a feel for the tone and style of prior coverage.

Asking the right questions is vital to the success of each story. Until you get good at asking the right questions and getting useful answers from people, ask everything. Before long you will perfect your own individual methods for getting information. Until you find what works for you, don’t be afraid to try everything.

As a single mother, I was concerned about dragging my young children along on assignments. Interestingly enough, the people I interview tend to be more comfortable and able to talk more freely when my children are with me. I believe they provide a pleasant distraction, while softening my image from “Amazon reporter” (I’m 5’9.) to “working mommy.” For whatever reason, I have always found the people in these situations to be very understanding about the presence of my girls. Much to my dismay, my children are not always well behaved in these situations. At age one and two, they are very young to be expected to be good while Mommy works. But, no one has ever questioned why I bring the girls along.

Now, I might add here that I would not ever consider taking my kids to something as structured as a city council meeting. I wouldn’t do that to myself, and I wouldn’t do that to my kids. In such cases, you must either get a babysitter or turn down the story. On the other hand, school functions and kid-oriented events are a piece of cake. I just strap the girls into the double stroller and we talk to people as we enjoy the event.

A good editor will understand the child factor as long as you give them plenty of notice when you cannot be available. You may even consider only making yourself available for the sort of stories that don’t require intense formality. Again, the type of editor that you want to work for will make reasonable concessions to help you along.

Develop a solid phone and email list of area decision makers and lawmakers. This will include members of local government, but also public relations personnel for local hospitals, corporations, and organizations.

Don’t be afraid to conduct interviews by email. Keep it simple and be very specific. But, for those busy, difficult-to-reach contacts, this may be the only way to get a statement in time to meet your deadline.

Don’t be timid. Let everyone know you are a member of the press. In addition to cushioning your writer’s ego, this makes you available for the comments of those people who want to be seen and heard. Local politicians, the directors of non-profit organizations, and other people with stories to tell will seek you out and learn your name once they know you are with the press. These are the people who make excellent sources for your work. Half of the battle of successful news writing is getting people to give you information. The organizations, supporters, and public citizens with an opinion want to share their information with you. Making yourself known helps you find each other.

Talk to other reporters at the scene of a story. I was hesitant to do this at first, because I was unsure about competition. However, there is very little hardcore competition in hometown newspapers. You will do yourself a grave disservice if you pass on the opportunity to learn from the more experienced members of the full-time press. In addition to providing valuable background information and seasoned advice as to local reporter etiquette, they are often willing to help a newbie identify key players and spell names. You never know when befriending a full-time, local reporter will help you locate the nearest phone, fax machine, copier, or bathroom.

Collect all of the printed materials that you can. Agendas, resolutions, programs, brochures, and business cards are all valuable resources when you are back at your computer compiling the story. Learn to look for nameplates and nametags to double-check your spelling.

Keep good notes. Once you begin to meet people about town, you will realize their involvement in numerous community activities. You will want to keep track of the downtown merchant who has an interest in local politics, serves on the board of a non-profit organization, and has an unusual hobby.

Before you sit down to write a story, work it through in your head. If, like so many fiction writers, you prefer to write it all out and see where it goes, you will lose valuable time to the process of composing a story. Instead, briefly plot an outline and follow it as you write.

Don’t lose precious writing time to filing. It is important to keep good notes, and you will eventually want to set up permanent files for all of the valuable information you will be collecting for future use. So, first, don’t fret about the “someday” when you will finally have time to treat yourself to an organizational workday. In the meantime, it is much more important that you accomplish your publishing goals and get some ink! So, during the mad rush of news reporting, don’t be afraid to start a “morgue”.

As my articles are published, I keep a copy of the newspaper along with my original draft, pages of handwritten notes, business cards, programs, or whatever else I collected in the process of reporting that particular story.

I fold the mess inside the paper and throw the entire stack into a large drawer, where it naturally stays in chronological order with the latest stories nearest the top of the pile. It is a sloppy system, but it is very effective. For instance, by following this method, which takes no time at all, when I am asked to do a follow-up story, or when I need to look up the name of a certain source, I flip through the papers to find the relevant story and all of my notes – as messy as they may be – all together. Consequently, if I have to follow-up more than once, all of my notes remain with the latest printed copy on the subject, making them extremely easy for me to locate yet again.

I scribble notes on every type of paper I can find, so the conglomeration of items in my drawer is a strange mix of napkins, magazine pages, toll bridge tickets, flyers, sales ads, and receipts. For me, they serve as an interesting reminder of my thoughts and concerns when I was in the powerfully mesmerizing grip of a story.

While this sort of a morgue may not be a long-term solution for you, it is perfect for those all-too-busy times when deadlines will prevent you from organizing to suit your tastes. Personally, I would rather have any free writing time to write whatever my heart desires. Tedious record keeping is very low on my priority list.

Pay attention to editorial changes as a tool for improving your skills. Since I didn’t start out as a reporter, I’m always trying to get that education that comes only from hands-on experience. Your editor can be a valuable learning tool. Having your work read, critiqued, and edited on a regular basis can be grueling to your ego, but it will make you a better, more efficient writer. It will be hard on your ego.

The sooner you reconcile yourself to this fact, the better off you will be. However, the first time your story is on the front page of the newspaper and above the fold, you will appreciate how easy recovery can be. At the sight of your story framed in the newspaper machine at Wal-Mart, you will realize how quickly you can get over it.

One of the most brutal and discouraging stories that I have covered to date was an exceedingly long graduation ceremony that was held amidst the natural flora and fauna of the local college campus – in the pouring rain. I was frustrated to tears as I left the parking lot. I was freezing cold and drenched clear through my Sunday dress clothes. But, somehow the sight of that divine front-page the next day, erased my memory like love after labor.